Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Talking about race with your friends

I've been thinking a lot about the nature of inter-racial friendships and cross-racial conversations among acquaintances, colleagues in the work place, close friends, in-laws, friends of friends, and random strangers.

My musings have been prompted by the really excellent conversation that Tami and I had during her podcast, The Best of What Tami Said this past Sunday (for anyone who missed it, you can hear it archived -- click here to get to Tami's page and if you haven't checked out her blog What Tami Said, make it one of your morning blog reads because it's definitely food for thought with your oatmeal and OJ.

One of the things we discussed was the challenges we have each faced in our friendships specifically with non-people of color. How do we deal with an awkward remark or something we perceive to be racially insensitive or even racist? Do we have a responsibility as the "person of color" to educate our friend about why his/her comment was insensitive or caused us anger or more likely pain?

My own answer to the question of responsibility was that the idea that we have a responsibility to teach our friends was a burden too heavy to bear in a friendship. I think the only responsibility we should have in any friendship is to love and care for our friend to the best of our ability. But to teach and educate our friend? I think that we often end up doing these things during the course of any friendship--and I don't mean about race or among cross-racial friendships. I mean you are doing something stupid and your best friend tells you that you are doing something stupid. That's part of what your real friends do--they know you and love you and can tell you when you are behaving in an unattractive manner and help get you back on course.

But is it their responsibility? And is it my responsibility as a person of color, particularly one who is an educator, especially an educator who teaches and researches on subjects of race and anti-racism--must I always be the "teacher" to my friends when I think they have said something racially insensitive or stereotypical?

Tami made an excellent point during our conversation that when we find ourselves in the role or mode of "teaching" it becomes exhausting--it becomes a chore or work. And no one wants to feel like their friendship is work. And yet, although I said no, we don't have a responsibility and although I think Tami also agreed, we both acknowledged that we find ourselves struggling with this issue and over things you let go and give your friend the benefit of the doubt over and things you talk about and say to your friend, "that hit me the wrong way, can I tell you why I found that to be hard for me to hear you say that."

[Aside: In the above scenario, I don't use the words "racism" or "racist" or even "racially insensitive" -- I think that whether or not you use these words when talking about a friend who has made an off-color remark or observation depends entirely on the context of the conversation and who you are speaking to. But even among our closest friends, I think that the "R" word, as I've come to think of it, puts people immediately on the defensive, and I think you can always address the issue and let your friend know that it wasn't cool and it was hurtful, from a racial pov, without invoking the dreaded "R" word. Although I also want to be clear and say that it doesn't mean that it wasn't racially inflected or racist or that we aren't all mired in a system of racism that we're influenced by in subtle and not so subtle ways--and I mean both white people and people of color alike.]

Although much of our discussion focused on the challenges of cross-racial friendships between people of color and non-people of color, we also touched on the challenges of inter-racial friendships among people of color--and I spoke very specifically about my own self-consciousness about this issue in my friendships with African Americans, because I am very aware living in "the South" and working on issues of race about the ways in which Asian Americans have been used as a wedge group in issues like education and employment to discredit the racism experienced by African Americans. So I know sometimes there is a bit of distrust that I initially encounter in talking about racial issues with African American colleagues and acquaintances.

And beyond all of these various permutations of cross-racial friendships, the truth is, there is just a lot of difficulty talking openly and honestly about race among any of your friends, whether they are of the same race or ethnicity or of a minority or majority culture.

So here's a question for you, dear reader: how do you approach talking about race with your friends, cross-racially or not. If a friend said something you thought was racially insensitive or hit you the wrong way, do you say something? And does it make a difference if the person saying it is a person or color or white? And does it make a difference if the person saying the comment is making a stereotype about your own ethnic/racial group or someone else's?


Genepool said...

Address it straight forward and to the point. Never known you to flinch from a topic even if it lead to an argument.

Its not your job to educate your friends, but its not your obligation to suffer the tension of unexpressed indignation or hurt feeling either.

Jennifer said...

So succinct and so wise Genepool!

seitzk said...

This is a really thoughtful post. I have in fact addressed racism and racist comments with several White friends, with mixed and mostly disappointing results. I think that with the most thoughtful people it has helped and borne fruit, but with some, I have found it safer for my own mental health in the end to sever ties. These days, after having done this kind of work over and over, I have more practice calling people out on their racism, and it's definitely easier. At the same time, I am much less willing to make friends with people for whom I must provide this service.

From all of this, I've found the courage in recent years to start calling out my White family on their racism and sexism. It's been hard, but sometimes I have really positive results. Of course, sometimes I have completely awful ones too.

I think I've gotten to the point where when I do it, I'm doing it for me, because I cannot stand and listen quietly, and I try not to get too invested in changing the person's mind. I also have been learning to put myself FIRST in such interactions, by:

1. not beating myself up mentally if I don't call out a messed-up comment in what is obviously not a safe space, and

2. not trying to maintain relationships with people - including family - who cannot examine their problematic beliefs and actions.

Whew! Sorry for the enormous comment!

Jennifer said...

Thanks for leaving a comment--I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and sensitivity of your response. It's difficult stuff, trying to figure out how to have inter-racial conversations with folks--and to do it in a way that makes you feel whole and that gestures towards the care you have towards others you may think are not on the same page as you. Anyway, hope you leave more comments when you feel so moved!