Excerpt from Giving Up Whiteness, chapter 11
As a data nerd, I love sorting and analyzing and finding trends. Don’t judge me, but I also like to compare my experiences and habits with those of others. How normal am I? How weird am I? Dozens of click-bait online comparison surveys promise to size me up each week on social media, and I’m a sucker for them.
An old clichéd defense expressed by many white folks when confronted with their own racism has been, “Some of my best friends are black.” Unfortunately, when you look under the covers of that cliché, the reality is that hardly any white people have friends who aren’t white; in fact, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, 75% of white people in the United States have zero nonwhite people in their friendship networks. Zero. African Americans aren’t that different in this regard; slightly less than two-thirds have no white friends in their network.
When looked at as an overall average, white America’s friend network consisted of 91% white friends, 1% black friends, 1% Latino friends, 1% Asian friends, 1% mixed-race friends, 1% “other” race, and 3% “friends of unknown race.” Again, African Americans weren’t that much different; their average consisted of 83% black friends and 8% white friends, zero Asian friends, and 2% Latino friends. However, the study made a point of noting that although 8% white friends isn’t a lot, it’s still eight times more than white people have black friends.
That’s fairly depressing, but it explains a lot about those large divergences in how we see the world around us, doesn’t it?
Back to my data-nerdiness and susceptibility to comparing myself with others. I decided to see how my life compared with most Americans as it relates to friendships across racial lines. For better or worse, social media seemed like the easiest way to analyze my own friendship network. For all the criticisms against it, social media looked like a pretty good representation of my friends from the past (high school, college, previous jobs and communities) and present.
As of this writing, I have 984 “friends” on Facebook. For some, that may seem like a lot, but of course some are close friends, and some are acquaintances. I tend not to accept friend requests from friends of friends or random people that I’ve never even met, so, for the most part, I do know those 984 people enough to call them friends at some level.
Facebook’s algorithms list your friends in order of how recently and frequently they’ve engaged with you on the network, so the first 100 friends listed on my “friend” tab seemed like a good place to start. How many of those friends that I engage with the most are white, Asian, African American, or Hispanic?
Stick with me and my data-loving brain for a moment. I placed my top 100 friends into an Excel spreadsheet and counted them up: 85 white friends, 12 African American, 2 Asian, and 1 Latina. Those tallies surprised me a tiny bit. In my mind, I had imagined myself with a more diverse set of friends than I apparently had. I scrolled through the rest of my Facebook friends list and identified other nonwhite friends, but the ratio seemed to hold true through all 984 faces.
I suppose I could celebrate the fact that, if I were competing against other white folks in a “some of my best friends are black” contest, I could probably win; I had twelve times more black friends than the average white person. But the average white person is so woefully low in nonwhite friends—having an average of one, with 75% of white people having none—that it seemed like a hollow and, well, ridiculous bragging point.
As noted earlier, my life experience seemed to have opened my mind to nonwhite friendships more than the average white person. But even with that advantage and emotional tilt toward an openness—even a desire—for diversity, my friendship network wasn’t really that diverse. A lifetime of going to schools, living in neighborhoods (my brief stint living in the very diverse West Philadelphia, notwithstanding), going to church, and working at companies whose workforce was vastly white had formed my largely white circle of friends. In fact, to take my analysis even further, I estimated that 26% of my friends had derived from church, 24% from work, and 21% from my volunteer and nonprofit work. The rest originated from family, college, high school, and my neighborhoods. All these, with the noted exception of living in that diverse Philadelphia neighborhood, were vastly white environments. In that context, the fact that 15% of my closest friends were nonwhite seemed quite amazing. It was clear that the communities and institutions that I chose, or perhaps that society guided me into, were dictating who I cared most about.
Without an authentic friendship with someone from within a different background from us—such as race, religion, class—we are basically doomed to judge others’ experiences from the outside, using a lens developed strictly through our own limited experiences. “Cops are trustworthy and almost always treat others fairly,” report white folks, because that’s their experience. The level of confidence you have in various American Dream-isms—such as “People who stay out of trouble, get an education, and work hard will get ahead”—is based on whether that has been true for you and those around you. Without a deep friendship with someone of another race who we trust and to whom we listen, we are likely to experience dissonance when we hear reports of persistent inequity. “What? That person is complaining about being pulled over? They must have been doing something wrong. Cops don’t pull people over without a reason.”
Friendships create empathy and understanding that broaden our willingness to see through new eyes. The seismic shift in how Americans are deciding which sources of news to trust is confusing things even more. Even reliable academic studies on race get summarily dismissed by many people with closed hearts and minds who have no trusted personal friends to validate them. If I were to give up my whiteness, how would that change my friendship network? How would it change my perspective on the hopes and realities of living in America?
Sometimes when I travel to New York or some other highly diverse metro area, I’m encouraged by the sight of people from different races and ethnicities walking, laughing, and working with each other. I’m certainly encouraged by the diversity in my local Starbucks, in the Una neighborhood, where I tend to write. Yet as I look around the coffee shop, I also notice that most of the tables where people have gathered aren’t actually diverse. Ethiopians are talking to their Ethiopian friends; Syrian family members cluster together; a couple of white friends of unknown ethnicity study together. The room is diverse, but the tables are not. If we are a melting pot, we tend to stay clustered in pockets of ingredients instead of blending our flavors.
