Race and Friendship

Anderson Cooper is highlighting results all week on his CNN AC360 show about kids and race in America.  As adults it’s sometimes harder to gauge prejudice and racism since we are trained to be politically correct and don’t want to perceive ourselves as buying into any negative stereotypes. In kids there is only honesty and a mirroring of what they have been taught at home and school.

The word friend came up multiple times in the study and I felt both thrilled at the value our friendships play in integrating our society, but also convicted at how we still seem to all hang out with people who are more like us than not.

Seeing the Lack of Skin Diversity in My Friends

This last weekend I was with a group of my friends from my days when I lived in Southern California– a very diverse place. And as we kept gathering for group photos I felt a tinge of embarrassment that four out of the five looked alike– white and blond. How did that happen, I asked myself.  Our group wasn’t hand selected by any one person– we just all started coming together seven years ago.  We used to have a Latina in our group, but with her dropping out, now it’s just one gorgeous black woman and four whites. It made me want to at least dye my hair red or brown…

I love my friends... is it wrong to wish they were more racially diverse?

My defense mechanism went into play as I started naming all my other friends from different places, reminding myself that I know, love, and admire tons of non-white skinned people.  Take a picture of me with my local San Francisco friends and it would look very different.  And I tried to tell myself that diversity is more than skin color– I hang out with women of many different socioeconomic levels, various careers, a great range of personalities, different sexual identities, and I pride myself that I build relationships with single women and moms– two things I am not. But still, it bothers me that of my closest friends, most of them are white.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone in that.  As Rachel Bertsche reports in her book MWF Seeking BFF: “In 2004, only 15 percent of Americans reported having at least one confidante of another ethnicity…. Among college students arriving on campus, race and living proximity are the two strongest indicators of who your friends will be.”

Study after study keeps highlighting that while we may all self-report more diversity in our network, we still tend to grow closest to those who are most like us, skin color included. One creative study looked at wedding party photos online and assessed that only 3.7% of white brides and grooms have a black person as a bridesmaid or groomsman. Much has been reported about the study that showed that the larger and more diverse a college campus is, the more likely the students sought out people groups just like themselves.  When we live in highly diverse areas, we’re less likely to actually engage in all in the diversity and instead use the size as an opportunity to find more people like us.

Three Things I Learned on AC 360 Kids on Race Findings

1.  Black Kids Are More Racially Optimistic than Whites. In the year-long study sponsored by AC360 kids were shown a picture where it wasn’t clear what had happened and then asked questions such as “What’s happening in this picture?”, “Are these two children friends?” and “Would their parents like it if they were friends?”

Kids were shown this ambiguous photo and then asked a series of questions that revealed their prejudices based on the skin colors of the kids.

Only 38% of black children had a negative interpretation of the pictures, whereas almost double — a full 70% of white kids — felt something negative was happening.  Melanie Killen, the child psychologist in charge of the study said, “African-American parents … are very early on preparing their children for the world of diversity and also for the world of potential discrimination,” compared to most white parents who tend to avoid the subject and just hope that their kids are color-blind.

It made me super proud of all the black parents who are out there intentionally trying to help their kids integrate, and saddened me that most white parents wouldn’t view integration with the same importance or need.

2.  There’s a Subtle “Limit” for How Close We Should Get With Each Other.  While black children start out positive, by age 13 they become as pessimistic as white kids when shown similar pictures. Certainly more experiences of prejudice and an awareness of the racial realities would account for some of the growing pessimism of black children, but they also commented on how parents of both races start to change their tune as the children age.  When parenting a 6-year old we want our young kids to play nicely with everyone, but by the time they reach high school we’re getting worried about inter-racial dating.  In other words– the message shifts from “play with everyone” to “don’t get too close to someone of the opposite race.”

Subtly we can be taught to be friendly, but not to become close friends. It’s hard to teach equality when we sense that there is a limit to that equality. That we can only accept each other up to a certain point of intimacy–platonic or romantic.

While the racial distrust seems to show up in both white and black teens, other studies like the bridal party study I quoted earlier still seems to suggest that blacks are more likely to report close white friends than the other way around.  Nearly 96% of white bride and grooms have all-white wedding parties, whereas black brides and grooms are 22% likely to have a white friend stand up with them.

3.  Having a Friend of the Other Color Was Hugely Defining.  Enough studies show that we still flock to people like us even in diverse settings, but being surrounded by diversity still raises our perception of people different from us.  The white kids who were tested at diverse schools were drastically less negative than the white kids who attended mostly white schools.

