The Hard Facts: The Color of Friendship

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Only 3.7% of white brides and grooms have a black friend who is close enough to be in their wedding party. … Blacks are more likely to have a close white friend than whites are to have a close black friend, with 22.2% of blacks having at least one white bridesmaid or groomsman.” (Demography, “Friends For Better Or For Worse,” August, 2006)

Two months ago a reader posted a comment that’s been on my mind ever since. “I teach at a big university in a really ‘cool’ college town in Georgia,” she wrote. “It really is a cool town—if you’re white. If you’re black, like me, you find yourself being the only African-American professor in your entire college of 75 faculty members. And you can count on one hand the number of black female peers you have across the entire campus.”

“Of course, I’m open to friendships with women of other races and cultures, but it’s sometimes difficult to determine who among the white women I meet might be anti-racist enough to have a friendship of equals with a black woman. As you’ve pointed out on your blog, women tend to ‘friend’ women they have something in common with. If there’s no one who appears to have much in common with you, because of race and/or culture, joining book clubs and yoga classes and such doesn’t really work.”

I quote so much of this comment because I think the writer illustrates her dilemma more eloquently than I ever could. And for two months, I’ve been wondering how to properly address this. Well I have black friends, I thought. Until I remembered my wedding – it was almost 200 of the most important people in my life, right? There was one African-American man in attendance.

Since I hit my 20s and Matt and I started traveling the wedding circuit, every time—every single time—I go to an exchanging of vows, I find myself saying to Matt, “This isn’t a very diverse affair.” And every time—every single time—he replies, “How diverse would our wedding be?” That is, until we got married. And I’ll tell you how diverse our wedding turned out to be. Not at all.

It’s an upsetting truth. I could go on about my lack of close, non-white friends, but it’s not something I’m proud of. I’m not saying I want to run an affirmative action friend search. But yes, after my in-person rants about social justice, I’d like to be able to walk the walk.

All this reminds me of a brilliant article in GQ, “Will You Be My Black Friend?” It’s smart and funny. If you don’t believe me, ask Oprah and Chris Rock. They’re making a movie of it.

But anyway. The study cited above is especially interesting because it doesn’t use traditional survey responses to collect data. Instead it studies a random sample of wedding photos from the Internet. It’s pretty smart, really. “Wedding party are a realistic representation of close friendships…only the closest and most important of friends can be expected to be a bridesmaid or groomsman.” The crux of the study is that when people of both races respond to surveys, they report having more diverse friendships than they actually have. Wedding party photos, this study says, illuminate the truth.

Another 2006 study of race and friendship found that we’ve actually been making progress. “In 2004, 15% reported at least one confidant of another race, up from 9% in 1985.”

We still have a ways to go. What now? My commenter friend said, “Just something for you to consider as you move forward in your search. Conducting it in a town populated by other women like you is a real luxury that I wish I had.”

I’ve considered. I’ve taken a hard look at how my relationships reflect my values. This is a bigger conversation than just one post, but here’s a start. Do your friendships lack diversity? Can common interests like book club or yoga transcend racial differences? What’s the key to making interracial friendships, and why are we still struggling on that front? And what would you say in response to the brave commenter who laid it all on the line?


Filed under 21st Century Friendships, The Hard Facts

19 responses to “The Hard Facts: The Color of Friendship

  1. Megan

    Americans are still struggling, in my opinion, on that front because we live in a racialized society – that is, where race matters. Race is socially constructed, though (as in, not biologically based) and it has been in our culture that African Americans (usually identified by their skin color) are inferior to whites. This, of course, is inherently untrue, but because of the economic and social inequalities that WE created (due to slavery, not “inherent” inequalities), we see the “reinforcement” of our beliefs that whites are superior. I mean “we” as in white American culture – it’s now implicit in that culture, too. Like, we’ve done away with Jim Crow laws, of course, but making a law against over racism does not eradicate racism. Because, as you say, women tend to ‘friend’ others with whom they have something in common – or, “like tends to like” – whites don’t find very much in common with blacks because of the vastly different cultures the structural and attitudinal inequalities this country has built up over centuries. Now, it’s not necessarily racist not to have anything in common with an African American, but, if you look at WHY you don’t have anything in common with her, it probably has to do with racism – explicit or implicit – somewhere down the line. (“You” the collective you, not the personal you! I’m not blaming anyone here but I do think you can’t do much until you call a spade a spade!)