Why is this? Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum’s groundbreaking book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race pointed out that the anxieties and experiences that occur as we develop our identities (there’s that word again) push us toward “safe” places, where we perceive the highest likelihood of acceptance and support. The combination of nature and nurture is a difficult force to overcome when forming meaningful relationships, which are difficult enough regardless of the racial barriers. Makes sense to me.
I thought about some of my cross-racial friendships, from that first preschool friendship in Morgantown with my African American playmate to some of my current work and church friends. I began to cringe at some of the foibles and frustrations involved in some of the earliest adventures in cross-racial friend-making. Exposure to more diversity in college and career environments dramatically lowered my anxiety over friendships with people of other races. I thought of my first real experiences with friendships with people of color in Glenville. Speedy, an extremely extroverted African American college student at Glenville State, took an interest in me after watching me play high school basketball. Racial barriers were no match for his extroversion, and he gave me confidence I didn’t often have in myself when we played hoops together and hung out at my house for dinner. Closer friendships with my biracial roommate Steve and my African American classmate Shelby opened deeper connections and insights. But often it didn’t eliminate cases of extreme foot-in-mouth.
One such experience still causes my blood pressure to rise in embarrassment and regret. As I’ve mentioned, Circle of Hope church in Philadelphia was an interesting source of diverse experiences. Despite very purposeful and proactive efforts to diversify, the church was still more than 90% white. Rachel was one of the few nonwhite attendees of our prayer and Bible discussion group in our Mount Airy neighborhood home. She was a young biracial woman who was generally quiet, warm, and friendly, and who contributed to the discussion and prayer time.
One evening during a game night, our small group divided up into males versus females in a battle of Scattergories, and as usual, the women were crushing the men. To this day I don’t know why I said it or where it came from, but I blurted out, as a joke, “The guys are going to need some affirmative action to help us catch up.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the phenomenon of words flowing in slow motion out of your mouth but being completely unable to stop them—even as you’re becoming aware how stupid they are sounding. It’s a horrible feeling, kind of like being in a bad dream in which someone is chasing you and you can’t run away. I felt sick in my stomach the moment the words left my mouth, and the stunned silence and wide-eyed faces of everyone else in the room only amplified my desire to crawl into the cubby space under our stairs.
“What did you say?” said Rachel. Her tone didn’t sound angry; more shocked or stunned. Everyone else in the group was silent, but the looks on their faces made it clear that they really couldn’t believe what I had just said.
I can’t remember what I stammered as an explanation. I had meant it as a joke among a group of friends whom I assumed knew that personally I very much supported affirmative action. I had learned the reasoning for it in my college equal employment opportunity class, and I believed it was a just method for deconstructing continuing workplace discrimination and equalizing generations of white affirmative action in the form of biased hiring practices, government programs, and educational policies. I harbored no feelings of malice toward affirmative action and did not see it as “reverse racism,” as some critics called it. Didn’t everyone in the room know that about me? I can honestly say there was no malice of any kind behind the joke, but the effect made it clear that it didn’t matter. I uttered it from a place of cultural dominance and privilege, disregarding the context in which Rachel would have heard the words. She left our house soon after the comment and didn’t stick around for the snacks. The members of our group were clearly upset about what transpired that evening. I felt horrible.
Some would dismiss the statement as nothing and suggest that anyone who took it the wrong way was just being overly sensitive or politically correct. But in a room full of white people and one person of color, all of whom were still getting to know each other, it was a stupid and insensitive comment. Rachel didn’t know my heart for or understanding of affirmative action. My hamhanded attempt at humor poured a bucket of water on an ember of potential friendship. I called her the next day to apologize, but the damage was done. She never returned to our group.
Such are the risks of cross-racial—or cross-anything—friendships. I think that fear of making a dumb joke that comes across the wrong way, or a dimwitted comment that offends, keeps a lot of us from inviting a friend of a different race or religious background out to lunch, or to our house for dinner, or to our church. Taking a risk on any kind of friendship at work or in the neighborhood can often seem fraught, regardless of the cultural dynamics, so few take on that added pressure for a cross-racial connection. It makes me appreciate even further those courageous souls like Speedy who are willing to put themselves out there for the benefits of new friendships.
Even though I developed treasured lifelong friends in Philadelphia, Seattle, and West Virginia, introverts must be very purposeful and focused if we want to make friends, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. In the middle of my unwhitening journey, I had to consider what strategy I would take if race wasn’t going to be a powerful force in shaping me back into mostly white friendships. I didn’t want to target people of color for friendships in some awkward science experiment; I wanted to develop genuine, authentic relationships. Would openness be enough?
As documented by the watchful eye of Facebook, my biggest sources of friends other than my communities and schools were work and church. My workplace, with the exception of the Spanish-language publishing team and a few African Americans, was lily white, and I still hadn’t really settled on a church to commit myself to. It was clear that developing some new friends, especially friends with any sort of diversity, would have to go hand-in-hand, together with my search for a diverse community of faith.
Click here to learn more about Giving Up Whiteness by Jeff James.