I wasn’t sure what I publicly wanted to say about all of this until I reflected on the Black lives in my life. This is not a white girl talking about how she’s not racist because she has Black friends. This is a plea from a white girl to start with the basics and consider that as we talk about big things — systemic racism that has persisted for hundreds of years — we also need to talk about everyday interactions and relationships.
I know I won’t get all my words quite right. I also know that I can’t possibly talk about interracial friendships in one blog post. But I believe that I have a platform and it would be a crime not to use it. Not all activism is perfect but I am taking a step. Thank you to my Black friends who read this before I published it and generously, humbly offered feedback. I am better because of you all.
I first learned about race when I was four. It was my first day of kindergarten, and the teacher asked us to pair up with a partner. I attended a white, private school and now that school boasts some of the best diversity of any private school in the state of North Carolina, but at the time, there was just one black student in my grade. Everyone partnered up, but no one asked to be my partner, and no asked to be the one black student’s partner either. I distinctly remember other students saying, “She looks different.” “Why does she look that way?” “Her skin is weird.” I walked over to her and asked her to be my partner. I was four, so I have no idea what I was thinking nor do I remember, but from a young age I have had a heart for people who feel left out because I was left out, too. I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with race, but later, it would have everything to do with race.
This one black student, Chie, became my best friend, and we’ve remained close since. She even got married last weekend (her wedding was featured in the New York Times) and I would have been standing by her side had we not been in the middle of a pandemic.
I attended a public, arts magnet school where white people were just barely the minority; we were slightly outnumbered by our Black counterparts but did outnumber the Hispanic students. Now, most of my friends sat in classes with all white, wealthy students, as did I. But I did participate in my school’s chorus class, and I was one of only four white students in that class of 36. Black students had no fear in calling me out for my privilege, but they also wanted to be my friend. They taught me a lot, but they also listened when I asked ignorant questions. I felt more comfortable in the chorus class than in my competitive, white classes because in the chorus class all anyone cared about was having real conversations (police brutality, poverty across my city, inequality, East Winston Salem versus Buena Vista Winston Salem, etc), while in my white classes people talked about what colleges their parents wanted them to go to.
Senior year, I sat my chorus teacher down and asked him where I should go to college. I had gotten into a few schools and was totally overwhelmed about how to make such a big decision that could impact my entire future. I will never forget what he told me: “Hope, if you actually care about diversity in the way it seems you do, if you’re not afraid to be the white girl in the friend group whose life is easy and wealthy, if you want to expand your mind and learn more than you ever thought you could, if you want to continue to fight for poverty and injustice, then it’s a no-brainer: you should go to Duke.”
A lot of people took many liberties to tell me where I should go to college, but this chorus teacher stood out from the rest. His advice had nothing to do with success, or money, or a potential job, but had everything to do with going somewhere I could educate myself about poverty and injustice. So I went to Duke.
My world was rocked in college. My two best friends freshman year, and for the rest of college and into today, are both Black. They come from very different worlds, and they approach race in ways that are similar but also very different. They never held back in challenging my views, and they knew I could stomach it if they ever had a general comment about white people, but we also all really loved each other. I could call them at any hour of the day and I knew they would be there for me, and I would venture to say they’d say the same thing about me. In the last week and a half, the three of us have had a few conversations about race and they’ve been harder than past times. My two friends are hurting, more than they have hurt — maybe collectively more than all the other police brutality cases we discussed in college. Our conversations also feel less natural, especially texting, calling and FaceTiming, which just isn’t the same as talking face to face and being able to cry and hug each other.
The Black friends in my life have been the truest, most loyal friends, the hardest working, patient, kind, empathetic, generous, understanding and Godliest people I have ever known and likely will ever know. When I see a policeman kneeling on a Black man’s neck, I think of my best Black friend in the same position and I throw up. When I think of a Black woman being shot eight times in her apartment, I think of my best friend and roommate of two years being shot in our apartment and I lose it. These are real people; they are not fictional characters.
I have to wonder if maybe white people — myself included — simply do not KNOW Black people. I genuinely think white people I know have literally never had a meaningful connection with a Black person. And therefor, when they see these events, they can’t fathom them, they can’t empathize in the same way, they can’t engage in activism because it’s a reality they’ve never been CLOSE to.
There’s a lot of talk about educating yourself — reading more, listening to more podcasts, reading news articles, following Black activists and Black thought leaders. But it’s kind of like being book smart versus street smart. You can learn all about Black history and the current Black experience, but if you’ve never walked alongside a Black person, you don’t really know anything.
I have five total Black friends. I probably have 30 white friends. There’s a problem there.
Now, it’s not a Black person’s job to befriend a white person. And as a white person, you might try to befriend a Black person and they just simply don’t have the energy to befriend you. But for the friendships that can and do naturally evolve, by the grace of God and the patient energy of the Black person, you have a job to do. You have a job to listen, to empathize, to speak up for them in circles where they’re absent, to acknowledge the privilege that you have in conversations with them and when you’re spending time with them.
It’s not enough to read books. Make friends with people different from you. Purposefully choose diverse circles, activities and opportunities. It’s hard, and we all have a long way to go, but these are some of the most important choices you’ll make.
So, today, I urge you to:
-Donate to organizations seeking justice, racial reconciliation and to tear down systemic racism. You can find a ton of ways to help at: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/
-Sign the Breonna Taylor petition and the one for George Floyd and his family
-I am so grateful that the George Floyd Memorial Fund has raised millions and millions and millions. But I am struck that many Black men and women who have lost their lives by the hands of racist cops have received zero compensation. I urge those who have experience setting up memorial funds or foundations or who know personally these families to set up funds for them and help spread awareness about how we can close this financial gap.
-Take a good, long look at the diversity in your personal life. Do your closest friends all look like you? Turns out, you might be in a comfortable, white echo chamber. And it’s really dangerous.
-Once you’ve taken a look, commit to changing it.