Hey, it’s Anna. This week on the show, we’re thinking about race and friendship. Yesterday, we released an episode featuring your stories about the moments when race became a flashpoint in a friendship...and what happened after.
We’re doing this in collaboration with NPR’s Code Switch podcast…and this week, they put out their own episode about race and friendship. It includes expert perspectives on why our friend groups tend to be made up of people who look like us...and advice for their listeners...about the uncomfortable racial dynamics they’ve encountered in their own friendships.
It’s a really good episode...we’re so excited to share it with you today. And after you listen, go to deathsexmoney.org/friendship...to take a survey about your own friendships...and compare your results to other people’s responses. You can even break those down by different variables -- race, age, education, region, income -- to really dig in. Again, that’s at deathsexmoney.org/friendship.
And if you missed it, make sure you take a listen to our episode with your stories about friendship and race came out yesterday. It’s called Between Friends. It’s different than this one and together these are a really good and important listen, so check them both out.
Okay. Here’s Code Switch.
If this friendship existed in a vacuum, this would be perfect.
She said that I segregate my friends. And I was like, "Hmmm."
My friend isn't racist, but she's not anti-racist.
OK, it's fine that you wear hoop earrings and you get your hair braided, that's not a huge deal, but THIS is a huge deal.
I don't want her to feel like it's a judgment coming from me, necessarily?
I feel like the friendship has deteriorated.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI: Gene?
GENE DEMBY: What's good, Shereen?
SMM: A lot of things had to happen in the universe so that you and I could be friends.
GD: Say more.
SMM: Stars had to align...planets had to shift. And when I say friends, I don't just mean coworkers--I mean FRIENDS.
GD: Aw! We're a miracle!
SMM: We ARE a miracle! We do all the friend things, we text all the time, hang out when we are in the same city - or at least try to!
GD: I'm not going to bring up the fact that you and Nico flaked on me and K out in the Bay …not gonna bring it up.
SMM: That was the holidays, we had family obligations...Also, you and K gave us the tiniest window of availability. It was like a 20 minute window on a random Monday. You made it so hard!
GD: I mean, we can't help it if we've got busy social calendars. Plus, y'all were in San Jose, like a minute away.
SMM: That's true.
GD: We were willing to make that trip for you!
SMM: Whatever! As you all can see...we even fight like friends...
GD: [sings] Friends!
SMM: ..and that is when you know a friendship is for real.
GD: Friends forever! Yes--the universe and the stars had to align in a certain way for us to be friends. Because the data shows that cross-racial friendships and inter-racial friendships are just not that common. For those of you who are new to Code Switch - I’m Black, obviously--I hope it's obvious. and Shereen “contains multitudes.”
SMM: Guess what I am! If you can't guess what I am by my voice, I’m Iranian and Puerto Rican. And, you’re listening to Code Switch from NPR. I’m Shereen Marisol Meraji.
GD: And, I’m Gene Demby. This is an episode from our regular series ASK CODE SWITCH where we try - with the help of experts! - to help our audience better navigate the various ways race--and it's equal play cousin racism-- affects our lives.
SMM: The theme of this week’s Ask Code Switch is Race and Friendship.
CHRIS ROCK: We live in a crazy time when Dr. King and Mr. Mandela’s dream is coming true. When Black people and white people and Asians, Indians, everybody is hanging out together and have inter-racial posses. It’s unbelievable what’s going on man...unbelievable! Unbelieavable...all my black friends have a bunch of white friends and all my white friends have one black friend.
GD: That part of Chris Rock’s stand up was used in a Washington Post article from a few years back to highlight a pretty shocking statistic from a study done by Robert P. Jones at the Public Religion Research institute.
SMM: Yes, I feel like you bring up that study A LOT...The takeaway: White Americans have mostly white friends. 75% of White Americans have ENTIRELY WHITE SOCIAL NETWORKS. No people of color at all. ZERO. And Black people are 8 times more likely to have a white friend but black people’s social networks are pretty homogenous, too.
GRACE KAO: The very low rates of inter-racial friendships for whites and blacks, it’s pretty alarming.
GD: Grace Kao is a Yale sociologist, Gene. She studies inter-racial relationships, both romantic and platonic. She ALSO found that White Americans and Black Americans tend to have the fewest cross-racial friendships. Her new book, The Company We Keep came out in 2019. To write it, she and her co-authors analyzed a huge data set of from over 100 schools across the United States. Students were surveyed as adolescents in the mid-1990s and then again as young adults in 2008:
GK: What we say about this group of kids at this point in time is generalizeable to the entire U.S.
GD: And, for those of you who are wondering why so much of this data seems like it's Black and White - Grace’s research includes multiracial people, Latinx folks, and Asians.
