End Embarrassing Racial Debates and Keep Your Friends

Let’s face it: We’re in a very polarized climate in the United States right now.

On the one hand, we have a Hollywood system finally beginning to wake up to the wealth of diversity America has to offer. The result, at least in TV, is one of the most diverse fall TV seasons on record.

On the other hand, we have GOP candidates, candidates who have support in the double digits, that state they’ll humanely round up immigrants and that Muslims shouldn’t even consider running for President. Buttress that against one of the bloodiest summers on record, with a hashtag occurring every week, the corrupt members of the police blaming unarmed black people for their own deaths, and a large quadrant of Americans supporting these particular policemen and blaming the victims for their deaths.

Suffice it to say, with all of these extremes, it’s clear that America is at an impasse. We, as a country, must learn how to talk to each other about race. Unfortunately, many of us don’t know how to talk about race. It gets embarrassing and awkward for everyone. Conventional wisdom would have us think that the only racial conversations taking place are ones between white and non-white people. But, while there are a lot of white/non-white racial debates taking place (with a large portion of them filled with microaggressions), there are also plenty of microgressions happening in conversations between two minorities of different races. No matter who you might be talking to, things can get ugly fast when race is brought up. Take a look at how most of the conversations go on Facebook, Twitter, and real life when race is being discussed in a non-Kumbaya fashion. Things get heated quick, friendships are lost, everyone’s feelings get hurt, and people on both sides of the equation are left wondering if they even knew who their friends were at all. You’re also always left wondering if you could have handled the situation differently.

We all want to do better, including me, because I’ve been in my share of embarrassing racial conversations. Here’s my insight into what everyone can do.

1. Get out of the tribe and broaden your friend list

It’s proven science that we gravitate towards those we feel are most like us. It’s natural even. We are tribal thinkers, and we like to stay within our own tribe. But sometimes, being a lifelong triber doesn’t do us any good if we’re hoping to become better at discussing tough things like race. If you really want to get better at coping with differences, then you’ve got to get a diverse friend group. Having diverse friends help in two ways. First, it’s a way to learn about people and cultures you don’t know. You can broaden your horizons. second, it’s opens you up to making many, many mistakes. This could be seen as a scary thing—you know what to and what not to say to the tribe; you don’t know what you could say to a stranger. You especially don’t know what could offend them. But part of making friends is learning boundaries as well as expanding horizons. It’s how you learn.

Dr. Isaiah Pickens, NYC psychologist and founder of iOpening Enterprises, told me in an interview that working with others toward a shared goal is a great way to break down barriers. Your friendships could be viewed as that—a shared goal to have better understanding. As he said:

 If you have a shared goal with a group that you’re prejudiced with and you have to work together to reach that shared goal, there tends to be just a natural respect that tends to develop and the potential to break beyond the stereotypes and barriers that are keeping you from understanding the other person.

So if you want to actually create more friends and strengthen the ties to the ones in your tribe, get yourself a wider set of friends, preferably ones that don’t have the same background as you (this will include not just race, but religion, sexuality, gender, etc.). You’ll be able to show to others outside of your tribe that you are open-minded and willing to learn, and you’ll show to the tribe that if you can venture outside of your comfort zone and embrace others that aren’t like you, they can do it too. You gaining friendships of others—and possibly introducing the two friend groups together— might just compel them to put their own prejudices aside.

2. Don’t make your friend A UN Ambassador.

Whether you know it or not, your non-white friend has probably been the Token non-white friend before. It’s not something they asked for, but given the situation they were in (like being in a mostly white high school or being one of the few families of a certain ethnicity in their town), they were probably treated as the UN Ambassador for their race and culture. Don’t continue that treatment in your new friendship.