“The reason, according to Dr. Killen, is about friendships. ‘There’s almost nothing as powerful as having a friend of a different racial ethnic background to reduce prejudice, to … have that experience that enables you to challenge stereotypes,’ she said.”

The whole subject of race is hard to talk about sometimes.  We risk seeing parts of us we’d rather deny and we’re scared of saying it wrong or offending each other.  And yet, I think it’s crucial that we keep holding up the mirror that reminds us to keep widening our circle of comfort and habit.

I’d love to hear some comments from some of you about the studies I’ve quoted…  What strikes you as you read some of their findings? Have you found these results to be reflective of your personal experiences? Do you wish you had more diverse friendships? What makes it hardest, in your opinion, to build these close relationships with people who have a different skin color? What have you learned from your relationships with people from a different culture or race?






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15 Responses to Race and Friendship

  1. A says:

    Just wanted to note that “feisty little Latina” plays up a stereotype about Hispanic women-that we are all tiny, sassy and “spicy”.

    While your friend MAY actually have these personality traits, it still comes off as slightly racist at first read.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Oh thank you for bringing my attention to this– I’ll go remove the descriptive words right away since they aren’t necessary to my point. Your comment kindly illustrates my point about what a touchy subject this can be– that even when I’m trying to be complementary about someone I love, it can still feel offensive to someone else.

  2. Kelly says:

    For me, it’s not skin-color, it’s culture. i.e. I am best friends with those who are culturally similar to me, regardless of race.

    I’m much closer to a girl with Asian heritage who grew up in my neighborhood than a Caucasian girl from Finland. That said, I love meeting people from different cultures and the insights they bring.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Culture is a really big difference beyond skin color once you start bringing in language, different types of foods, different priorities, etc. This is true of religion and politics too– that the different label may matter less than how integrated we are in that different culture or tradition surrounding the label.

      Anyone reading this who was one skin color but raised culturally different from those with your shared skin color? I’d love to hear someone share how it was to make friends… was it easier with those who shared your skin color or your new culture?

  3. Melissa says:

    I am a Chinese American professional woman, my husband is white and are my two stepsons whom live with us. We live in a middle/upper class neighborhood, of the very diverse and urban city of Oakland. I see these dynamics and clashes every day with parents in schools, with the socio-economic clashes, and the stereotypes- all in the most “liberal” zip code in the country.

    I am convinced we are brought together in friendships by common experience (culture/values) and by common interests. So, in my case..my oldest are dearest friends are also Asian American (all born here). Our parents did the similar job of trying to make sense of the American culture and maintaining Chinese culture at the same time. I find it very interesting to meet those of “older generations”, for example those who have immigrated here (even of the same age)- but don’t find those aquaintances become close friendships- with no intention either way. That’s just how it happened.

    Other closest friends are not Asian…and we are bonded by common current interests (travel, careers, etc) and as well as similar upbringings. Distant fathers, developed views on marriage, children…etc. Skin color has no boundaries in these areas.

  4. I am a 44 yr old African-American single woman. I grew up in Georgia attended public schools with few white children sprinkled in among us. I went to a college with a majority white population and students from all around the world. For a year and a half, I was a pen pal with a Japanese student on campus (we were able to connect by writing notes to each other on a desk in a sociology class) whom I met once and he was fascinated with American lifestyle and our ways of doing things.
    I have always worked in environments that put me in with a diverse group of people. I connect with people because of who they are and the color of their skin is secondary. My parents raised us to like people for themselves and to not be afraid to be friendly with any and everyone. I am comfortable in my skin so I try to make others feel that same comfort.
    My friends who are “white” most often feel like they cannot express themselves about race and differences with people. I never want them to have to experience the things someone of color has to go through. I have to be real in my thinking, living, loving and experiencing life. I do not make apologies about life and the people in it. I am happy when my friends and I can find common ground and speak openly and honestly about race and its effects on our life.
    Thanks for sharing on this touchy subject.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      That is so nice of you to weigh in with your encouragement. I’m having a bit of that experience that you refer to where it’s hard to talk about the subject of race without fearing that I’m offending someone. Even in a post where my main point is wishing for more diversity, I’m still saying it the wrong way for some. 🙁 Thanks for encouraging the honest conversation and for modeling such a healthy outlook!

  5. Sarah says:

    Oh, wow. That subtitle! I’m African-American. When I first saw the sub-title “a black with four blonds,” I thought, does she mean a black person (defined by skin color) and 4 blonds (defined by their hair color alone, as race was not important) or did she intend to say a brunette and 4 blonds? If the former, I find that horribly offensive. On additional note, I don’t know of anyone who would like to be referred to as “a black” rather than “a black person.” I feel fairly certain no other black person would call someone else “a black” without a noun to modify. If there are any other black people out there that say otherwise– please add in your 2 cents.

