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On Being the “Black Friend”: Or My Uncomfortable Relationships with White Women

Picture it. I’m in Iowa visiting with two friends of mine, both white women. We sit in a booth at a local supermarket eating deli food and discussing various issues. One friend tells us about a recent classroom debate she had with her professor and others over the terms “African-American” versus “Black.” I recall discussing the issue with her and telling her I tend to use the term Black until told otherwise if only because not all Black people are, in fact, African-American. She jokes that she “Black friended” me when shutting down her professor on the issue using what I’d told her. I laugh uncomfortably, internally debate whether to call this out, and ultimately decide to let it go this once.

Picture that scene played and replayed and replayed over and over again, with little twists and different players, over the course of a lifetime.

Growing up, I didn’t have a whole lot of white friends. The area of the city in which I lived was a poor area with almost entirely people of color save one white couple that lived next door. When we moved from the big city to a smaller one closer to the reservation, I attended the Tribal school, and all of my friends were Indigenous people. Still, I noticed a hierarchy based on shade where the lightest and whitest were the most popular, and that’s when my uncomfortable relationships with white women started.

I made a friend, a person I thought was a good friend at the time, a girl with an Indigenous dad and white mother, and who was white-passing. I recall sitting at a table during lunch in middle school and her referring to an Afro-Latina teacher she didn’t like as a “Black bitch.” I remember, early in high school, us dressing as Amish for Halloween (we were silly, ignorant children), and her snickering at my finished outfit and commenting that I looked like Aunt Jemima. I remember having to call out her white mother for complaining about the “nigger” kids always on her lawn and her mother claiming she didn’t know it was a slur. Or having to call out her white boyfriend who talked about the “coons” down the street before realization dawned on his face, and he sheepishly refused to meet my gaze. Or having to call out her equally white passing sister for claiming that she “acted more Black” than me because I didn’t neatly fit the images of Black people she saw on BET.

My friendship with this woman eventually ended, and I spent a lot of years undoing the anti-Blackness I’d internalized from my friendship with her and years of anti-Blackness from other people and places. As I grew older, I cautiously entered friendships with other white women, women who seemed to be more progressive, more accepting, more cautious and proactive about not invalidating my experiences as a Black woman and a woman of color. It raised red flags, somewhere in my mind, that I seemed to be the only Black friend or close Black friend of many of these women. But, I pushed it out of my mind.

Eventually, the other shoe almost always dropped. And, it always dropped when I made it absolutely clear that I had neither the time nor patience for racist, white nonsense, when my anti-racism became too “radical” for them, when it wasn’t inclusive of and didn’t coddle whiteness. When I questioned a couple German friends on their anti-Turkish, anti-immigration stances, suddenly our friendships were in crisis. When I laughed in solidarity with a Black woman who criticized the privilege of white feminists who felt entitled to enter a conversation she’d been holding with other Black women, a long-time friend and white South African ex-pat who had shared some of the anxieties of white citizens at the end of Apartheid, declared that I was “as bad as the racists.” (This woman, incidentally, also touched my hair without permission.) When I declared that I was tired of holding conversations with white feminists about the existence of white privilege, and that the very argument invalidated my life experiences, another long-time friend assured me that she would continue to argue with me about it. Another friend told me, more than one, that she didn’t “see color” or see me as Black even as I explained the ways in which this liberal so-called “colorblindness” actually operates to perpetuate racism and how that erased my experiences as a Black Native woman. Most recently, my friends from Iowa and I parted ways after I expressed my discomfort about “white confessionals” in which white friends confess to me racist things they said or did in the past and how guilty they feel about it.

Presently, (and I say this only a little tongue-in-cheek) a couple of my closest friends are white women. I entered these friendships cautiously as well, and certainly I’ve wondered if and when the other shoe will drop. But, my friendships with these women do feel very different. I believe part of it is because I have come to realize what red flags to look out for and when to trust my instincts that something isn’t right. I’ve learned not to enter in friendships that invalidate my lived experiences as a woman of color, tokenize my existence, or expect me to validate or “forgive” harmful, racist behavior. I’ve learned not to apologize for choosing not to enter into friendships with white women or to enter them very cautiously. I’ve learned that I don’t owe anyone the benefit of the doubt or an explanation for choices I make for my own protection and survival if those choices aren’t themselves oppressive.

Many have written about the limitations and oppressive nature of feminism that is centered or structured around the needs and experiences of white women, especially given that most of the world’s women are not white. I don’t seek to rehash that here. Rather I seek to examine the ways in which most of my personal friendships with white women, who may or may not have identified as feminists, have ultimately failed and typically because of their inability to fully understand my experiences of racialized womanhood. Very recently a friend and woman of color talked about how toxic relationships with white women had changed her worldview. Now, she doesn’t see much of a difference between white men and white women as oppressors. This is a worldview I understand intimately after a lifetime of poisonous friendships and as I sit here hoping the other shoe doesn’t drop with some of my current friendships.