Grace found that Asians are more likely to have cross-racial friendships:
GK: It’s a lot easier, just by chance for an Asian kid to have a friend that’s not Asian. I think that’s just an artifact of just being such a small number in the typical American school and in the US as a whole.
And, the Latinx students in the data set who are considered quote-unquote "white-Hispanics" were the MOST likely to have friends of another race:
GK: But, I want to remind you that, they didn’t look good in terms of the odds of having a friend.
GD: Wait, wait. What?
SMM: I know. So, to use the government’s language, “white-Hispanics,” are the most likely to have actual cross-race friendships IF they had a friend.
GD: If they have a friend.
SMM: Right. But Grace said what alarmed her - maybe more than the fact that the White and Black students tended to have so few friends of a different race - was the fact that kids who said they had NO friends at all were disproportionately kids of color: Black, Asian and Latinx.
GK: There’s this real sense of isolation and not being accepted by kids at school. That’s a real problem. How awful is it to have to go to school everyday and not have a single friend?
SMM: In case you’re wondering -- because I was-- according to Grace’s research - white girls are the most likely to have friends, followed by white boys.
GK: I would say it's less than 10% of white girls who say they can't name a single friend at school. But for Black, Hispanic and Asian males, it's more like 30%
SMM: And do you have those numbers for Black, Hispanic and Asian girls?
GK: Yes. They're better. But not as good as the white girls. So for Black, Hispanic and Asian girls, it's more like 20%.
SMM: So, why is the data breaking down this way? Well, Grace is a quantitative researcher - she’s the person who says...hmmm, we’re observing this phenomenon: even though the country is getting more diverse, people still have homogeneous social networks..let’s see if the numbers bear that out. And Grace and her colleagues found that yes, the numbers DO bear that out.
They DID find that the more diverse a school was -- the more likely the kids surveyed would go on to have cross racial relationships as adults. Even the ones who didn’t have those kinds of friendships as kids.
As for the why…
GK: I could guess, but there’s a trade off, you can either talk to people and get very detailed information but then you talk to ten people. Or you can study 90 thousand people and you can’t talk to any of them.
BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: So, unlike Grace I am a qualitative researcher.
SMM: That’s Beverly Daniel Tatum. She’s a psychologist and author of Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? (And Other Conversations About Race.)
BDT: And so I have done lots of interviews with not nearly as many as she’s got in terms of her numbers, very impressive data set that she has, but friendship is largely determined by proximity. You get to know the people who are nearby. For the black person who lives in a largely black environment, it’s not a surprise that that’s their social network and how they spend their time, outside of the workspace. You know, if you attend church, a historically black church. The same would be true for a white person who grows up in a predominantly white neighborhood or almost entirely white neighborhood--likely to have a very white social network.
But for those people who live in racially mixed communities and have that experience growing up, attending a diverse school, living in a racially mixed neighborhood, they are much more likely to have a diverse group of friends than those who have not had that experience. You know, you become comfortable in a mixed environment if that's what you've grown up in. And it doesn't seem odd to you.
GD: I'm very dramatically clearing my throat: #housingsegregationineverything. I feel like that's going to come up a bit in this episode.
SMM: Well it is in everything. And segregated neighborhood mean segregated schools, and when you're growing up, that's where you make most of your friends. That's where you spend most of your time. For more on that, I spoke with another expert on cross race friendships. Her name is Cinzia Pica Smith. She’s an associate professor at Assumption College and teaches prospective educators and therapists, many of whom are white and will end up working with kids of color in the public school system.
CINZIA PICA SMITH: Children will find each other across racial lines when they enjoy equal status, when they collaborate with one another on common goals and when they are supported by authority. And, that is not happening in schools today. First of all, schools are segregated across the nation so they’re absolutely set up inequitably. Secondly, even in schools that are demographically racially diverse, for those rare occasions when they are, tracking happens in those schools so students of color are over-represented in lower academic tracks and then in those schools students of color are more likely to be taught by less experienced, white, middle class, monolingual teachers. And those teachers often lack professional development on implicit racial bias.
GD: So basically she's saying, even on those rare occasions when you've got kids going to integrated schools, they're still being divvied up by race because of tracking. And you’ve also got kids of color - Black, Latinx and Native - being punished far more harshly for the same infractions, we've reported on this before. Not to mention curricula that leaves them out entirely, that mention them AT ALL.
SMM: Cinzia told me- no wonder these students are marginalized and having a hard time making cross race friendships, let alone any friendships.
CPS: When we have created a system of education that is racially equitable across the board, we’re going to see children enjoying cross race friendships at a higher rate.
