This is a guest post from Deborah L. Plummer. Deborah is a psychologist, university professor, author, and speaker on topics central to racial equality, inclusion, and mutual respect. She is most passionate about creating inclusive organizations and building peaceful communities. She is the lead author in the design and development of the Diversity Engagement Survey (DES), a tool for measuring diversity and inclusion in organizations.
Mia is a savvy young black woman who startles me in her wisdom. Though she has many friends of many races, her overall assessment of whether or not her cross-racial friendships will change race relations is negative.
“I am my white friends’ one black friend, and it is not going to make a difference to advance race relations,” she tells me in one of my focus groups exploring race relations through the lens of friendship.
“They think Mia is safe, which is why I am their friend. They like to stay in their bubble and be safe.”
It was at that moment that I realized I have a long history of being a “safe” black friend to many of my white friends. I collude in their safety by not being emotionally honest in our conversations when something they’ve said holds a bit of racial sting. I’m their safe black friend when I let a racially insensitive remark fly because I’m wondering if I’m the one who is being too sensitive.
Or if I’m concerned that I will be experienced as an angry Black woman, I’ll wait to point out that a White co-worker was quick to name something a Black staff person did as incompetence while naming that same behavior a “growth opportunity” for his White counterpart. It takes a little time for me to shape my anger into a teachable moment, and in the meantime, they’ve moved on. I’ve let these kinds of comments go so often that now, for sure, I am that angry Black woman. They, on the other hand, probably don’t even remember what they said.
I’ll hold my tongue and give my White friends the benefit of the doubt because something they’ve said or done was born out of all the social loadings for “othering” Blacks. These negative social loadings are known as unconscious bias and are a by-product of how the brain works. Such reframing of racist thinking and behavior to “unconscious bias” makes it even easier for whites not to be accountable for their actions. As a psychologist, I understand this process. So, I end up taking long, deep sighs trying to figure out how to make the unconscious, conscious to them, especially in a manner that will inspire and educate rather than offend.
In an effort to find common ground that leads to shared understanding, I’m their safe Black friend when I agree on one minor aspect of their assessment of a racially charged incident and tone down a forceful voice of disagreement on the many major aspects. In doing so, I protect their encapsulated worldview and avoid having to deal with their defensiveness.
Or sometimes my White friends say something simply ignorant about our not-so-shared American history. I remain their safe Black friend when I don’t deal with their ignorance because there just isn’t enough time during that hallway conversation after the meeting. Or because we are at a social gathering where I am the only Black person in our group, and I wonder if it is worth shifting the topic from the upbeat conversation about Netflix bingeing favorites to correcting their version of American history; by doing so, I will unwittingly turn a party into a classroom course to which they did not enroll and to which they would never dream of enrolling. Once again, I choose to be a safe Black friend.
Having White friends can be exhausting. It takes a lot of effort to monitor oneself and not do their racial identity work while still maintaining one’s racial integrity and authenticity. My friendship with Whites is a complicated dance, and we have memorized the moves in order not to step on each other’s toes. My friendship with Whites is not unique: there are many such friendships on the dance floor doing the same awkward dance. The dance steps have been carefully choreographed by Whites, unconsciously and sometimes consciously, so that they always take the lead.
Making and maintaining friendships is enough work without adding racial differences into the mix. When friendships are complicated by differences in how one views and experiences the world, or when one’s race evokes or solicits different reactions from the environment, it interrupts the natural flow we expect from a friendship. As a result, many Blacks, consciously or unconsciously, in these friendships choose not to make the effort to be fully authentic and become “safe friends.” This safety facilitates a more comfortable interaction and what researchers have termed the “façade of liking.”
Most Whites do not have cross-racial friendships, and as a result, remain racially encapsulated in their worldviews and inexperienced in managing racial dynamics. As a result, they lack the language, emotional resilience, group-dynamic skills, historical context, fortitude, and thick skin that characterizes racial stamina and one’s ability to successfully navigate a multiracial society.
A young Black male in a focus group tells me that he is the first Black friend of many of his White college friends. He says that when he goes to their weddings, he never has to be introduced. People come up to him and say, “You must be Victor!”
“How did you know that?” he jokingly responds.
When comedian and SNL co-host of Weekend Update, Michael Che called Boston “the most racist city,” Bostonians fired back on social media. Che responded to one angry White woman: “Talk to your closest Black friend and ask them to explain it to you.” To which she responded: “Touché.”
Given this moment in history and its aggressive and necessary push for racial equity, whites should no longer rely on their safe Black friends to bear the heavy psychological lifting it takes to have more enlightened, forward-moving conversations about race. Personally I, like many of my Black friends, have released our commitment to White friend comfort and expect and demand that they demonstrate the kind of racial stamina that is critical for achieving racial equity.
So, here’s a loving message to Whites from one recovering safe Black friend:
1. Commit to the continual examination of expressions of racial privilege in your own life. Use that privilege as a life skill for gaining the competencies necessary to demonstrate multiracial living patterns by where you choose to live, who you buy services from, how you vote, what organizations you support and promote, who you have within your circle of influence, who you receive your information from, and who and what you choose to believe.
2. Engage in systems thinking. Understand your group-membership identity. Go around for one day thinking about yourself as a White person. Understand that just the fact you need to heighten your awareness about whiteness is significant.
3. When you feel yourself getting defensive in conversations about race, take a deep breath, and count to ten. Own your reality of America, while at the same time find room in your thinking to acknowledge and accept a different reality. Know that America’s democracy is characterized by a duality around race that has existed since its founding. America is both racist in its practice and postracial only in its aspirations. Live in the reality of a racist America and do your part to achieve liberty and justice for all.
4. Release the need to be right. Support and encourage dialogues that hold multiple realities.
5. Challenge your assumptions. Do not believe everything that you were taught. Just because it was written in a textbook doesn’t mean it is true. Re-educate yourself about our nation’s history.
6. Stop whining. You may not personally experience racial privilege afforded to you because of individual traits, but simply by being White you have historically been afforded opportunities and treated more fairly than other racial groups.
7. Create spaces of psychological safety at home and work where the race can be discussed without fear of shaming and blaming. Present yourself as a learner who is not afraid to be vulnerable about what you don’t know. Be honest about any racist thinking or behaviors in which you have engaged.
8. Do not rely on your good intentions to lessen a negative impact. Acknowledge that someone could have experienced something negatively, based on experience and history, regardless of your intention. Own that you might have contributed to that impact, despite your good intentions.
9. Become racially facile and emotionally resilient. Stay engaged during racial clashes. Do not be afraid to bring up a racial topic again and again until you are familiar with the script of multiracial living.
10. Embrace Whiteness. You are who you are, and you will wake up White every day. Being White is not synonymous with being an oppressor or racist. Learn to understand, develop and foster a positive White identity that fully and completely acts out of one’s core as a human being who engages in multiracial living, understands the universal nature of joy and sorrow, uses one’s intellectual faculties to stimulate curiosity, practices appreciation, and who uses social privilege for mutual benefit and advancement and not as a power grab.
This post first appeared here.