    I find that I am connected most to people by their ideology, not their culture or race.
    I’m from NYC, and in certain schools/neighborhoods, it is super-diverse. My 4 best middle school friends were trinidadian, russian, bangladeshi, and hispanic. My high school was mostly asian and my friends were mostly asian. My college had about 1/3 minorities, the other whites. My good friends: White/Hispanic, Hispanic/Arab, Thai, and Indian! I can understand that someone could end up with like-friends in a small town with no diversity. But in a diverse place? I can’t understand how you could possibly avoid having friends from different backgrounds, let alone different hair colors. Wowee.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Oh wow I did it again– offending even though my intention was the exact opposite! I’m so sorry! I chose the word “blond” to highlight that not only are we all white, but we’re the same subclass of white– race certainly was my point. I’ll go see if I can clarify that better. Thanks for being honest.

      I agree with you that ideology is certainly the primary bonding factor but do you think we subconsciously gravitate to people of similar race thinking that their ideology might be closer to ours? As I said in my vulnerable posting, I’m not proud that that particular friendship circle that goes back nearly a decade isn’t more diverse, and it was never done that was intentionally. What I find more appalling is how normal that is, how the minority of people–black or white– would even have that one person in their closest circle of friends.

      I don’t want to be defensive in any way, but do want to point that just because I was willing, for the sake of making an honest point, to put up a picture of four women I love, that doesn’t mean I don’t have other diverse friends. I relish that living in San Francisco ensures that I have an incredibly diverse array of friends from many cultures– with vast differences in our political views, sexual identities, religious preferences, and cultural backgrounds. And I look forward to continuing to foster more relationships from all places.

  6. Michelle says:

    Hi, Shasta-

    I know that the focus of the AC360 episode and this article was on race. What you and many commenting have mentioned is that diversity and what connects us is so much bigger than the color of our skin or hair. I’m thankful that I live in New York City and am a girlfriend on GirlfriendCircles. My girlfriends range in age from early 20s to 60+, have skin, eyes and hair of all colors, speak many languages, and were born and raised in many countries. What draws us to one another is a desire to connect and embrace life together.


    P.S. Most women I’ve known from southern California felt pressure to become blond if they weren’t already. Perhaps, this is a stereotype, or is it mandatory? 😉

    • ShastaGFC says:

      I agree completely! I guess I was just lamenting the change that happened from those kids becoming teenagers and starting to view the other race with more guard. And I knew I had seen startling statistics that showed how few of us actually even end up considering someone from another race to be one of our closest friends. I think it’s easier for us all to say we have diverse friends, but then like those wedding party photos reveal we actually may tend to get closest to those that look most like us….

      p.s. And while highlights may be added, I think in that group we’re all naturally blond-ish. 😉

  7. John Rampton says:

    I totally agree with the statement by Dr. Killen about “nothing as powerful as having a friend of a different racial ethnic background to reduce prejudice” I feel that by eliminating this we will have a much stronger world. How do you think would be the best way to go about starting this movement?

  8. Daneen says:

    Thanks for being willing to be vulnerable in this post. It is an issue we absolutely need to talk about, but, as you’ve seen, it’s so easy to make a mis-step, even with the very best of intentions, that most of us just avoid the conversation and necessary self-reflection.

    I recently read that white parents are much less likely to discuss race at all (http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/04/the-danger-of-not-talking-to-your-children-about-race/). The danger is that by trying to pretend that we’re color blind and that race doesn’t exist, we actually end up communicating to our children that race is such a big deal that we can’t safely talk about it. Kids notice differences, but they notice differences in a non-judgemental way, and this challenged me to actually have direct conversations with my daughter about race.

    Thanks for sharing and for modeling bravery and honesty in your sharing!

  9. Robin Hastings says:

    Hi Shasta! I grew up in Sacramento/Carmichael, which is very white. We did have a few Asians in elementary school, and if we did they were Japanese. If I went to their house, I was told they had to study and couldn’t have any friends. I had a few black friends as well, mostly in junior high and high school. What I found was that while I wanted to be their friend, the moment the parents met me, I was considered ‘bad’ and not to be a friend to come over to play, do homework, whatever. I am thinking it was because I was fat as a kid. It is amazing to this day the amount of prejudice there is against fat kids and adults. (To this day, I am still offered the cake with the most icing on it. Maybe cakes should come without corners). My Greek friend in 4th grade was great to be with, but her father had a great dislike for me and when I would knock at the door to see if Helen was home, he’d say, “No,” and watch me walk all the way back to my house. How strange is that?