SMM: Gene, taking it back to the Bay for a second. Now I have that Coup song in my head, "Strange Arithmetic"...do you know it?
GD: I don't.
SMM: Oh, it's so good.
(MUSIC: STRANGE ARITHMETIC)
And um, teacher, my hand's up
Please, don't make me a victim
Teachers, stand up
Tell us how to flip this system
Teacher, my hand's up
Please, don't make me a victim
Teachers, stand u p
Tell us how to flip this system, move
SMM: I feel like the answer to everything we talk about on Code Switch is FLIP THIS SYSTEM. But, barring that...Gene, you and I have some of the things that CAN lead to cross racial friendships.
GD: Like what?
SMM: I went to diverse schools, I’m the product of a cross-ethnic marriage. So I’ve put in these reps since...infancy
GD: You've been in the game forever. I don't got none of that, though. I grew up in a Black neighborhood, went to Black middle school, Black elementary school, mostly Black high school.
SMM: We work together, too. Here’s Beverly Daniel Tatum, again.
BDT: So when we talk about friendships that develop through work, that’s also about proximity. You are seeing people every day, you are engaged in common tasks but then thing is do they cross boundaries outside of work?
GD: We’ve established that you and I have a relationship that extends outside of work. But you know, there’s a lot of people who like to claim that someone they work with--they have a colleague, say-- who, for the purposes of saying they have a diverse friend group, they promote their brown work colleague to full-time capital "F" "Friend."
SMM: You know who you are.
GD: Yes. They be doing race inflation!
SMM: Right - your one POC friend is the person you have a 15 minute conversation with at the coffee machine.
GD: Slow coffee machine.
SMM: Or I don't know! The water cooler, whatever that thing is these days. Anyway! But, when Beverly is talking about crossing boundaries outside of work she means spending quality time together, maybe talking about stuff that has NOTHING TO DO WITH WORK. And, that is where she says things can get challenging.
To help illustrate that point, we’re going to hear, now, from a woman named Chrishana. She wrote to us about some tension that arose in one of her friendships that crossed that work boundary.
CRISHANA: I think it really started after I had my bachelorette and I didn’t invite her.
SMM: Chrishana met her friend Sarah, who she's talking about there, when they were both at orientation for their new jobs as public defenders. Chrishana’s black and Sarah became her first REAL white friend. Chrishana says Sarah is one of her best friends but she rarely invites her to do things with her close black friends.
C: ...and she said that I segregate my friends and I was like, hmmmm you may have a point. And I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. For months now.
Chrishana didn’t grow up around white people and never thought she would have a close friendship with someone white.
C: I think it was like a defense mechanism that like white people didn’t want to be friends with me. And so for me I was like, well I don’t want to be friends with them either.
This attitude is very common and makes total sense says Cinzia Pica Smith.
CPS: When educators, especially white educators see that children of color are coming together in same race friendships, white educators will panic and say, ‘well they’re self-segregating, they’re expressing prejudice, they don’t want to be with the white children.' What we find is that in spaces where there is racial inequity, that is a protective response. It is not about out group prejudice, it's about preservation. In white children, exclusive in-group same-race friendships IS correlated with out-group prejudice.
GD: Woooooahhh. So she's saying that Black kids are huddling together at the school cafeteria table for solidarity, because they're ostracized otherwise in mostly white schools, right?
GD: But those whites-only tables--which are most of the rest of the tables--that is white kids policing their space for whiteness.
SMM: Yeah. But the Black kids are the ones who are called “self-segregating," which I find very interesting.
GD: Right! Because whiteness is "normal." Oh man.
SMM: Right. Chrishana said it herself, she had black friends for most of her life to protect herself from being rejected. But - somehow - she managed to make friends with Sarah. They beat the odds. They got close, very close. They were real friends who hung out outside of work. But Sarah felt like there was still a boundary between them: why did Chrishana hang out with her separately from her other close friends who are black?
C: I think I became a little defensive and I said, well I haven’t met any of your white friends either...and so...we should talk about this.
And it's moments like this where friends will start growing apart. Because, so often, that discussion never happens. Here’s Beverly Daniel Tatum again.
BDT: There are situations that can cause tension in a relationship and you have to be willing to talk about it. There’s a study that was done, probably 20 years ago, maybe more, at UC Berkeley by a sociologist named Troy Duster who was interested in black/white friendships in college. And what he found was that both groups were interested in developing cross racial friendships but they wanted to do it in different ways. The white students just wanted to hang out together, you know, go have pizza, have a beer. The black students were more interested in engaging with white peers in a more structured environment, they wanted to talk about race and social justice issues. Meanwhile, the white students didn’t really want to talk about race, they just wanted to hang out. Because of the racial context in which we’re all living, if we want to have cross-racial relationships part of what makes them successful is our willingness and ability to learn to talk about racism even in the context of the friendship.