Let’s say you have a friend who is Ethiopian. Does that mean they know everything about every Ethiopian? Of course not. It’s just like how they shouldn’t expect you to know everything about every German if you happen to be German American. Get out of that mind space, and do it quickly, because treating your friend as the stereotypical Token is the first way to lose your new friends fast

Your friend is not an object. Your friend is a human with their own thoughts and ideas. To go back to your Ethiopian friend, don’t assume that Ethiopians are all carbon copies of one another. You’re not a carbon copy, are you? Treat your friend how you’d want to be treated—as an individual. That means don’t ask them any ridiculous questions, like “Why do all you Ethiopians do [insert stereotype here]?” If you ask that, then they’re allowed to ask you, “Why do all you Germans [Italians, Britons, etc.] do [insert stereotype here]?” and see how you like it.

3. Instead of debating, listen to your  friends about  issues you know nothing about.

Let’s say I’m discussing atomic structures with a notable scientist. She tells me how different atoms have different sets of protons, electrons and neurons. Instead of me saying, “I see, tell me more about these particles,” I say, “I don’t know if you’re right about that. I’ve always believed that atoms only had neurons and were held together by the power of magic, and because that’s what I believe and what I’ve been told, I’m right.” I look ridiculous, right? Why would  I counter a scientist who’s an expert in her field? Why would I not listen to this very knowledgeable person? This is also why you shouldn’t counter your non-white friends if they happen to bring up the subject of racial issues that affect them.

As a person dealing with the issues Western society has placed on them, your friend probably knows what they’re talking about when it comes to racial inequality. Of course, there are always outliers, but this particular topic is for another article somewhere down the road.

“But you just said don’t treat them like a UN Ambassador!” Yes, that’s true. But don’t railroad them if they decide to vent about police shootings or for being harassed for wearing a hijab or—if we look at other issues they might be facing—for feeling like some people don’t accept them in their religion because they’re gay or how they feel annoyed with the media’s sexualized focus on a transgender person’s journey of transition or, if they’re a non-white woman, how current feminist modes deny them their voice in the feminist conversation and treat them like charity cases instead of like fellow women. (That last issue is also fodder for another post down the line.)

You and your friend might live in the same country, but you also live in vastly different experiences. The experience you have is not and will not be the same one your friend has. You might be able to take a backpack into the grocery store and not get frisked. Your black or brown friend might not. In fact, I’ve been warned by my mother, who knew I was a good kid, not to put my hands in my pockets in the stores so white people wouldn’t think I was stealing. It’s not because she thought I’d steal; it’s because she knew others would instantly believe I would because of my skin. You might not have had such an experience because you are in a position of privilege; you might not ever have to experience such a thing.

Basically, if you want someone to listen to your problems, you’ve got to listen to theirs, too. You can’t dismiss them or excuse them or, even worse, explain them away at them and then wipe your hands of the whole thing. You can’t explain someone’s life to them. That’s just rude and indecent, to say the absolute least about it. Just use Matt Damon as an example of what not to do. 

4. If the racial conversation is getting too heated, by all means, say, “I’m sorry I don’t understand, but I empathize with you and I want to be there for you. I will do my best to learn. ” By any means necessary, don’t say, “I’m not a racist, but [insert racist thing here],” because you will seem like a racist. Or don’t say, “Well, actually, that’s not true from my experience.” Definitely don’t throw “the race card,” since it doesn’t exist. You’re not living your friend’s life, so don’t dismiss your friend’s hurt. 

A lot of people have had experiences of white people writing or saying, “I’m not racist, but,” or “She’s not a racist, she just says what comes to her mind,” or “I hate to sound this way, but.” DON’T SAY THIS. EVER.  There’s no excuse for racism of any kind. No passes.

Don’t give yourself or other people an out for thinking derogatory thoughts about others, because what good does it do? If you’re listening to your friend vent about racial inequalities, and you come to that mental fork in the road where you can either say something helpful or say something that could be misconstrued and hurtful, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t say the thing that could be misconstrued and hurtful! It would seem like this is simple, yet it becomes so difficult when you feel like you’re backed into a corner and that your friend is against “The Man.” You want to prove you’re not like “The Man,” yet you want to defend yourself and others who look like you. But in the end, you end up giving your friend enough ammunition to think that you’re just another white person who doesn’t get it.