  2. I do not have a very diverse group of girlfriends. This isn’t by choice, though. Most of my closest girlfriends are friends from college and I went to college in a state that has almost no racial diversity (North Dakota)….

  3. Lisa Z

    Race relations is one of my favorite topic/obsessions!!!! Love it!!!

  4. Megan – wow! Say it like it is sister!

    Very very interesting topic. I live in an extremely diverse city (Vancouver) with many immigrants. Thus any new friends are bound to be so-called ethnically diverse.
    But growing up in a smaller city (about 70,000), I think I tended to be the “racially-diverse” friend. I’m half Japanese and was considered an exotic commodity. But I do not consider myself Japanese. And if I meet some new Japanese friend FROM Japan (very common here, especially students), I will consider her to be different from me. In order words, diversity has more to do with where our grandparents come from.
    But one of my best friends is also from Italy. Should I consider her to be friend of a different race and culture?
    My point is …. well I don’t know exactly. But I think just that someone who grew up in North Dakota would most likely have as little in common with me as a Black woman. Whether from Guinea or Toronto (more Black people in Toronto than Vancouver, we have mostly Asian diversity). And a Black woman from Toronto woud likely have more of a similar upbringing than someone from Sicily.
    Diversity is in the eye of the beholder.

  5. A thought...

    Its an interesting project to look at photos of wedding parties as a commentary on the level of diversity in friendships. Its true that: “only the closest and most important of friends can be expected to be a bridesmaid or groomsman”. However, I think the familial obligation in wedding parties is being grossly overlooked. I’d wager that more than half of each wedding party is comprised of the compulsory sister/brother/cousin assignment. If the actual bride and groom aren’t of different races, then the family members standing with them aren’t going to be either.

    • I think this is a fair point. My husband, for example, only had his brother and mybrother in his wedding party (though he had close friends in other “wedding party roles). That said, I do think it touches on an important notion: that we often think we have more diverse friendships than we actually do. After thinking about it, I definitely realized that was true for me…

  6. I have friends from all groups. I made it a point to do so. When I was growing up, my parents friends’ were mainly Indian. It was nice for them because I think they missed their friends from India. I think they wanted to create an immediate community quickly, so they naturally gravitated toward people that reminded them of their own background.

    I have Indian friends, but I also like diversity. Some of my Indian friends only associate and relate to other Indians and I don’t understand that. It leads to conversations that generally relate to the same topic over and over again. I’ve been fortunate to encounter so many different cultures through my friends and I am thankful that I can be a better friend because of it.

    As always, a thought provoking post. I love your blog Rachel! Hey and I can be your Indian friend any day (LOL)!

    • Thanks Rudri! I love that you say you made it a point to do so. When it comes to friends, we so often say “well I don’t have that friend because we never clicked” but sometimes you don’t have a certain “type” of friend because we aren’t naturally exposed to different people and we need to actively make it a point to expose ourselves.