By Marena

Marena recently earned her Master of Arts degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular mass media. You may find her creating fanworks, testing her hand-eye coordination with beadweaving, flailing over her fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory texts, or watching low budget sci-fi. You can find her writing on Marena ni yukyats.

11 replies on “On Being the “Black Friend”: Or My Uncomfortable Relationships with White Women”

I’m a gray haired, divorced, slightly obese, old white woman. I’ve lived a mostly white bread existence. I have no idea what it is like to be a woman of color. And I’d probably offend you if we were friends at some point. (God knows I’ve inadvertently offended many in my life.) But you would probably offend me on occasion too. Maybe not for my being white, but maybe for not understanding why I’m so fat. Or that I would have a better life if I’d finished a college education. Or that I have eight cats and a dog… am I a cat lady.

I don’t want to be lumped into a large group of people who are undesirable just because of my color. You know… one of those white women. I wince when you talk of waiting for the other shoe to fall with your current white friends. I would hate to have to prove that I’m OK any more than you do.

Please forgive me if I offend. Women have enough fights (or challenges if you prefer) to just break even. We don’t need to struggle against each other. If you and I were friends, I would ask you to trust me enough to tell me what I do wrong and what I do right. Without your help, I can’t change. And you can learn more about me. And we won’t be such strangers.

Bobbie, I’ll be honest. Your comment is exactly the kind of comment that raises red flags and immediately conveys to me, “This is not a person who is capable of truly respecting your experiences and your feelings about that experiences as a woman of color.”

As a visible WoC, I am intimately familiar with people judging me based on my skin color and phenotype. The difference is that people judging me and mistreating me based on my race comes from a place of systemic oppression embedded into the very structure of this country and, to a larger extent, the globe, that continues to marginalize and literally claim the lives of me and mine to this day. Me declaring that I am cautious about entering friendships with white women and wondering if my current friendships will go sour is a protective measure that comes from years of repeated experiences (which I detailed) with white so-called friends in which I frequently fielded everything from racist microaggressions to blatant racism and dehumanization.

So, frankly, I don’t give a damn what you want in this regard. And, I don’t give a damn if you wince. I hope you wince because that means I’ve caused some discomfort that I hope will lead to you giving this further and deeper thought on your own. As a side note, but an important one, I strongly recommend researching articulations of the limitations and some of the potentially oppressive implications of the “we’re all women” liberal feminist stance. Many women of color have detailed why acknowledging these issues is important and necessary for those of us that care about liberation and social justice.

I feel like I should say something since I’m also fat (and white). Being fat has its own set of oppressions and marginalizations, and to me that means you should be more understanding of Marena’s position, not less. I know that’s not always how it works, but perfect world and all that.

But I’m going to try and use fatness to explain what’s wrong with your comment here.

You know what I hate to do? Constantly defend myself against the fat haters, the concern trolls, the “anti-obesity” crusades that want to wipe me from the planet. I’m sick of having to educate people and justify my own existence.

Because it’s something no one should have to do. For any reason assuming they aren’t harming others, and no, squishing against your thigh on the subway doesn’t count as harming others.

Because of this, I’ve taken to eliminating people who make anti-fat statements from my life whenever possible. Because ultimately my own feelings of comfort and safety are my responsibility, and I can’t feel those if I’m around someone who wants my body type eradicated.

You could say “why don’t you just talk to those people and explain why they’re wrong.” Well, even if they would listen, that would be exhausting. People who are marginalized do not owe it to educate people who are not, unless of course they want to.

I imagine that what I experience as a fat person is a tiny fraction of what a person of color experiences. Knowing how exhausting it is for me to deal with fat oppression, I can’t even fathom how much more so it must be to deal with racism.

You say “without your help, I can’t change.” That’s bollocks. Do your own research. Google. Learn.

I know this isn’t a perfect analogy, but since I don’t want to talk over or step on the toes of anyone who actually has lived experience with racism, it’s the best I can do.

Liza, I really appreciate your comments here and how you used your own experiences to illustrate the issue while also acknowledging that it’s an imperfect analogy. But, it works to further demonstrate the ways in which self-care and protection in the face of, really, ubiquitous dehumanization and marginalization become very important for survival.

Also, bit of a side note, but as a fellow fat person, I feel you so much on the pervasive fat shaming and sizeism in day to day life. <3

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