GD: So did Chrishana and Sarah ever talk about any of this?
SMM: Well, you will find out very soon.
GD: A teaser!
SMM: Because this episode is a collaboration with WNYC’s Death Sex and Money podcast hosted by Anna Sale and she spoke at length with Chrishana and Sarah.
ANNA SALE: And, we have tons more stories from people about when race became a flashpoint in a friendship and, and it's interesting to hear these moments that have stuck with people for years and how rarely friends have talked about them, directly, afterwards.
SMM: We’ll drop that Death, Sex and Money episode in our feed tomorrow. Until then, we’ll hear from a couple more listeners who wanted to better understand how race was affecting their friendships.
GD: Stay with us.
GD: Code Switch. We’re talking about friendship on this episode. And Shereen--you started this episode with data from Yale sociologist, Grace Kao.
SMM: That's right. She’s the quantitative researcher who found that Asian Americans are more likely than Black and White Americans to have friends outside their race. They’re also more likely to go to predominantly white schools and live in predominantly white neighborhoods. So, if they’re going to have friends...they kinda have to be inter-racial.
GD: What a coincidence! That’s the exact situation of our next letter writer, Amy, found herself in.
AMY: I mean, I think I’m in a place right now where I think I’m a lot more comfortable in a room full of white people than a room full of Asian people. And like, what does that make me?
Amy is a Junior at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities. She’s the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and she was raised in a really white suburb.
A: And that meant that I grew up, unfortunately, with very few friends of color --- probably due to internalized racism --- but also because there were very few people of color, in my town and my school district, in general.
SMM: Can we talk a little more about “Probably due to internalized racism"?
GD: LISTEN. Amy told us that when she was really young, she rejected her mom’s Chinese cooking — like...she actively avoided eating it, she was like, yo, I don't want to eat this. And so her mom made Chinese dishes for the rest of the family and--I'm doing air quotes--"American" food for Amy.
SMM: Wow, that was really nice of her mom. My mom would never...
GD: I know! "You're gonna eat what I'm cooking!"
SMM: Or you're gonna starve!
GD: The high school stuff is interesting, because Amy said she THOUGHT her high school was overwhelmingly white...but only with some distance did she realize that it might not have been as white as she remembered. So her younger sister went to the same high school and managed to make a bunch of friends of color. So Amy just kinda...actively avoided and BLOTTED all the brown people who WERE around her.
A: The few Asian friends I did have at the time were really hard friendships due to a lot of reasons that did not have to do with race.
GD: Amy told us she didn’t get along with the other Asian girls in high school because she was, in her words, "loud and bad at math."
SMM: Not the words I would use.
GD: Yeah, but as we were talking about before, white friend circles are policed to maintain their whiteness. And so Amy's friend circles--which are mostly white--were full of people who tormented her.
A: They would make fun of my parents’ accents. They would call me ‘Ling Ling.’ I remember my senior year of high school, I was officially labeled "The Token Asian Friend" by my friend group. And looking back, most of the bullying came from girls who were my friends, who were part of my friend group, and who I remain friends with, until we graduated high school.
SMM: That makes me mad. I'm sorry.
GD: It should! So now, Amy is in college. She’s wrestling with these big questions about her identity...which is what people do in college...but her social universe looks the same. She kept pointing out that her friends are her ride-or-dies, but they are just not making any space for her in conversations about race.
A: I have white friends who patronize me and talk over me when it comes to talking politics --- particularly when it comes to discussing race and politics. And having to explain my identity over and over and over again is exhausting. And then being the one in charge of calling out microaggressions is exhausting. They’re just like...is nothing okay? Like, why is everything a problem for you? I mean, their friendship is important and awesome but it’s hard when this thing that means a lot to me feels like a burden to them.
SMM: Is the college she goes to super-white?
GD: So it is a PWI--a "predominantly white institution"-- it’s also way more diverse than the suburb she grew up. And the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis area, it's diverse, butshe hasn’t really availed herself of those communities. But she’s trying. In fact, she talked to some other students about how she was feeling about all this stuff.
A: Another Asian girl who grew up in suburban Minnesota like me, suggested they stop talking to all my white friends because that’s what they did in high school . And I was super confused and surprised and shocked by this suggestion because it never occurred to me before. But my dilemma is...is there a healthy middle ground? Am I a sellout to my race? Can I keep being friends with white people and still retain my identity? Am I allowed to be friends with people who are sometimes also oppressors?
