The Perils of Friendship Diversity (When You're the “Diversity”)

A white person's hyper-awareness of a friend of color's race isn't subverting the paradigm.
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Jean Ho
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A white person's hyper-awareness of a friend of color's race isn't subverting the paradigm.
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New York Magazine recently published a story by Ann Friedman, The Importance of Friendship Diversity, in which the noted white feminist writer begs the question: Should white women actively court friends of color? One of Friedman's friends, identified as “South Asian-American,” observes that one problem in interracial friendships is “people of color generally have had to adapt to white people, because of existing societal power dynamics and also the numbers game.”

The advice that Friedman offers to counter this paradigm: White people should learn to adapt to people of color, and not the other way around.

Seems simple enough, right?

In my experience, however, a white person trying to “adapt” to my Taiwanese-American identity has been awkward at best and extremely tone-deaf at worst. Case in point: A white woman in my graduate program who I didn't know very well approached me at a department reception, and with a knowing look in her hazel eyes, she said, “If we hang out, I just know we'll become good friends.” She proceeded to explain that she felt “kindred” to Asian women; there was the totally awesome Japanese chick she immediately connected with while traveling alone in Europe one summer, and she was also super close to another Asian writer in our program, an international student from Seoul. 

With complete earnestness, she said, “I understand what it feels like to be an outsider because I'm a chubby white girl who never fit in.” I stared at her, bemused and little horrified. Then, I backed away slowly, mumbling something about needing to refill my wine.

Reading Friedman's New York Magazine article triggered this particularly unsavory memory, and made me curious enough to ask other women of color: Has this happened to you, too? The answer is a resounding “Oh God, yes.”

One of the great things about new friendships is the possibility for expanding our own points of view. For women of color, however, the role of acting as a resource guide on race and ethnicity for white people is an unwanted burden. Latinas and Asian-Americans get hit up to “practice their language”; Black Muslims asked to speak on negotiating race, faith, and feminism; Native Americans on how they maintain tribal identity off the reservation -- sometimes it's just too much. 

Chicago improviser Ali Barthwell says, “I have a few white friends that pretty much only talk to me about 'Black stuff.' It's like, damn, maybe just post a cat video on my wall every now and then.” 

Bani Amor, a queer mestiza travel writer, hates it when a particular white friend forwards her articles, as if waiting for a “People-of-Color Stamp of Approval,” she says. 

New York-based memoirist Gail Dottin says that an ex-girlfriend once asked her to explain “what it's like to be Black in America, as though all the Black folk had a meeting and nominated me as spokesperson.” These kinds of requests, however well-intentioned, inadvertently require a person of color to speak on behalf of her entire race, an impossibility for anyone.

Besides, a woman of color may have her opinions on race, but it's not the only (nor necessarily the most important) facet of her life. A white person's hyper-awareness of a friend of color's race isn't subverting the paradigm. A writer/translator originally from Bangladesh who wished to remain anonymous for this story was once invited to guest-lecture a white colleague's class, but with a caveat: “Other people got asked to talk about all kind of craft issues, as individual speakers, but the two writers of color -- an Indian woman and I -- got lumped together to talk about writing 'stereotypes' and how that can be harmful.” The same colleague later invited her to speak again, on “Writing the Other or some such,” she says. (She declined that time.)

And perhaps because much has been written about the undesired exotification of Black women's hair, some white women feel empowered to say that they understand the struggle. A woman in Colorado was once “thanked” by a white friend for being so cool while the friend grabbed her head (she wears her hair natural). “My hair is Oblivious White Lady Catnip,” she laments.

The most baffling and hurtful stories of friendships gone wrong were relayed by women of color who felt as if the white friend indeed tried to adapt to them, but only up to a threshold. 

Jasmine Evans, a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, says, “my white friends have tended to 'allow' me to be a certain level of Black, like I'm placed in the 'Good Negro' box. I'm Black enough that they can say they're not racist, but I'm not completely Black because they wouldn't associate with someone who was, in their minds, truly 'Black.'” 

Another woman of color, who asked to be only identified as a student at the University of Kansas, has been forced to examine her friendships with the white feminists she worked with to organize around campus policies on rape and assault. The week of mobilization revealed her white friends' lack of understanding when it came to intersectionality of race and feminism. When she called them out on it, some apologized, but others “went out of their way to be weird and gross,” she says. 

In fact, there's a term that sociologist use for this behavior: subtyping. Alyne Connie first learned the term in an African American Psychology class. She explains subtyping as, “when someone who holding oppressive, stereotypical attitudes towards a group 'accommodates' individuals who deviate from that stereotype, in their opinion, while remaining sexist, racist and so on.”

I'm usually a fan of Friedman's work, but this time, I find her advice that white people should learn to adapt to people of color problematic. Every anecdote shared here by the women of color is an example of a white friend trying to adapt to her. In fact, these sorts of behaviors only add to the white supremacist construction which elides whiteness as a race, and situates it as a default identity: neutral, apolitical, and universal. In turn, people of color, and our cultural practices -- the way we speak and dress, how we relate to our families and manage our children, the foods we cook, and so on -- are continuously measured against this neutral identity and forever reproduced as the Other. 

Even the title of Friedman's article, and the generally accepted use of “diversity” as a catch-all phrase to signify anyone who's not white, continues to establish whiteness as the center of the conversation.

My advice? Don't look to people of color to learn something new, to diversify; don't do us the favor of adapting to us -- which nine times out of ten, makes us cringe. White people who want to befriend people of color should actually recognize and acknowledge that whiteness is a race. Turn your gaze on you. Sit with that awhile, and see what you learn.