  7. Erin

    So if you’ve ever read something I’ve posted, you know that I am African American. I am originally from New Orleans where race relations are pretty “progressive”. Yes, my parents are both members of “strictly” African American clubs/groups, but they also have several white friends that they call on a regular basis (my parents were married by the justice of the peace because my father was in Med School and my mother was working so no bridesmaids). Though New Orleans is a largely black city, I grew up in mainly “white” schools. My groups of friends were mixed though my best friends in middle school and high school were white. In college, I joined a non-historically black sorority and have since made several friends in the alumni chapter (also white). When I get married, my sister will be my maid of honor and probably the rest of the bridesmaids will be white.
    While in High School I read the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. Of course at my school this reasoning did not apply, but basically the author looked at the topic from all points of view. Meaning, that both whites and blacks feel like the other race doesn’t want to be friends with them so they stick with each other (this is a gross oversimplification so if you are truly interested in this topic you should read the book, it’s pretty short.) When I was in college I would get several comments from some of my white friends about why other black students never wanted to attend any of their parties and vice-versa. I, of course, am not the knower and seer of all things, so I couldn’t truly answer the question other than a simple “Well I don’t think they thought they were invited.”
    Flash forward to today. I am now at a historically Black Medical College and I do not “fit in.” Yes, I have heard some comments made about the fact that I am in a white sorority and have a white boyfriend, but I was unaware that it made me somewhat “less black” ,and therefore unacceptable in their eyes. There are other reasons I don’t fit in either (differing points in life, different views on the world and society, etc.) but I know deep down both my parents were wishing and hoping I’d come to this school and make life long black friends (or something). Well , I feel like how the commenter in the piece feels, but in a different way. There are not many people like me where I am and I’m not just speaking about race. I think people just assume that I would instantly connect with everyone here and make a ton of friends, which is obviously not the case. I am in the same boat that most of you are in, but worst, because the opportunities to meet other women are pretty slim , since I am in school all the time and have no real outlets. I’ve joined a gym (which is my 2nd most frequented place) but I must not go at the right times or something because I usually see 16 year olds or 60 year olds…but I digress. I guess growing up in New Orleans made me appreciate a more mixed culture and I know that there are several cities out there that are similar (D.C., New York & Austin are just some places I have friends and I’ve seen their lives through facebook) and I know that there are places that are still pretty segregated. I guess the only point to this would be yes, race is a huge issue, but only if you make it one.


  8. Great comment and conversation! My broad social circle is wonderfully diverse (in gender and age as well as ethnicity) but my closest friends are white and tend to come from similar backgrounds. I never thought of that as a conscious choice since intimacy often stems from just “clicking” with people, regardless of other factors — but I certainly could do more to invite diversity into my closest friendships.

    Thanks for opening up this topic!

  9. Ana

    Really interesting dialogue. This is one of my favorite topics to ponder.
    In my experience, friendships tend to be less about skin color and more about upbringing and common interests—so, as you say, about culture.
    As uncommon as it may be for white women to have close black friends, it is likely equally (or more) uncommon to have a friend from a completely different socio-economic or educational background.
    Unfortunately, as Megan said, some of these characteristics ARE associated with race in our country, due to a longstanding history of overt or occult racism.
    As friendships build upon common interests, most people will find that their friends tend to be from the race/culture they most identify with.

    My high school friends tended to be the nerdy kids in AP classes, a mix of white/black/Asian. —we gravitate towards people we can share our experiences & troubles with, whatever they happen to be at the moment (now I am particularly happy to find new mom friends, or homeowners in our ‘hood). I will say (though we’re not white, we’re Indian!) that most of our friends are white; I think its both about who we identify with and opportunity (i.e. who happens to be at your work/gym/bookclub/neighborhood).
    We tend to be the only non-white people (and CERTAINLY the only Indians) at most gatherings, though. I miss the diversity of friends I had in high school/college/grad school settings but I don’t know that I could go out and actively SEEK friends from my own background, or any other, in order to achieve that diversity. But should I?

  10. Anonymous

    Growing up multiracial and constantly getting the question “Why don’t you act black?” I have come to my own realization and observation that your friendships have less to do with actual race than they do with where you come from. There are very few black people in the neighborhood I grew up in. When I look at their facebook photos all of their friends are white. I see more diversity amongst the extremely wealthy kids that went to my college. They were the most diverse group on campus. They grew up with the same amount of extreme privilege that not many other people can relate to. So my opinion is that it’s the people in the neighborhood you grew up in and the financial situation that you grew up with that determines the diversity in your life. I also think the level of education you were privileged to is a huge factor as well.

  11. Laura

    Since 2007, I’ve attended approximately 15 weddings, thirteen of which were for my white female friends (the other two were latina). At each of those weddings, I could count on ONE hand how many black people were in attendance…more often than not, I made up a pair of black folks there. Each time I left a wedding or a shower, I’d think to myself, why am I always THE representative for my peeps? We attended the same schools and yet I can declare that when I get married, my wedding party and guest list will look like the United Nations. It seems to me that the onous to have a diverse group of friends often falls on non-white; for example, in the main dining hall at Brown, there were a few tables where black students would sit with each other. Some white students had called that area “Little Africa” and lamented the fact that the black students weren’t diversifying their friendships. Of course, nothing was ever said about the countless tables of white folks or that they should expand their horizons. I know I’m writing a lot, but this is such an intriguing topic!

