Hey, it's Anna. Last week we partnered with the NPR podcast Code Switch to bring you two episodes all about race and friendship. How race has come up in your friendships, what happened next, and why it can be so challenging to make and maintain cross racial friendships. If you haven't heard those episodes yet, definitely go back and take a listen.
We also put out a survey for all of you to take about how race has factored into your friendships. You can find it at deathsexmoney.org/friendship. More than a thousand of you have taken that survey so far and we've gotten some really interesting responses and we've also heard from some of you that taking the survey has felt a little ill-fitting. That answering questions about the number of friends you have outside your race makes it feel like it's a survey designed for white people. Because for some of you, that's the reality of moving through majority white spaces as a person of color. So we wanted to talk through some of your responses with Dr. Deborah Plummer, a psychologist and professor who studied cross racial friendships and written about it in several books.
Her latest is called "Some of My Friends Are...: The Daunting Challenges and Untapped Benefits of Cross-Racial Friendships." Dr Plummer is on the phone with me now.
ANNA SALE: Hello, Dr. Plummer.
DEBORAH PLUMMER: Hello.
AS: Hello! So I want to talk with you about some of these daunting challenges and untapped benefits. That's something we heard from our listeners when we were hearing stories about race and friendship. And I want to know first how you came to research this, cross-racial friendships. Was there a moment in your life where you paused and said, "Huh, I want to take a closer look at what's happening here"?
DP: There certainly was, you know, um, my good friend Yvonne, who is actually African American, we share the same kind of, um, family background and professional background. And on a walk one day–we do a lot of walking–she said to me, "Why do you have so many white friends?" And I thought that was a very interesting response as we were talking about, I think it was race relations, I can't even remember what prompted it, but I said to her, "You got white friends! And she said to me, "Not like you do". (both laugh) I was out then to prove her to be the outlier. Being the academic I said, "No, this isn't true." And what I found out that I was the outlier.
AS: And you know, you shared your data with us for our survey–and you can look after you fill out the survey at how your responses, your individual responses compare to to the data that you collected. And one of the things I've really enjoyed doing is you can click in these boxes and filter out and see like, What are the trends by age? What are the trend by region? What are the trend by education level or income? When you think about those kinds of variables, is there one that like has stuck out to you as like, 'Oh!' When you look at this variable, you see something interesting happening, or does it kind of bear out the same, um, across those, across those different categories?
DP: That is, you know, that is very interesting, um, from the perspective that there isn't one variable, but there's a combination of variables. So in order–generally, we found that if you have friends across racial lines, you share the same values, educational level and socioeconomic class–if you have higher levels of education. If you do not have higher levels of education, then you have to share the same values, geographic location, professional identity, the same, um, socioeconomic class. In other words, there's a number of other variables that have to load up for you in order to have a friend across racial lines. If you have a high school education, um, or below, versus someone who is college educated or above.
AS: So you're saying you have to have a lot of other things in common for there to be cross-racial, more cross-racial friendships.
AS: And when you say values, what's that mean? That's a big word.
DP: It truly is. And I think what we find is that, you know, people–the expression of those values or how they come out and lived experience. So for example, for many, for most people of color, um, racial justice, racial equity is a value. For Whites, because they're the default value or the, um, you know, in their lived experience, they don't have to get up every day and think about race. It's not, um, going to be racial equity is not a prominent lived everyday experience. And so to even talk about things like a movie, you know, a racially charged situation is where we found that a lot of of friendship patterns started to have tension. You know, this past election caused tension because people were beginning to see, 'Wait a minute! I thought we thought the same or believe some of the same things or valued some of the same things, but because of how race enters into the picture, we don't.
AS: I also want to ask you, one of the things we've heard from listeners who took the survey, and that is for listeners of color, we've heard from some of them that it's felt like it's a survey designed sort of with whiteness at the center, that it was designed for white people. Um, and I want to read you a little bit of an email from a listener named Mai.
She's 33. She lives in the Bay area, and she wrote: I feel like as an Asian American, living in white society, I don't have a choice about making cross-race friendships. It's just a matter of course, of assimilation, of protection and blending in. And she went on to say, I've come to appreciate the psychological safety of having friends of the same race, and I don't want to feel bad about that as if I'm responsible for improving race relations.
And, and I, I hadn't thought about that. That I thought like taking the survey for me it was like, 'Oh, the more friends that I have friendships that I have that cross racial lines, the better it is.' And it was interesting for me to hear from may like, no, no, when I'm doing that, I'm measuring something different than what what you're measuring when you took the survey, do you have a response to that?
