Why It Matters When White People Don’t Have Black Friends

A reflection by Lindsey

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen my Facebook feed full of reports about happenings in Ferguson, Missouri and other instances of aggressive policing and racial profiling. Even though I have limited time available to read many of the stories, I can’t help but see some of the comments. The lack of empathy I see has startled me. But when I stumbled across findings from the Public Religion Research Institute that reported three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends, the tenor of the conversation began to make more sense to me.

People are funny when it comes to how they respond to those who are different from them. I say “funny” because it’s a curious phenomenon. In many ways, we seem to be frozen into egocentric ways of relating to people. As an engineer, I am often amused by the joke, “The world does revolve around me! I choose the coordinate system!” However, I think the joke has more than a grain of truth when we consider our social spheres of interaction and influence. We often choose our friends from people who are most like us. We build our circles of friends from people near us who have things in common with us. The fact that so many white people are able to create such homogenous circles of friends should show us that we’ve somehow managed to create social structures where white people can avoid meaningful and equitable interactions with people of color.

I care about this stuff. I really do. When I was in college, I read Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. This book stuck with me like oatmeal can stick to your ribs. I still have vivid memories of how, statistically speaking, white people have a much larger monetary asset base than black people. I think I remember that part so well because I was a college student at the time I read the book, and I was just starting to become independent of my parents financially. It’s a bit sobering to look at more recent statistics. Few things get under my skin like inequality does. While I’m certainly no expert on social justice, I do try to be exceptionally mindful of my expectations and assumptions about people having access to resources.

To be honest, I was surprised when I first saw the headline. I went to college in a university that draws an incredibly diverse population. I haven’t done any kind of formal analysis of my Facebook friends list, so I wouldn’t say that I have an especially diverse friends base. I do try to do my best to shut up and listen when a person who has a different life experience than mine wants to share some of his or her story with me. Some things I’ve learned, time and time again from virtually all my friends, are that context matters, stereotypes hide any number of important observations, and it’s not that hard to look at how society has structures that perpetuate inequalities. [Nicked and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is another book that really drove home the latter point.]

When I think about the importance of knowing someone, I consider the stories told around increasing acceptance of LGBT people. Many straight people have had to stop and reflect on their views surrounding LGBT issues after finding out that a co-worker, friend, or child has come out as LGBT. It’s a lot harder to think without empathy about LGBT related topics when you start associating them with real people that you actually know.

Let me be extremely clear: I do not believe that we should equate the experiences of LGBT people with the experiences of people of color. Looking at the headline that 75% of white Americans do not have any non-white friends, I wondered about the effects of social organization. It’s a lot easier to make claims that like, “Racial profiling is simply police doing their job,” if you’ve never gone out shopping with a black friend. It’s a lot easier to doubt that virtually every black household briefs its children about what they need to do if they are stopped by the police if you’ve never sat around the dinner table with a black family. It’s a lot easier to suggest that jobs go to the highest qualified person if you’ve never known a person who has “white-washed” his or her resume. I decided to talk about the LGBT community because I know many white people who have discovered that they actually have a good number of LGBT friends unknowingly. When people have LGBT friends, they tend to reconsider their views about social problems affecting the LGBT population. However, I’m afraid that it’s much easier for those who are straight to find themselves in friendship with those who are LGBT than it is for white people to find themselves in friendship with people of color. Part of the reason why I think white people have comparatively homogenous circles of friends is that we tend to socialize in already segregated environments. Churches are often the worst place to try to diversify one’s friends base; Divided by Faith is so named because 11:00 AM on Sunday morning is often the most segregated hour of the week.

Relationships matter. Our relationships with one another make us human. When we have relationships with people who are different from us, we learn to see our commonalities as people as well as our salient differences that set us apart as individuals. We develop empathy skills that allow us to hear stories that challenge us to see the many faces of oppressive social structures. We tune our abilities to say, “That’s not fair!” and work for positive changes.

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