Race Matters: “Can I End This Friendship?” Welcome to the very first Race Matters advice column…
Dear Race Matters,
I have a friend from childhood with whom I’ve kept in touch for 20 years, despite our many differences in lifestyle, upbringing and beliefs. For context, she’s a white woman who has always lived in our small homogenous hometown, and I am a non-Black POC who now lives in a diverse city.
Recently, while discussing the BLM protests, things got heated. It became clear that she doesn’t believe that systemic racism is real (WTF?!) and that all of her “research” was coming out of far-right think tanks. In our conversations, she didn’t acknowledge anything I was saying. Each point was rounded off with a cliché about God loving everyone equally, in what felt to me like a Get Out of Racism Free card. I eventually reached a breaking point, and told her that I didn’t want to continue our conversations. That was earlier in the summer and we haven’t spoken since.
But some activists say that we should stay engaged with everyone within our sphere of influence — that it’s our duty to have hard conversations with people who deny the lived experiences of Black people.
So, I’d like advice about whether I should carry on if it seems futile? I don’t foresee a change in her perspective, and I am very reluctant to continue a friendship with someone who I’ve realized is content with systems of white supremacy. Not only has it taken a massive toll on our friendship, but also on my mental and emotional well-being. Is it bad that I just want to move on with my life? I feel guilty.
Thanks for reading,
I got so many thoughtful letters for this first column, but I wanted to pick yours because your dilemma was representative of lots of other letters. Turns out many of us find ourselves in similar situations, wrestling with how to deal with friends or family members who just don’t “get it,” in one way or another.
So, you can rest assured you’re not alone in asking the question: Is it okay to drop a problematic/racist friend? The answer is: YES! Well, that was easy. This advice column thing is a piece of cake!
If only. Nothing about this is easy. Here you are, with the very best intentions, trying to get your friend to understand something you accept as a clear and important truth: systemic racism exists! (Also, while we’re stating obvious facts, the world isn’t flat and climate change is very real.) But the bigger issue is that you’re trying to get your friend to sympathize with the plight of others and to grapple with her role in how society does or doesn’t change at a particularly high stakes moment. When she cites clichés and dubious evidence — instead of listening and learning — as a defense mechanism to protect her privilege (a tale as old as time), it infuriates you. Believe me, I get it. You’ve tried with facts, persuasion and an open heart and now you’re at an impasse.
I want to note your particular choice of words: “guilt” and “cop out.” They were revealing to me that you’re seeing your role in this friendship as a burden, at this point. As if it’s your job to be her social justice educator and you feel bad that you want to quit. Don’t. Friendship is supposed to bring support, mutual respect and love to our lives. Not to say there aren’t going to be conflicts but, on par, your friendships should be a positive addition to your life.
That said, I admire your efforts to try to educate your friend. After all, our friendships are also supposed to help us grow. And further, we know the vast majority of our perspectives are influenced by the people in our immediate social circles (and Facebook feeds, for better or worse). And now more than ever we feel called to the noble purpose of winning hearts and minds. That’s how change happens: on an individual level, relationship by relationship — I accept and believe something because the people I love accept and believe something and that reinforces that belief. Here’s the wonderful thing about this — it works. Take the recent radical changes in how Americans view the problem of racism, for example. In June of this year, more than 60% of Americans cited “racial and ethnic discrimination” as a “big problem” in the United States. Five years ago that number was just under 50% and four years before that, just 21%. The upward trend is a reflection of changing social norms. You may not have been successful at convincing your friend of the extent of racial discrimination but others have, as reflected by the statistics. And hopefully sweeping systemic change follows.
But I think it ultimately comes down to a question of degree. You and your friend can have a difference of opinion about the extent to which people are allowed to own guns or what the best Bravo Housewives franchise is. Fine. All matters of healthy debate. But then we have the other end of the spectrum — a friend who thinks gay people should burn in hell, or says the Nazis weren’t all bad. Clearly not even close to fine.
Despite your differences, do you believe in your friend’s goodness and positive intentions in your heart of hearts? That’s for you to decide. But it doesn’t look like you’re looking for confirmation that you should stay in this friendship, but rather what you’re saying is, I’ve tried and I’m ready to let this go. You want permission to do that. The thing is, you don’t actually need it and I have no authority, but I’m granting it anyway — POOF!
You don’t have an obligation to stay in this relationship until you change your friend’s mind and transform her into a fully woke, social justice warrior — especially at the expense of your own well-being and mental health. It’s too big a burden and too futile an endeavor, as you said so yourself.
And your energy is better spent elsewhere if your goal is social change: like Get Out the Vote! (Sidebar PSA: Everyone should be preparing their plan to vote now). Besides, maybe, just maybe, the loss of your friendship is something that would force your friend to reexamine her beliefs.
Sadly, you won’t be the last person to lose a friendship during these fraught times. As tragic as it is, it reflects a larger bittersweet reality — that we have no choice these days but to be as steadfast and relentless as ever to keep turning the tide toward the country and the equality we want to have. That might mean more of a zero tolerance policy when it comes to the viewpoints we let slide in our inner circles or it might mean sacrificing a relationship for the sake of staying true to our beliefs. It might mean accepting that we live in a time where lines are being drawn, and we give ourselves permission to cling to our righteousness, not out of smugness or superiority, but because holding the line is our best hope for the future we want.
Ultimately, in your case, Rachel, my advice is this: let go and hold on. Let go of this friendship and burden for now, you’ve done what you could. But hold on to the possibility, however small, that your friend may learn or evolve in her thinking and it makes sense to reconnect. After all, friendship, like social change and revolution, is a long game.
Christine Pride is a writer, book editor and content consultant. Her debut novel, We Are Not Like Them, written with Jo Piazza will be published in 2021. She lives in Harlem, New York. She also wrote the Cup of Jo post Five Things I Want to Tell My White Friends. Feel free to email her with your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org