DP: I loved her response in the sense that it speaks to the truth and, and the duality that exists in our, in our country around race. Clearly, you know, um, friendships are optional. And particularly having cross-racial friends and spending our discretionary time with people who we have to have, do a little bit more work around. As one person in our focus group said, "You know, when I want to go quick and deep, I go with my own". You know, I do have friends across racial lines. But I do think that the advantages to having friends that cross racial lines do outweigh, you know, um, I don't want to say outweigh, cause when I think about it as outweighed, then it means that um, there are certain benefits of being with your own. You know, the sense of belonging, your, um, your rootedness and identity. But I do think the skill sets and the competencies that we need to successfully navigate this increasingly multi-racial world we only can have, if we do that in trusting egalitarian relationships across racial lines, there's no other way to do that.
AS: I want to go back to your friendship with Yvonne, Dr. Plummer. Um, what did you discover about yourself? Why did you have the friendships that you had with white people?
DP: I think that, um, because I grew up Catholic and growing up Catholic and going to Catholic schools, it put me into, um, you know, inherently white groups, you know. And so my norm and my, um, my world became, um, more diverse, you know. Then, for in high school, I was the only African American in my class.
AS: Hmm. The only?
DP: The only, you know. And so I've learned to start to, to know about white people, but it was also a very disconcerting, um, experience because, you know, I was too white, you know, for my black friends, and I was too black for my white friends, (laughs) you know? And so I, that's, I think, prompted my own study on racial identity.
AS: Who do you go to when you're going to want to go quick and deep? Who are your people these days?
DP: I do go, I do go with my friends who are black (laughs). And actually I do have one white close friend who does understand, you know, um, this world and I can bump up and say, you know, things around with, with her that does help me to sharpen my thinking. Or she's so used to, you know, um, anything that I can say without filters around race. So I do have, I definitely can go on both with my white friends and with my friends of color.
AS: And I have one more question for you, Dr. Plummer. For, for those of us, uh, who are listening to you and thinking, 'You know what, I need to do better! And I need to take seriously who I spend time with, whose stories I know, who I think about, and I want to have more friendships that cross racial lines. Um, do you have ideas about the best ways in which to do that? Because, uh. I also had friends of mine who have said, "Uh, I have a black friend who has said, 'I don't want to be somebody's first black friend.'" You know, like, like the feeling of that you can have when you feel like you're being recruited by somebody, um, to be there, to be their person of color friend. Um, so, so what is, do you have any, just practical advice about how to do it and not be, um, and to, and to be, uh, easy about it and to, and to make everyone feel, um, fully human?
DP: I'm smiling because it's a question I get a lot because people are well intentioned around this and do want to, um, create that kind of world that we all want to live in with racial equity. I think that it starts with this–there's some pre-work and some work that you have to do for yourself and then there's work that you can do within relationships. And the work that you have to do yourself—and this is for whites and for people of color is to. Acknowledge racism, um, unconscious bias and understand it, understand, um, that we all participate in it in some way and the, it's just a matter of degree. And try to rid ourselves of that and try to understand how it plays out for us. Then the other pieces to understand ourselves as racial beings. In other words, understand my own racial identity process. Like I said, that, you know, being in a Catholic church setting pushed me to understand myself as a person of color, you know? And when Yvonne asked me that question, it pushed me to understand myself deep—more deeply as a race, racial person. And so I think we have to understand what that means for ourselves. Then when, you know, then we have to look in, in, in our friendships, you know, to see we did what we call like depth of intimacy. So, who are the people that, you know, I, I can—that I have conversations with that I have meaningful conversations with, that I can, you know, vacation together with that I can, um, you know, talk about things that really matter and not just surface things that I can say what I'm, um, that, you know, things that aren't—our rough drafts, so to speak, that they don't have to be perfect.
AS: Rough draft. I like that. That's nice.
DP: You know, and what, and with people who I can start those kinds of trust and egalitarian kind of relationships, I think, you know, we both have to make a commitment then to we're going to bump and we're going to make mistakes, particularly around race issues, but we are committed to continue to grow in that area. And I think, you know, if you do some things that, you know, mix it up racially in terms of your living patterns and where you choose that, what you do intentionally, you're going to naturally meet other people of different races and not stay so isolated.
AS: Dr. Plummer. I want to thank you so much for sharing your data with us and for talking with me. Again, you can take the survey that is drawn from Dr. Plummer's research at deathsexmoney.org/friendship and then you can see how your answers compare to others, um, and, and filter out through different demographics and see what the trends are. And then we'll send you a followup email with some recommended reading, uh, about race and friendship. And racism and friendship. And that includes Dr. Plummer's book, "Some of My Friends Are...: The Daunting Challenges and Untapped Benefits of Cross Racial Friendships." Dr. Deborah Plummer, thank you so much.
DP: Thank you! This was a great conversation.