GD: Right. Also just want to say to Amy, she should know that she came out of these white suburbs, which are not accidentally white suburbs, right? They are segregated white suburbs for a reason. She came out of that place with the exact universe of ideas and skepticisms about brown people and people of color that those places are meant to reproduce. You know what I mean? Just because she's brown doesn't mean she internalized that less than the white people who do that all the time.
I spoke with someone else who wrote in to us - named Charity who also grew up in a predominantly white suburb but outside of Chicago and said that she remembers avoiding making friends with other black kids and had a very white friend circle.
Luckily, we found an expert who thinks about questions just like this one.
DAVID ENG: Amy’s is a very typical story.
SMM: Whose voice is that?
GD: Oh, yeah.
DE: My name is David Eng.
GD: David Eng is an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania --- in Philly.
DE: And I’m also a professor in Asian-American Studies, comparative literature, and women’s studies.
GD: And you are the author of…?
DE: I am the author of a new book, Gene! Coauthored with my dear friend Shinhee Han, who is a New York-based psychotherapist. It’s called "Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On The Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans.”
SMM: Damn, David Eng is doing all the things! He's doing ALL the woke-jobs.
GD: All the woke jobs! Maybe he should be teaching Jamaican American studies, too. But yeah, David and Shinhee’s book --- Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation --- is a collection of case histories and commentaries about Asian American college students that David and Shinhee have encountered in their work. Because Asian American college students, they say, have a particular set of anxieties and concerns.
DE:...not dissimilar to the dilemma that Amy brings up here in her letter to Code Switch.
GD: And so in their work, David and Shinhee are addressing those anxieties, sociologically and psychologically.
DE: I do the structural critique...she tends to the symptoms.
SMM: Okay, so Racial MELANCHOLIA, Racial DISSOCIATION? Let’s get into those two things.
GD: Yes, little wonky sounding. We're gonna do a little comma here. For me too, because I'm like, what?
David said that way back in 1917, Sigmund Freud wrote this essay, in reaction to World War I called MOURNING AND MELANCHOLIA.
Freud said that there’s this thing called MOURNING...
DE: ...mourning, which is normal — you lose something, you lose a boyfriend, you lose a girlfriend, you lose a parent, you mourn it, you get over it, you move on.
But then there’s this other thing, called MELANCHOLIA...
DE: Melancholia, for him, is never-ending. It’s for him pathological. It’s a mourning without end.
And so, two decades ago, David and Shinhee coined this idea they called RACIAL MELANCHOLIA. it’s about this ongoing mourning as it comes to identity.
DE: Processes like immigration and assimilation, which are never complete, they put immigrants and Asian Americans along a continuum where they can never quite mourn or get over the losses of homeland, of language, of culture.
SMM: Oh so that’s what I’ve been suffering with my entire life. There’s a word for it. There are TWO words for it! RACIAL MELANCHOLIA. I want to say it with a Spanish accent.
GD: Put some Shereen on it?
SMM: What about RACIAL DISSOCIATION?
GD: Okay, so dissociation...is when people have experiences that don't line up with the way they're explaining those experiences to themselves.
So if you're having an experience that is racialized — but you don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it being about race and racism...or you don’t believe that the experience is about race and racism...you get caught up in this weird bind. David calls this "the conundrum of colorblindness."
DE: And you already see this with Amy! In her first paragraph of the letter she sent you, she says that she has internalized racism. And that’s part of the reason why she didn’t have many friends in high school who were Asian American. And then she says, they were very difficult friendships, but they weren’t due to race. So it’s a strange contradiction.
GD: Amy didn’t say what made the few friendships she had with other Asian American kids so tough.
SMM: But also...she said that her white friends are her tormentors. So clearly...she can handle “difficult” friendships.
DE: When she says "my friends are also my bullies." That part kind of broke my heart...because if you really consider someone a good friend, they should not be your bullies.
GD: And the bind she’s in is that she’s isolated herself from all the brown people who might be able to validate the way she feels about all this stuff.
DE: When she talks to her white friends, they have no idea what she’s talking about and they talk over her. And when she talks about race, they disbelieve it. And when she talks to her friends of color, they seem too radical for her. And again, that is the contradiction.
GD: And just to zoom out a little bit more….David said that to understand what Amy’s going through specifically, we need to zoom out to the larger context of Asian American folks in American life.
David said Asian Americans have toggled between exclusion and inclusion as "model minorities." And that's a very complicated history, but the thing about "model minorities" status we should remember is that it’s entirely provisional --- you might be a nonblack person of color who is allowed some proximity to whiteness, so long as you don’t shake the table or point out the problems with that arrangement. That’s true in the macro sense, in the larger societal sense, but you can see up close how it plays out for someone like Amy.
