Illustration by Ashley Amado.
Up until high school, every single one of my friends was white. When you took into account the fact that I went to a very white school in a very white community in the Deep South, the lack of diversity in my friend group was not surprising. The only problem was that I was yellow.
My friendships were never perfect, but it wasn’t because of race. In fact, my friends generally avoided the topic, and when it came up, it was never in relation to me. However, while their glances seemed to skate past my complexion, I couldn’t make myself do the same. Never before had I been so self-aware of the brownness of my skin. And when my friends went out to tan and stuck their arm next to me, exclaiming, “I’m darker than you!” I focused instead on my yellow undertones. When peering into mirrors, all I could see was the black of my hair and the slant of my eyes. Photographs with classmates featured a series of fair, lily-white faces, and jammed somewhere in the middle would be my own, a dark stain.
I stopped looking in the mirror and developed a deep aversion to cameras. While I couldn’t become white, I could be invisible, which was just about as close to white as I could get.
At 14, my pool of friends diversified after I met another Chinese-American girl, Grace*, at a debate camp, where a shared dislike of our instructor drew us together. During lunch, I sat with her group of friends, all of whom were Chinese-American, and reveled in the candor of their discussions. One boy enjoyed playing chess while listening to classical music, causing the others to tease him for upholding several Asian stereotypes. However, he took it in stride and rattled off a list of four other stereotypical traits he exhibited. In between the jabs we took at each other was a fundamental understanding that none of us actually believed them; we were making fun of the people who did. After all, every single one of us knew what it was like to face the brunt of a racial joke. On the off chance that a non-Asian attempted to make the same comments to us, we leapt to each other’s defense.
One afternoon, Grace and I were sitting outside, where I plucked at the grass, waiting for her to finish jabbering away on her phone in a language I had often heard but never understood. She finally got off the phone and addressed me, foreign words still spilling from her lips. I must’ve made a face because she switched to English. “Don’t you speak Chinese?”
I shook my head, and that was when I realized that I wanted in. I wanted to reclaim my racial identity and stop being invisible. I didn’t want to denounce my background when one of my white friends announced that in China people ate their dogs. I didn’t want to constantly be on tiptoes, carefully skirting any topic that might bring up race.
That revelation didn’t flip a switch in my friendships with white people, automatically fixing everything. Only after years of trial and error have I discovered a set of guidelines that I can adhere to and that you may find helpful as well.
Choose your battles
I’ve mapped out my friendships as a series of concentric circles. In the very middle are my best friends, the ones I can confide anything in. On the outside are acquaintances who I say hi to in the hallways and school and occasionally make small talk with. In between the two, there are layers filled with teammates and mentors and people who I just hang out and gossip with.
You don’t have to correct and educate every single one of those people. Trying to do so is not only time-consuming, but also mentally draining. Being a person of color is already exhausting. Properly addressing every throwaway racist remark you come across is only going to make life harder. It is much more efficient to decide to focus on the friendships that matter the most to you, the ones that make up your innermost circles.
In an ideal world, all of your friends, no matter the circle they reside in, will be prejudice-free and apologize profusely whenever they screw up. Pushing away anyone who lets slip a casually racist comment is a perfectly valid decision. However, so is choosing to keep friends who mess up. Making hard and fast rules like, “You should drop anyone who makes a racist remark,” is easy, yet it is much harder to adhere to them. How do you weigh learned prejudices against seven years of friendship? Emotional support against the small, but damaging jokes? Unfortunately, there are no concrete answers, and the only correct one is whatever you feel is right.
For the people relegated to the outermost circles of my friend group, I have found that avoiding conversations on race altogether to be the most helpful. While I still need to validate my identity, I don’t feel the need to do it with the people I only see at parties. After all, identity politics rarely pop up when you’re discussing the latest school scandal.
There’s no need to sit down and type up a list of approved topics to hand to your friends. Setting boundaries can be as simple as saying, “I don’t really feel comfortable discussing this,” and changing the subject. You can even skip saying the first part and just barrel straight into another topic.
Generally speaking, your friends are not out to hurt you. (Those who do seek to demean you are not your friends). Oftentimes they speak from ignorance as well, and it will ultimately be up to you to educate them. When they say something racist, gently point out that what they said was offensive and give a brief explanation why. If you’re in a group setting, you can wait until you’re alone with your friend. I usually use the following template: “Hey, remember when you said _____? Well, it made me feel _____ and is pretty offensive because _____.” Doing this might be scary the first few times, but remember that these people are ultimately your friends. If you explain that their remarks are hurting you, they will care. I have called out many of my friends countless times, and the worst that has happened is a feeble “I was only kidding” excuse that gave way to an apology when I reiterated that their joke had hurt.
Normally, selfishness does not make for solid friendships. However, neither does mental anguish and constant anxiety. You are allowed to remove yourself from any situation in which you feel even remotely uncomfortable. You are allowed to refuse to educate your friends and refer them to other sources instead. You are allowed to define and redefine how (and if) you want to talk about racial issues with your friends. You are allowed to be angry and hurt and yet still care for them. Or maybe you don’t and want to cut ties. You are allowed to do that too.
Sometimes the most hurtful remarks come from the people we are closest to, not necessarily because the comments themselves were offensive, but because they came from someone we trusted. It’s okay to take some time for yourself when this happens. Spend some time with your other friends, the ones who share your experiences as a person of color. Binge watch a season of your favorite tv show. Lock yourself in your room and play angsty music. Rest until the remarks sting a little less.
Scientists have mapped the most remote regions of the earth, diagrammed complex computer programs, and developed equations for the trajectory of stars. Yet there is not a map for navigating interracial friendships. No flow charts exist to guide you when your friend makes a racist joke that comes out of nowhere. No formulas explain just how much time and effort you should devote to saving your friendship. The only guides available are roughly drawn outlines like the one above and your own instincts.
I have lost a fair amount of my white friends, but I have also grown closer to others. And of course, there are still friendships where I am largely improvising, trying to sustain sinking friendships while keeping my identity anchored. However, I don’t expect anything else. Like any relationship, friendships require maintenance. Interracial ones just need a little more care.
*Name has been changed