By Patrice Gopo
Field Guide to the Unraveling of Your Interracial Friendships
To start with, you need to accept that you are here because you and your white friend decided to talk about race. This choice produced problematic consequences. Otherwise this might merely be called a “Field Guide to the Unraveling of Your Friendships.” But you’re here. The topic of race has surfaced. You both engaged in discussions beyond the harmless acknowledgement of your different shades of skin.
You and your white friend tiptoed before leaping into talk about the presence of systematic racial injustice. Together you considered how society’s marred and sad history around race cast a troubling shadow over the present. You exchanged opinions about the shooting of unarmed black men, the riots in Cincinnati, the potential for the first black president.
No matter which white friend, when she said, “Give me examples of how race had an impact on your childhood,” you sliced open old hurts and shared stories of being a little black girl in a predominantly white environment.
Then you nodded when your friend said, “I’ve always wanted to be friends with black people.”
Since you liked the person you sat across the table from, since you discovered you wanted the friendship to develop, you chose to ignore it when she said, “I felt just like that once when I was around a group of really wealthy people,” in response to how you felt when all the little girls were doing hair at the slumber party, and you didn’t get to take part. You decided to overlook the time she told you, “I don’t see color,” because you believed—and why shouldn’t you have assumed the best?—that she didn’t mean she didn’t see you and your brown skin. Instead, you hoped she meant that she formed friendships based on character alone. Still, the statement made you feel like the wide sweep of the dominant culture wanted to brush away pieces of your identity. But you kept these things to yourself. You knew your words might make her uncomfortable and make this friendship falter.
What you couldn’t know is that overlooking something just means shoving your hurt inside, shoving it so far you don’t even know it exists. This, of course, will have its consequences too.
Which is why, one day, a conflict will develop between you and your friend. Not about race. About something petty like the fact that she doesn’t answer your emails or the way that you whine when you are sick. The issues will appear trivial to the outside world, but they will be thick rain clouds over your friendship. As you try to sort out these frustrations, you will both discover new things to be annoyed about until it just seems easier to not be friends.
Of course the real problem is your conversations about race, the way she made comments that made you shrivel, the way you felt it better to ignore statements than discuss them. This is what leads to irrational levels of irritation about the unimportant. However, you won’t yet recognize how the mind shifts conflict from the uncomfortable issues to the ones that seem easier to address.
And when your friend says, “I just don’t understand,” (which of course she will say since you’re both in conflict about a substitute conflict) you will sit and stew and rant and rage.
Still, somewhere deep within you, in an almost hidden place, you will wonder what you can do to fix this. Is there a way you both can once again sit across from each other over warm drinks and hear the air saturated with the sound of your laughter?
Field Guide to Reconciling in Your Interracial Friendships
One day when you are glancing at a burst of wildflowers along the highway or tugging towels from the hot cave of the dryer, your drifting mind will puzzle through the unraveling of your friendship. In that unexpected—perhaps even supernatural—moment, bright signs will point to the truth that this wasn’t just any friendship that unraveled. This was the unraveling of an interracial friendship. Only then will you recall the way your friend told you how her experience was so similar to yours. Only then will you remember the words your friend said that made you feel small. Only then will the memory of remarks that you overlooked in your effort to be gracious gush from your mind in the form of warm tears.
Now is when you start to understand all the conversations you had, all the easy thoughts you shared about injustice, in all this you missed the fact that with white friends who want to talk about race, you have a greater chance of sinking. You think everyone is fine and comfortable. Then you realize this friend who is your good, good friend can say things that hurt you, can make comments about race that burn. You see your mistakes. Maybe you should have just circled around the topic, never really stepping into that conversation, the same strategy you use with so many of your white friends. You could have talked about other topics like weekend plans or your children and thus remained in safer realms.
But the divine spark of recognition has found you, and now you know race is at the core of the problems with your friend. So consider your friendship. Think about her qualities that are wonderful. Think about if you want to keep the friend. Observe if you have some sort of nagging feeling that there might be something to preserve. As will sometimes happen, you may realize that you’re okay if this friendship slips away. If so, just embrace this truth as an unexpected gift.
If, however, you believe in preservation, now is when you can make several choices. You can continue to ignore the statements your friend made about race that bothered you and slap a Band-Aid over the relationship. Call your friend or write an email and apologize for your nutty behavior and anger over inconsequential issues. Then tell yourself that you need to check your responses and conjure up a bunch of gracious feelings that overflow from your soul in calm, quiet, and even conversation.
(It is important to note that if you choose this path, the path without rocks and bumps and large potholes, know that in the future you will again read the, “Field Guide to the Unraveling of Your Interracial Friendships.” You will then wonder how you got here once more. That’s okay. Repetition of experience may usher in greater understanding.)
Alternatively, you may decide that this friendship matters and that honesty should leave little room for Band-Aids and quick fixes. So now you need to wait for time to do the thing that time does best: pass. And have patience. Have lots and lots of patience because repair work can be slow. On both sides of the friendship, whatever hurt exists needs to soften. Even if you long for everything to resolve, value the silence that might stretch from weeks to months to beyond a year. Think how this gives you time to mull over the friendship and the casual way you both spoke about race. Be thankful for the space to sort through why you felt unable to tell your friend when her words hurt. Perhaps she will be doing the same thing. In these silent times, the friendships meant to last will separate from the chaff.
Remember patience. The waiting might give you hope that this story will find a way to continue. Still you should know that there is never a guarantee. If relationships are like wine, some get better with age and some become no better than vinegar. Keep praying yours becomes the one you want to drink.
Then just maybe one day, on a random Tuesday afternoon, in the near or distant future, one of you will decide to pick up the phone, sit down at the computer, or knock on the other person’s door. The air will smell fragrant. Time will reach an unexplainable point of being “right.” Contact will happen again. And you will both discover yourselves to be changed people.
Together you will begin talking, and this time you will embrace an uncomfortable authenticity, speaking the words you once hid. A conversation here. Another conversation later. Even later a longer conversation maybe stretching into the dark night. Together you will see how your friendship—your interracial friendship—began to unravel. You and the other person will accept that as much as you don’t want to be people who hurt their friends, you both wear the cloak of humanity. When it comes to discussing race, the risk of wounding each other becomes high.
Still you will remember why once upon a time you saw her cream skin, she saw your brown skin, and you both wanted to stay. As you talk over weeks or maybe months or even beyond a year, you will understand that racial reconciliation can’t be reduced to a list of what to say and what not to say. It might be the intentional journey to discover the experience of another person, another culture, another part of the human race. Woven in with all the mess, you and your friend will get to touch this profound beauty. If that happens, run your fingers across the fibers of this life, touching each unique thread, knowing your friend touches a different version of the same.
PATRICE GOPO’s recent essays have appeared in Gulf Coast and online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in North Carolina, and she is currently at work on a collection of essays.