DE: This idea of Amy being able to align with her white friends, to be an honorary white, to be a model minority, to be adjunct to whiteness, that is a long, long history.
GD: And real quick. David pointed out the doctrine of colorblindness --- that race doesn’t matter, that we shouldn't talk about it, blah blah blah --- really set in in the 1990s, about a generation out from the civil rights movement. And it meant that a LOT of younger people who grew up after that time just don’t have the vocabulary to talk about inequity and injustice. So the students who David and his co-author Shinhee say they are talking to and meeting with are struggling with sometimes debilitating anxiety and panic attacks specifically because they’ve been essentially been denied the language to articulate the thing that’s happening to them and shaping their lives.
SMM: Because colorblindness makes them...dissociated.
SMM: Phew. So that’s a lot.
GD: Right? Melancholy and grief and alientation...as a consequence of structural racism. That's a lot.
SMM: I feel like the government should pay for us to have therapy.
GD: Listen, I'm with it. Put that in your platforms.
SMM: So did David have any advice for Amy?
GD: Well, one thing he said she has going for her is that she’s in college. And for a few reasons that's a really big boon to her. For at least a little while longer, she’s in a place with a critical mass of people of color. He pointed out that for a lot of people who live in homogeneous spaces and then go to reasonably diverse colleges, don't suddenly have diverse friendships AFTER college. So there's a good chance this might be the most and last diverse space she'll find herself in.
SMM: Take advantage, Amy!
GD: And that's important because David was like, look: there's no way you can get around BEING around being brown people and Asian people specifically if she wants to have brown and Asian friends. And because she’s on a college campus, she also has access to counseling, which I wish I would've taken advantage of when I was in school. A big caveat David said, is that whoever ever she talks to needs to have cultural competency. Because if they don’t know any of this history, and if they don't know anything about the history of race in America ---as he put it, about the problem of culture, of language, of Asian American immigration, about the idea of being a “model minority” --- Amy might end up reenacting the same dynamics in the clinic that she's experiencing outside of the clinic.
But David also said...she might find a space she needs to work through her feelings... in the classroom.
DE: So I think a lot of times, a false idea that ethnic studies programs, Asian American studies classes, African American studies classes that these are all ‘me classes’- that it’s about me-me-me...it’s about MY victimization. It’s not. It’s actually about trying to understand the longer histories that get us to the racial conflicts that are all around us today. And my job in the classroom is to provide the students with a history but also a critical vocabulary — not just to understand their own life experiences — but how to contextualize those life experiences into a much longer history. Part of the way in which the clinic and the classroom come together, is that in both of those spaces, these students are trying to re-narrate the story for themselves. And if they can re-narrate it either in the clinic or in the classroom, that can often be a very healing process.
SMM: It definitely can. I am a product of those classes, and I can say it was definitely very healing for me.
GD: And Amy, our producer Jess wanted to tell you that you don’t have to stop kicking it with your white friends because they’re white, but you definitely don’t need to be kicking it with people who treat you poorly. Just remember that.
SMM: So maybe you need to stop kicking it with them.
GD: Perhaps! Yes, perhaps.
SMM: So far in this episode, we’ve been talking a lot about the ways that race can be a point of tension in interracial friendships. But of course, that can also be the case when two people share a racial identity.
GD: Whew chile! Let me tell you. And our next letter gets all into that. And to help respond to it, we’re bringing on Code Switch teammate Leah Donnella. What's good Leah?
LEAH DONNELLA: Hi!
SMM: OK Leah, what’s the situation?
LJD: All right, so this email came from a woman named Sarah, in New York.
SARAH: Dear Code Switch... I once had a coworker who quickly became a friend outside of work. She's black and I'm half black, half white. And we quickly bonded over a passion for racial and gender equality.
LJD: Sarah says this friendship with her coworker flourished instantly...
S: Like when a couple starts dating. Attached at the hip. I spent time with her kids who called me auntie, and she and I frequently had lunches, coffees, happy hours and dinners, and I invited her to my wedding.
LJD: So these two are super close. And one of the things they’re both dealing with is this manager at work, who Sarah described as being abusive.
S: He targeted women of color, getting angry when we scheduled doctor's appointments, blaming us for our white male counterparts' mistakes, unwarranted threats of termination and pay reduction. But slowly over time began to leave me alone. Whereas he doubled down on treating my co-worker horribly.
SMM: Uh oh.
LJD: Yeah. This all came to a head one day at a company-wide meeting, when this manager praised Sarah for a project she had recently done.
