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Why I Find It Hard to be Friends With White People

My best friend at 9 was white -- but interracial friendships later became a struggle. Here's why everything changed.

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Maintaining integrated friendships past a certain age is more struggle than triumph.

My peer groups in high school did remain mostly white, but with increasing difficulty. I found myself ostracized on the one hand by black classmates who still thought I wanted to be white, and increasingly the target of disdain from my white counterparts, who liked me all right – mostly because as more than one told me, “you aren’t like other black people” — as long as I did not outperform them academically.

My stint on a multiracial, close-knit debate team offered some reprieve, and is the source of my most enduring friendships with white people. But I think now about what it meant that the policy positions I advocated for in debate rounds, often in tandem with my mostly white and Asian teammates, were antithetical to a progressive race politics. For instance, my Taiwanese debate partner and I won our first debate state championship in 1995, advocating for the passage of Proposition 187 in California, a proposal that would have barred undocumented immigrants from receiving education and emergency medical care. My teammates also had a love affair with Ayn Rand’s objectivism. Had I been more cognizant and more confident, I would’ve thought about what it meant for people of color to win rounds advocating for those kinds of positions. What I took to be merely an academic exercise at the time came to be a kind of deep political and ideological training for many of my white counterparts.

I increasingly cultivated a certain degree of resolve to deal with classmates whose racial views evolved to reflect those of their parents with a disturbing degree of similarity. I remained friends (some to this day) with classmates who asked to touch my hair and then remarked with shock and surprise that it was “soft and didn’t feel like a brillo pad”; classmates who inquired about whether black people could see better in the dark, and even one who told me that “black people do drive down our property values,” when they move into the neighborhood.

Back then, folks who made these asinine remarks got a withering side eye from me, but their casual, everyday racism was not a deal-breaker for our friendships.

When I went off to college (a historically black institution), this changed. I made my first close black friendships. Those four years at Howard are actually the outlier in an educational background populated by predominantly white learning institutions. And yet, since leaving high school, I have not had many nor actively sought opportunities to make friends with white people.

When you are 9, or 12, or 17, it is easy to overlook racist comments. That your friends’ dad does not like black people has little to do with what your friend thinks, right? When you cannot yet vote, the fact that your friends’ parents are Republicans means little. With age, these things start to matter. At 25 or 32, it is harder to overlook the inevitable racially ignorant comment that will come, especially when you have had access to friendships where this is never an issue. At 30 or 35, the fact that your white friends now vote Republican alongside their parents strikes you as a choice that detrimentally impacts your material existence.

It is hard to stomach.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the wedding reception of two of my old debate teammates, who were getting married. I went with another teammate, also black. When we arrived, we were shocked to discover that among a gathering of probably 75 people, we were the couple’s only black friends. And it had been years since we had spoken to them.

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