White Friends

“Lots of liberal white folks are looking for black friends. It’s almost as hard as finding an egg donor who is a tall blond eighteen-year-old at Harvard.”—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

Pop Cultural

At Harvard, you can take one look around any dining hall and see them—an all-white friend group of five or six, sitting together talking about who-knows-what. Unlike an all-black or brown group, they don’t garner unwanted attention or criticism of self-segregation. As I binge-watched 10 seasons of “Friends” this summer in my temporary, non-air-conditioned Harvard dorm room, I realized why these all-white friend groups are allowed to exist in peace.

“Friends” features six adults in New York City. Despite living in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, every single one of them is white. When actors of color make an appearance on the show, they’re relegated to supporting roles.

For instance, Julie, an Asian American girlfriend of white main character Ross Geller, is one of the few characters of color who appears in multiple episodes. The show makes jokes about her ethnicity, including when Rachel Green, Ross’s main love interest, assumes she’s from China and doesn’t speak English, reinforcing the racial trope of the perpetual Asian foreigner. As a character, she’s written without much depth and is simply a barrier in the Ross/Rachel romance. When done playing her part, she’s tossed aside to the margins, like most non-white characters on the show. “Friends” is not a show about any group of friends—it’s a show about a group of white friends.

Unfortunately, “Friends” is not the only show featuring a group of white friends that sees people of color as one-dimensional figures to fill supporting roles. HBO’s “Girls” came under fire for its cast’s homogeneity, and when the show introduced more black characters, it only did so to create props who fit long-standing stereotypes. “How I Met Your Mother” features yet another group of all-white friends, and more examples of casual racism sold as comedy.

What, then, happens when people of color attempt to make white friends who’ve been nursed on media that depicts non-white people in such narrow ways? Often, students of color like me end up in a precarious position. We want to make the most out of our time at predominantly white institutions like Harvard, which means making white friends that we might not have had at our segregated high schools. But we also want to avoid the racial insensitivity that can be a burden on our mental and emotional health.

Navigating this fine line reveals a truth that makes people scream “reverse racism”: Having white friends, as a person of color, can be exhausting. It’s much easier to make friends with other people of color who already understand the way the world pushes against you because of the melanin you carry in your skin. As Erin White argues, “in one way or another, White friends, largely, just aren’t safe to have” because of “their unconscious but blatant biases against and misunderstandings of Black People.”

And though I’ve experienced this exhaustion in many social interactions with white people, my two best friends at Harvard are white. Their friendships have never once felt unsafe, or like a burden, and it’s largely because they have intimate understandings of the things that would have otherwise been sources of tension between us—my brown skin and Salvadoran immigrant background.

One of these friends lived in South Africa, a country still grappling with its history of apartheid. The other grew up in an bilingual immigrant household. The gap in understanding between us that would have otherwise sowed racial strife was already bridged when we met freshman fall.

Unfortunately, not all white people understand the experiences of their non-white friends so intimately. White supremacy manifests itself subtly but insidiously in the white liberal who wants to avoid having a homogenous friend group but whose ignorance puts people of color in uncomfortable social situations.

Luckily, white people can actively work to ensure that their friendships don’t become a burden on their non-white peers by filling this gap themselves. To learn about the complexity of immigrant stories, read both Junot Díaz and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. To understand what it means to be black in America, flip through the pages of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. For the Asian American experience, read Amy Tan and watch Ali Wong and Hasan Minaj’s stand-up comedy.

As we begin changing the way “traditional” friend groups—the ones on “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother”—look, it’s critical to realize that the transition will be disproportionately difficult for people of color. So, as good white friends, it’s on you to work to understand what being brown or black in America means. Consume media created by people of color to understand what our lives are like, instead of repeatedly asking us to explain it to you. Put in the work instead of forcing us to.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on Mondays.

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