S: And my co-worker, understandably at her wits end, sent me a string of text telling me that his praise meant nothing and I should watch out for him. Then she explained that there were two types of black employees at the company: ones with integrity like her, who set a good example for her kids, and complicit slaves on the plantation, like me.
GD: Damn, she went in.
LJD: Sarah said that she was humiliated, and totally thrown off by those messages. She didn’t know where they were coming from, especially because she says she had gotten so many threats herself from this manager, and had consistently stood up, and called him out for his racism and sexism.
So she asked her coworker to talk to see if there had been some misunderstanding.
S: I told her that she'd really hurt my feelings and she said I was wrong to accuse her of doing so. And that I was stirring up drama. She declined to come to my wedding and I never succeeded in convincing her that I wasn't a traitor to the race. I told her I needed to step away from the friendship, and she sent me a text with many exclamation points about how this was all in my head. And then she blocked me on Facebook. Then I blocked her on everything else. I still feel insecure about being a traitorous, tragic mulatto, but I have chipped away at my racial imposter syndrome with the help of family and other friends. I hope this story resonates with someone.Sarah
GD: Whew. So it feels like this is a question about race, but there's a lot of other stuff going on here, too?
LJD: Oh yeah. There's a lot of stuff. It has race, racism, maybe colorism. Workplace harassment. So I called in someone to help sort through this. Her name is
JOY HARDEN BRADFORD: Dr. Joy Harden Bradford. I am a licensed psychologist in Georgia and the creator of Therapy for Black Girls. And the platform is really designed to take mental health topics and make them very relevant and accessible to black women and girls.
LJD: Joy has a weekly podcast, where she talks about mental health issues. She also curates a directory of therapists in the U.S. and Canada who she says do great clinical work with black women and girls. She said in her clinical practice, the number one thing people want to talk about is work.
JHB: But I think outside of that, you know, we likely spend quite a bit of time with our friends. And so, you know, tension and other concerns with our friends comes up quite a bit in therapy.
SMM: This situation with Sarah and her friend has to do with both friendship and work.
LJD: Yeah, exactly. And Joy said that, even though this situation wound up manifesting as a friendship issue, it really stems from being in a toxic workplace.
JHB: Because it sounds like the boss is just awful. And so there's a lot going on there. And it sounds like what the friend has done is misplaced the anger that she rightfully feel towards this boss and put it on to her former friend.
LJD: Sarah’s friend probably couldn’t freak out at their boss. But she probably felt she had to freak out at someone.
SMM: Oh, definitely. If she's the kind of person like I am, she keeps stuff bottled up inside. And I just want to take this moment to apologize to anyone that I have done this to.
GD: I humbly accept your apology, Shereen.
SMM: I'm so sorry, Gene.
LJD: I will not comment on that.
SMM: I'm sorry, Leah.
LJD: But Sarah is also in a position where she’s likely to take her friend’s comments very seriously. And that’s one, because she cares a lot about racial justice. It’s also partly because, as she said, she was already somewhat sensitive about her racial status. You know, she told me she used the phrase “racial imposter syndrome” for a reason.
S: I'm kind of embarrassed to say that my first, gut reaction was to go find some other black people to tell me that I'm a good black person.
LJD: You said you were humiliated. Was there a part of you that was worried, like she could be right? Or like she was like pointing to something that you hadn't like seen about yourself?
S: Oh, sure. I immediately started like flipping back in my mind, like. Like, in what way could I be? You know, I guess her metaphor, like, sucking up to the plantation owner?
LJD: Here’s Dr. Joy again.
JHB: People who identify as biracial often do struggle with this kind of making sense of both of their worlds kind of pieces. And so it sounds like, you know, this is something that was like a sensitive spot for Sarah already. And I think that that is also something, you know, if she's going to work with a therapist would be something to talk with the therapist about. You know, like is this showing up in other places in her life?
LJD: One element that be at play here when it comes to work is that lighter skinned black women, whether they’re biracial or not, do get treated preferentially. That's according to a woman named JeffriAnne Wilder, who’s studied colorism for more than 20 years. And she said that lots of black folks tend to mostly be friends with people who have similar skin tones. And when they do have friendships that cross those lines, they rarely, if ever, talk about the colorism that they’re experiencing.
So we don't know obviously exactly what was going on in this friend’s head. But it’s very possible that this friend of Sarah’s may have been experiencing worse treatment from her boss and been incredibly frustrated, but felt like there was no good way to express that frustration and no one to talk to. Of course, that doesn't mean that it was right for her to call Sarah a complicit slave on the plantation.
GD: Yeah that was...she pulled up the shank there. And also, because they're friends she might have known that that was the thing that would make Sarah feel the worst.
