Caroline Burke / Gavel Media

You're Probably Making Your Friends of Color Uncomfortable

You’re Probably Making Your Friends of Color Uncomfortable

You’re probably reading this because you have a friend of color that you care about. You also probably looked at the title and thought “do I make __ uncomfortable?” The answer to that question is probably yes. There are little actions you do on a daily basis that you’re not aware of that your friend of color notices and internalizes. Although these moments may not be purposeful, they can still deeply offend your friend. 

Defending The Problematic Guy

You might have a friend who can say some things they don’t mean. Maybe they tell a questionable joke every once in a while, or maybe they accidentally let a slur slip while they’re drunk. Chances are your friend of color has told you that this person makes them uncomfortable, and the fact you are still friends with them upsets them. If you told them anything along the lines of “but they’re so nice to me,” you’re probably making your friend of color uncomfortable. That person may be pleasant around you, but there’s a reason for that: you’re white. The identity you and that person share prevents you from seeing your friend of color’s point of view. Because what the problematic guy says does not threaten you or your identity, you are not able to fully understand why your friend of color is uncomfortable with that person’s presence. Although you may not necessarily agree with what the Problematic Guy is saying, by staying friends with them you inadvertently become complicit in racism by being passive in the face of discrimination. 

Instead of saying “but they’re so nice to me!” when your friend of color tells you that the Problematic Guy makes them uncomfortable, ask them more about it. Let them explain why they would prefer you did not stay friends with the person and be accommodating. At the very least, stop trying to convince your friend of color how great of a person the Problematic Guy is; you will not be able to change their mind and you will only wind up making the situation worse. By enabling the Problematic Guy, you yourself can become the Problematic Guy.

Proving Your “Wokeness”

Whenever you witness an act of racism, you may be inclined to tell your friend of color about what happened in the hopes you two can laugh over the ridiculousness of the situation. Telling your friend of color about racist situations you witnessed will probably make them uncomfortable. More likely than not, your friend experiences forms of racism on a daily basis, so they do not need to hear about it, especially if you did nothing to stop it in that moment. Besides hoping your friend of color will see how “woke” you are, there is no real reason or benefit to come from telling them about a racist situation you witnessed. If anything, it will only show them how you will not speak up if they are not in your presence, and how issues such as racism are only relevant when they can be used for your gain.

You can still talk about race with your friend of color, but avoid bringing up detailed moments of racism where you did nothing. Recognizing systems of oppression and examples of racism does not earn you any “brownie points.”Instead dedicate your energy to dismantling this framework.

Accessorizing and Tokenizing 

When you think of you and your friend of color, you may think of the two of you as a dynamic duo. You may be inseparable and many do not see one without the other. Although your friend of color may be your other half, be careful with how you view them in relation to you. If you view them as only your friend of color instead of as their own person, you are probably making them uncomfortable. While it is important to recognize your friend of color’s identity, it should not be the only aspect of them you view and should not be used to your own advantage; your friendship should not be validated only when you say “it’s okay, I have a ___ friend” to prove yourself to other people. 

You need to understand that any racial group is not a monolith; every racial group has a unique set of people with different values, personalities, and beliefs. Your friend of color will not represent every person of their identity group nor do they want to. You need to be able to simultaneously validate their identity and recognize they are their own person, not just your friend of color.

Putting Us On the Spot

When the topic of racism comes up in the classroom or a discussion among friends, there’s a chance you may look to your friend of color. You may expect them to lead the conversation, educate the masses, or share a traumatic sob story. Always expecting your friend of color to lead conversations about race is probably making them uncomfortable. While it is important to listen to your friends of color when they speak, there’s a difference between uplifting voices, and forcing them into a conversation. If your friend wants to speak on the topic, they will willingly initiate dialogue without being pulled into the topic by their white friends. It is not only extremely uncomfortable, but also draining to expect them to educate you and your friends every time the topic of race arises. It also places a spotlight on your friend of color and isolates them more than they already are. 

Instead of making the conversation of race revolve solely around them, just have the conversation normally and if they want to engage in the conversation, then they will. If you are also putting your friend of color on the spot because you want to be educated on certain topics, this will not work out for either of you. Instead, research what you want to know on your own. Instead of always utilizing your friend of color, get recommendations for books, websites, and other forms of media that educate you on the topics of race you want to engage in instead.

Failing to Relate

Odds are you are different from your friend of color, and that’s amazing; combining differences is what can make a friendship great, but sometimes these differences can seem so vast. When your friends of color talk about their struggles or the microaggressions they face, you may be inclined to chime in even though you do not understand on a personal level. Maybe you want to tell them about how people assume you’re rich when you’re not just because of the neighborhood you grew up in, or maybe about how it hurts your feelings when every guy on campus is into blondes when you’re a brunette. You trying to relate to experiences you cannot is probably making your friend of color uncomfortable. Although your goal may be to make them feel seen and know someone is understanding of the issues they face, what you are doing may actually have the opposite effect. You bringing up unrelated issues may come across as you either playing a game of “Oppression Olympics” or you placing experiences of racism on the same plane as smaller, trivial inconveniences. 

You don’t always have to speak when your friend of color talks about the daily struggles they face. In fact, I would encourage you not to speak so that you can listen. In fact, all of these scenarios could be avoided with the same piece of advice: if you want to know how to make your friend of color feel more comfortable, just listen. Listen to your friends and the other people of color in your life and actually internalize what they are sharing with you. 

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