There’s a way to avoid this cross-communication. Just shut up and listen. Then, after you hear your friend’s side and you don’t know what to say, then say, “I am sorry this has happened to you.” You can say even say “I’m going to learn more about this issue” and really drive home the point that even though you don’t know what they’re talking about, you honor your friendship enough to do some digging on your own and come to a deeper understanding of their issue so you can be a better friend to them.

But, if I’m speaking from personal experience, just a simple acknowledgement of the other’s hurt, a simple “I’m sorry this has happened to you and I empathize with your hurt,” could heal a world of hurt. That sentence would tell the other person that you’ve heard them and believe what they say to be something of merit and worth. You have chosen to acknowledge their pain and make it real, since a lot of the pain many non-white people feel is the pain of not being heard or acknowledged. Historically, the pain of certain racial gropus has never been seen as something to pay attention to, so it’s never been healed. You could be part of the healing for your friend.

5. Educate yourself.

After you say you’ll educate yourself, actually do it. Don’t rely on your friend to teach you everything you need to know. Your friend’s a human, not an encyclopedia or the internet. You get to the library. Or you get yourself on a computer and get on Google. Search for the information you need. If you ask right (and by “right,” I mean in a manner respectful of the friendship), your friend might be happy to help you on your journey, but do this sparingly. Your friend doesn’t have to hold your hand as you learn about new things.

Also remember that as you educate yourself, you become much more of a global citizen. You’ll come back with all kinds of knowledge, some of it outside of the topic you were even searching for. Your new knowledge base will also help you have a stronger friendship, now that you know more about the issues your friend is facing and you know more about the culture in general. For instance, if your friend is Indian-American and you learned about Bollywood movies after a search on the lack of Indian actors in Hollywood, then you’d have some background info if a conversation about Bollywood movies come up. If you’ve watched some, even better; you can then suggest some films, and really impress your friend.

6. If your friend is giving you grief about your gripes, give your friend some room to be wrong (but correct them). 

If you’re in the position of arguing with a friend about a racial injustice, and your friend is the one saying “I don’t understand how this is true,” or “Are you sure you’re right about that?” do your best to not take it too personally. That’s harder to do than it is to say (or, in my case, type), but we have to realize that we don’t walk in the other person’s shoes. We don’t all have the same experiences. Your friend might genuinely not get your point of view. Compassion helps us realize this.

However, don’t let you friend off the hook. While being compassionate, ask them sternly to respect your views. That kind of a reminder will wake your friend out of their temporary egoic state and force themselves to analyze their actions. If they really value your friendship, they’ll respect your viewpoint and apologize. They’ll also probably do #5 and educate themselves afterwards.

Our ability to quickly get in our egoic ideas about life and declare other ideas as inconcievable has to do with our lack of willingness to have compassion for others. That, coupled with society’s penchant to mark certain racial issues as unimportant, is a recipe for embarrassing conversations about race that get nowhwere. To quote Dr. Pickens again:

I think when having that conversation, we just have to have compassion for people. I know that’s not what people really want to hear in these situations because there’s justified anger in a lot of these situations…I can imagine people in the south—and not all of them, because some of them are very much using [items like the Confederate flag] as a racist tool—but for some of them, it’s like, “I didn’t know it made that big of a deal for that flag to be up.”

We know that the idea of colorblindness reinforces some of those implicit racial messages…because it makes it seem like people who feel oppressed aren’t really important or aren’t worth thinking much about, so people don’t think much about them. [I’ve had my own moments] where I’m like, “Let me make a conscious effort [to think differently.]” We just have to make conscious decisions to act differently.

There are plenty more things you could do than just these five tips, but the main thing you must remember is to be respectful of other people. As the Bible says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Don’t treat someone like they don’t know what they’re talking about just because you don’t know what they’re talking about. When faced with an obstacle like a racial discussion,  be mindful of the fact that you aren’t in your friend’s shoes. It’s on both sides to work towards being compassionate with each other. Working towards a shared goal of compassion and understanding, probably one of the hardest goals us humans have to conquer, is what will make the difference between an embarrassing racial conversation and an actually productive one.

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Abbie, Jenny and Ichabod drawn by me. Sleepy Hollow  copyright: FOX