SMM: Oh yeah, good point.
LJD: But still, it sounds like this friend was in a very stressful situation. And when people are really stressed, they don’t always act in exactly the ways they would be most proud of.
SMM: So Leah, do these two go anywhere from here? IS there a way to salvage this relationship?
LJD: Dr. Joy said in situations like this, there a couple of steps you can take, and there are a couple of things to remember. The first thing is, you can’t save a friendship by yourself.
JHB: Is there a level of reciprocity in the friendship? So are you kind of giving and taking in the relationship as much as the other person is also giving and taking?
LJD: When I spoke to Sarah, she said she had reached out to her friend a bunch of times in a bunch of different ways. But each time, this friend brushed it off and said Sarah was just being dramatic.
GD: I know what that's like.
LJD: Joy also said that when someone wrongs you, they need to apologize. But you also have to be honest with yourself about whether you can actually get over what they did.
JHB: Even when someone apologizes, we are by no means required to let them back into our lives, even if we accept the apology. So I think that that's the difficult part for people, too, that they think, OK, well, I can apologize and try to make this thing better, and then we can pick up where we left off in the friendship, when the truth of it is that the other person is entitled to say, this hurt me too much, and I don't think that I want to resume that relationship.
LJD: Joy says lastly, it’s crucial to acknowledge that losing a friendship is very very painful, and can be comparable to breaking up with a romantic partner.
JHB: There isn't often a script for what happens when a friendship breaks up, but it can be the same kind of devastation and maybe sometimes even more devastating to lose somebody who has been a really close friend to you. And so I think sometimes there can be the tendency for other people in our lives to maybe minimize the pain of losing a friend, but it can really be a very traumatic loss. And you would likely experience a grief reaction to the loss of this kind of relationship just like you would anything else.
GD: I just want to say real quick--talking through these questions remind me of the ways that rules for friendships are much more implicit than they are for romantic relationships. Like, you probably have some things that are like big bright lines for whether something your partner did is out of bounds, or whether your parent did something that was out of bounds. But for friendships, we don't know how to talk about the things we expect of our friends and the things we need to change to keep our friendships alive.
LJD: Yeah, Joy was saying that we have no real scripts for how to fight with our friends, for how to even say you did this minor thing that hurt me. So when something big comes up, we have no idea what to do.
In Sarah’s case, she wound up talking things over with her friends and family, and stepping away from that friendship. And she said she gave herself time to grieve--almost a year and a half. And ultimately she hopes that sharing this story will be helpful to others.
S: I just think people would feel a lot better if we talked a little bit more openly about friendship breakups and stuff that's really quite embarrassing like this, because if you come out of the interaction and you feel righteous, you know, that's an easy story to tell. But we don't really want to come out and say, like, this was humiliating and I’m still really embarrassed about it.
SMM: You know what this makes me think about? It makes me think about what David Eng said, about melancholia. And if you don't have that time to grieve, if you don't mourn these friendships and you don't know how to mourn them, you can be suffering trying to figure out what went wrong forever.
GD: Right. Some of the longest-lasting periods of sadness in my life have been around friendships that just sort of dissipated. It was weird to talk about them that way. It was much later that I realized they were some of the most important and intense relationships I had. It was real. Good luck Sarah!
SMM: Good luck! Thanks Leah, you gave me a lot to think about.
LJD: Thank you!
SMM: Time for some friendship counselling!
GD: Honestly! I feel like we stop getting friendship counselling after elementary school. "You guys are friends! You're going to sit here and apologize to each other!" After elementary school, people don't do that anymore.
SMM: That’s our show! But before we go, we’ve heard from a BUNCH of you that you miss hearing the songs that are giving us life. So we’re getting back into it. And this week, we had to go with a classic.
MUSIC (Just A Friend)
...What about your friends? What about your friends?
GD: That is of course “What About Your Friends?" by TLC.
SMM: You can follow me at @radiomirage and Gene at @GeeDee215. And follow the whole Code Switch team at @nprcodeswitch. You can follow Leah @askleezul.
And of course, you can always E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And SUBSCRIBE to the newsletter by going to NPR DOT ORG SLASH NEWSLETTERS
GD: This episode was produced by Jess Kung and Leah Donnella, who you just heard.
….and shout out to the rest of the Code Switch family. Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan, Adrian Florido, LA Johnson, and Steve Drummond.
SMM: Leah also edited this episode.
GD: Oh wow! Did I not say that?
SMM: Doing all the things! Having all the woke jobs.
SMM: Our interns are Dianne Lugo and Isabella Rosario.
I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
GD: And, I'm Gene Demby - Be EASY, y'all.