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Instead of More Conversations About Race, We Need More Cross-Racial Friendships

By Deborah L. Plummer

Friends across the racial spectrum

My husband, Mike, is an engineer—a full-blooded engineer. Not only is it his career choice, but he also lives and thinks like an engineer. Often when we go out with my friends, the occasion is loosely planned and somewhat spontaneous. A phone call made that day inquiring about the evening’s plans usually gets things started. Mike’s friends (fellow engineers), on the other hand, plan events literally months in advance—even if we are just meeting for dinner. Time, place, and confirmed reservations are emailed in a precise manner.

One Saturday, we met his friends Julie and Steve (both engineers) for dinner. Mike and I arrived at approximately 7:25 p.m. The 7:30 reservation was in Julie and Steve’s name, and the hostess informed us that they had not yet arrived. Knowing their habitual promptness, we decided to go to the table. I began to get nervous after fifteen minutes, since this is equivalent to waiting over an hour for someone in non-engineer land. My husband pulled out his printed email with the confirmed date and place. “Yep,” he said. “We are in the right place. Besides, the reservation is in their name, remember?” We asked the waitress again if anyone else was waiting for a couple. “No,” she assured us. “Your friends are not here.” After a half hour, I was convinced that something was dreadfully wrong. I checked our voicemail. No message. No missed phone call or text. We inquired again with the waitress, who checked with the hostess; she impatiently came back to tell us, “We checked. Your friends are not here.” As she was walking away, I turned to watch her—only to notice the back of Julie’s blond head and the shoulders of Steve, her husband, seated next to her. Not surprisingly, they were being told the same story. Apparently, the restaurant hostess assumed we could not be friends.

If we cannot even imagine individuals being friends across races in social settings, how can we envision and create a racially diverse and united America? Our natural preference for sorting people into categories of people who look like us, sound like us, and share our same values and beliefs leads us to remain socially segregated.

Now when I am the first to arrive at a restaurant to meet friends who are white, I openly let the restaurant know that I am waiting for some friends . . . and that they are white. Hostesses and maître d’s always appear a bit taken aback. It might be that they feel my mention of race is unnecessary, or perhaps they are surprised that I have named the elephant and they are grateful. As my husband frequently says, “Assumptions make asses out of you and me.”

Nobody likes feeling like an ass, so it is time to examine our assumptions about others who are racially different from us. The time for talking about the elephant in our societal living room is long overdue. I am not talking about ugly, evil, racist remarks that most people abhor. I am talking about those thoughts in our heads that would cause us to be a bit embarrassed if people were reading our minds. Like believing that blacks are lazy and Hispanics are dumb. Or wondering what country Asians are really from when they tell you they are American. Or wondering how authentically Native is that professed Native American and how did they come to know they were Native American? Did they use Although annoying to those who represent the identity, this kind of thinking is common and interrupts building the capacity to be able to have a meaningful conversation with an acquaintance of a different race without having what we will later explore as an amygdala hijack.

From kindergarten through third grade, I attended a racially mixed school. From first through third grades I was friends with Kitty, who was white. Our friendship started because I loved her blue rhinestone-trimmed eyeglasses. I was also friends with Maria, who was Filipino. Our friendship was based on the fact that I coveted the windbreaker jackets she possessed in several different colors. I was friends with Carlos, who was Puerto Rican. Our friendship was based on my pure attraction to a cute boy who was also quite popular with everyone in the class.

By seventh grade my formerly racially mixed school had become predominantly black, as the inner-city neighborhood surrounding St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary School in Cleveland, Ohio, became subject to white flight, the large-scale migration of middle-class whites from racially mixed urban cities to the suburbs. My best friends, Gayle, Zoe, and Debbie, were black. Judy, one of the few remaining white kids, sometimes hung around with us. We would often take the bus from the East Side to downtown Cleveland, where we could walk around and window-shop, peering at the trendy, pricey outfits on the mannequins and talking about our dreams of one day being able to buy clothes like that. We each had about fifty cents for lunch, which in the 1960s meant you could get a full meal at McDonald’s, consisting of a hamburger, a shake, and fries. Going to McDonald’s for lunch was a special part of these Saturday outings, but on one particular day, Judy said there was a better place we could go for lunch. She suggested the cozy corner diner where she and her mom ate when they shopped downtown. On our trips without Judy, we had passed that diner often, always peering in the window and assuming we could never afford to eat there. Judy assured us that the food wouldn’t cost us much more than McDonald’s and would be even better, a claim I found hard to believe. Thinking that the worst thing that could happen would be that we would have to share an order of fries, we agreed to go.