  12. Fascinating topic, Rachel. I am a white woman and, in my life, I have had close friendships with only one African American woman and one African Australian man. That’s it.

    I did my graduate research on the ways in which persistent residential segregation has led to continued segregation in our schools. And that was certainly my experience. I grew up in a mostly white town and went to mostly white schools. Most of my friends growing up were school friends and I didn’t even have many black acquaintances until college. Both of my friends of African descent are fellow teachers. Our shared profession and common interests brought us together.

    I don’t mean to lay the problem totally at the feet of residential and school segregation, but it’s certainly a big stumbling block. And, of course, it is the root of far bigger problems that interracial friendships.

    Great discussion. Thanks.

  13. Eva

    This is so insightful. And it makes me sad to recognize this reality. I’m friends with a lot of other white women from the Midwest. One friend is Indian – her parents are from India, but she’s lived in MN all her life. And I’m really liberal! I like to think I’m progressive, but unfortunately my actions don’t follow my words.

    I love the psychology studies that show we humans are drawn to familiarity, to people that look like us. If you are shown two images – one a random woman and one a CGI photo that merges your own image with a stock photo – you will prefer the second, even though you won’t recognize yourself in the CGI. Cool, right? But strange too.

  14. Stephanie

    I didn’t read the study you mentioned, but one caveat would be that wedding parties often contain relatives (in addition to friends). If the bride and groom are white, chances are their relatives are also white. That would skew the study results slightly.

  15. Megan

    But “where you come from” and “who you marry” has a lot to do with the racialization of this society, too! Because of the structural inequalities sewn into this society from the iniquity of racism, African Americans make up more than half the people under the poverty line (economic inequality) and that limits the places they can live. Racism is implicit in this society, so there is more going on than “just” where you’re from. The population of most towns and cities in the US, and the diversity within them, can be, in very many ways, traced back to some form of racism, whether when it was legal or the implicit, “underground” attitudes of racism now.
    Oh, and the thoughts about the wedding parties being made up of family members by obligations skewing the results – that doesn’t really skew the results of a race study because you can clearly see how many racially diverse couples are out there (still less than about 5% if I recall correctly) so, you’re still looking at race relations when you study the wedding parties of people because many, many, MANY people will choose a partner of their same race. Just because one is not consciously saying, “I will choose this man or woman because they are white or black or whatever” doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have to do with racism!

  16. I grew up in two places. The first was close to an inner-city, VERY diverse community, where I never learned about race and had extremely good friends of all sorts of colors.

    As a teenager, my family moved to the east coast, to an upper-middle class, VERY WHITE suburb, where they actually bussed black kids in from the city so they could receive a better education. I hated that town for its lack of diversity. To this day, I always say I’m from both – because so much of who I am at my core comes from my early childhood years.

    That said, going to a public university in the south was tough. By choice, every race stuck to their own. It wasn’t just a black-white thing. Add in Asian, Indian, Native American and so on. It was really unfortunate.

    I thought that by moving to a big, urban city, I would resolve some of the issues of segregation I had experienced in my secondary schooling. Unfortunately, Chicago is a bad choice if that’s your ultimate goal. It is one of the most segregated cities I have ever seen. The upside – you get amazing pockets of ethnicity – Chinatown, Little Italy, Indian on Devon, Vietnamese on Argyle and so on. The downside? It’s rare that I find myself mingling with people of diverse cultures and backgrounds.

    My husband and I talk about it from time to time. We really do wish we had a more diverse group of friends. I was in a very mixed book club and found the conversation and dynamics to be very powerful. I wish more aspects of my life were like that.

    • Megan

      The point is that you’ve got to make the effort for diversity. We can say we “just choose” our friends and they “just happen” to all be white or whatever, but that is perpetuating the culture of racism, even if you’re not consciously choosing on the basis of race, you’re still reinforcing the racism now implicit in our culture. Making a law against racism doesn’t eradicate racism – PEOPLE do.
      NOTE: I am NOT blaming YOU specifically, when I say “you” I mean the “collective you”, or, if you will, “we.” :-).

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