Are Cross-race Friendships Really a Panacea for Interracial Relations?
“If you don’t see my Blackness, you don’t see me,” Starr Carter tells her White boyfriend in the film, The Hate U Give.
In responding to her boyfriend’s view that race does not matter in their relationship, she highlights the reality that people cannot have authentic friendships or relationships across racial lines if they are not free to acknowledge how race shapes their lives differently.
For decades, researchers who study interracial relations have considered friendships with people from different backgrounds, or cross-race friendships, an especially important part of improving attitudes and cooperation across racial lines.
I questioned what happens once people are actually in cross-race friendships. Do friends easily discuss their race-based experiences? Does race vanish in a friendship built on similarities, in the way that Starr’s boyfriend wanted it to? In general, does merely having cross-race friends mean smooth sailing to racial equity? My research explores a tension that Black and White friends experience as they consider talking about their racialized experiences with each other. I call this tension a threatening opportunity.
In an online survey, my collaborators and I began by simply asking 57 Black adults and 59 White adults in the United States whether they saw any benefits and risks to talking about race with cross-race friends and to elaborate on these benefits and risks.
The majority saw risks. Both groups worried that they might not have enough shared understanding about race for the conversation to go well. They also shared concerns unique to their racial group’s positionality. Black adults worried that their friend might reveal a racist or ignorant viewpoint, and White adults feared that they would say something to make themselves appear racist or ignorant.
This supported my hunch that cross-race friends are not automatically equipped to grapple with race head on. Even when considering those they called friends, people still had the same concerns about experiencing or appearing prejudiced that are well-documented among strangers.
At the same time, an even larger majority of both groups said they saw benefits. Both groups cited things like closer relationships and White friends’ learning about race and racism as important benefits to them.
So even as cross-race friends worry about engaging with race just as strangers do, they might also be relatively well-positioned to try to have these conversations. In a friendship, both people bring a commitment that motivates them to share and learn about one another’s experiences. Participants seemed to be aware that this commitment could support stronger relationships and understanding.
Try to recall a time when hearing about a friend’s personal experience made you feel closer to them, or perhaps shifted how you think about a relevant topic. In a context like race, learning about a friend’s experience might shift how people think about race broadly, and other people’s racialized experiences that were once invisible might begin to surface.
How Do Black Adults Feel About Sharing Their Race-Related Experiences With White Friends?
We saw evidence of a threatening opportunity when we asked 292 Black adults to consider sharing an actual race-related experience that they had with each of up to 10 real-life friends. They told us that they were less willing to share both positive and negative race-related experiences with White friends than Black friends. They also said they would expect to feel less comfortable and less understood in sharing with White friends versus Black friends. Strikingly, these patterns held even for friends of equal closeness.
However, they said they would share the experience with about half of their White friends, suggesting that this kind of conversation is at least on the table. And importantly, whereas Black participants expected to feel less understood by White friends, they also said that they wanted their White friends to understand their race-related experiences just as much as Black friends. This suggests a missed opportunity for Black friends to be as understood and supported by White friends as they desire to be.
How Might White Women React To Hearing A Black Friend’s Race-Related Experiences?
We introduced 319 White women to a hypothetical Black friend named Michelle. We asked them to imagine that one day, while they were hanging out, Michelle shared some personal experiences. Some participants read about experiences that were related to Michelle’s race, and others read about experiences that were not directly tied to race. All of the stories were real experiences that Black participants wrote about in the previous study.
We found that this imagined conversation was a threatening opportunity for White women, too. Participants who read about race-related experiences said they would feel less comfortable in the conversation than those who read about experiences unrelated to race. But at the same time, those participants’ feelings of closeness to Michelle increased after the conversation. Participants who read about experiences unrelated to race did not increase their imagined closeness to Michelle.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, more Americans awoke to the need for us, as a nation, to get better at talking about race and racism. Sales for books with titles like So You Want to Talk about Race sky-rocketed. Countless op-ed articles were written on topics like why talking about race is important, and some offered tips for talking about race—when at the dinner table, for instance.
The reality is, talking about race-based experiences can be difficult, even with those we feel close to.
But friends want to be able to do it, and they truly see the benefits for themselves and their friendships. The question is, how can we help friends (and everyone else) get there? To start, it might be helpful for friends to view initial nerves or discomfort as signs that they care, want to learn, and want to be understood. If friends are able to stick with it, they may begin to truly see each other.
For Further Reading
Moffitt, U., & Syed, M. (2021). Ethnic-racial identity in action: Structure and content of friends’ conversations about ethnicity and race. Identity, 21(1), 67-88. https://doi.org/10.1080/15283488.2020.1838804
Page-Gould, E., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Tropp, L. R. (2008). With a little help from my cross-group friend: reducing anxiety in intergroup contexts through cross-group friendship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1080. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1240
Sanchez, K. L., Kalkstein, D. A., & Walton, G. M. (2021). A threatening opportunity: The prospect of conversations about race-related experiences between Black and White friends. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/pspi0000369
Kiara Sanchez is a PhD candidate in Psychology at Stanford University. Her research focuses on understanding and improving communication about race and racial-ethnic identity in interracial contexts, including friendships, schools, and online settings.