Debbie, Gayle, and Zoe quickly claimed five empty stools along the counter, and motioned for Judy and me to hurry up and sit down before other patrons claimed the seats. The waitress was a tall white woman with a hairstyle like the actress Lucille Ball, who held special fascination for me because she was married to Desi Arnaz, a Cuban who often butchered the English language like my immigrant Spanish-speaking parents. I assumed that because she looked like Lucy she would be friendly, but her expression was one of annoyance. Still standing at the entry with Judy, I started to giggle, thinking about how quickly my friends had gotten themselves into trouble, as there was barely a minute between when Gayle, Zoe, and Debbie sat down and Judy and I entered the diner. While I assumed that my friends must have done something unimaginable to cause Lucy-look-alike to be so upset, Judy had quickly assessed the situation and knew what the argument was about between the waitress and three black teens. They were being asked to leave.

Judy loudly announced, making sure the others in the diner could hear her, “If my friends are not allowed to eat here, then I won’t either. We are taking our business elsewhere.”

She dramatically motioned for us to leave. We were all stunned that what we’d witnessed on television happening to black people in the South was actually happening to us—good Catholic school girls, dressed appropriately and with enough money to pay for lunch, albeit maybe without French fries.

What I learned from the diner experience was that there were individuals who happened to be white who were racist and there were individuals who were white that you could call friends. White friends like Judy would challenge those racist structures and support you in the struggle for equality. I haven’t seen Judy since those school days and have no idea whether as an adult her views remain the same, yet throughout my adult years I frequently recall her advocacy against racist practices on behalf of her friends of a different race.

As a seventh grader hanging around Gayle, Zoe, and Debbie, attending what became a predominantly black school and living in a black neighborhood, I didn’t fully experience racism. I heard many stories of my parents’ experiences with racism and knew the impact of racism witnessed by their lowered expectations for financial prosperity despite their hard work and their limited career mobility despite their talent. As a young person, hanging around with Judy forced me to think about how the world treated us differently because of our race and how we developed differently as a result. This developmental process involves cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components and continues throughout all our life stages. As an adult, after an exchange with my close friend Yvonne, I became intensely curious as to why so many of my black friends, who were raised in similar circumstances and had the same values as I, did not have friends across racial lines, and why for so many of my white friends I was their only friend of color.

My curiosity persisted and I began examining friendships across racial lines as a major component of my research agenda. Over the course of my three-plus decades as a clinical psychologist, as an academic whose research has explored cross-racial relationships of all kinds, and in my more recent work as a chief diversity and inclusion officer, I have seen that one of the most effective ways to bring about the change in understanding our need to improve race relations is by forming friendships across racial groups. Yet a racial divide exists in cross-racial friendships, most notably between blacks and whites.

Positing cross-racial friendship as an answer to our deep racial divide may seem naive and even ignorant to those more directly affected by the divide, and miseducated to those who have studied history. It is a rosy answer that comes with hard, coarse thorns. Not every cross-racial friendship has the capacity to move the mountains of racism, but all give witness to the goal of racial equity. Advancing race relations in the broader society cannot be achieved just by changes to our national conversation, for sometimes that conversation feels like a shouting match, with neither side listening, rather than a true dialogue. Black Lives Matter conversations are met with All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter rebuttals. Racially charged deaths of black men and police officers ignite animated yet stagnant conversations about race. Political rhetoric about what constitutes a racist remark and what makes someone a racist or a bigot doesn’t change the narrative on race. Americans don’t need more conversations about race. Americans need more friends of different races with whom to engage in conversation about social change and bridging the racial divide.


About the Author 

Deborah L. Plummer, PhD, is a practicing psychologist, university professor, chief diversity officer, and speaker on topics central to racial equality, inclusion, and mutual respect. She currently serves as vice chancellor and chief diversity officer at UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care, and she has written for Diversity Executive and the Boston Globe Magazine. Her books include Handbook of Diversity Management, Racing Across the Lines: Changing Race Relations Through Friendships, and Some of My Friends Are. . .: The Daunting Challenges and Untapped Benefits of Cross-Racial Friendships. Follow her on Twitter at @DebbiePlummer and visit her website.