I remember my father asking me as a child, “Why are so many of your friends white?”
I remember replying, “They’re good people. It doesn’t matter that they’re white.”
In fact, once when my dad pressed me on the sincerity of a particular friendship, I remember slamming the door to my bedroom, crossing my arms, and sitting on the bed before yelling out to my dad that, “Jessica is a good friend!” I also remember him mumbling, “We will see,” in response.
At the time, I thought my dad wasn’t being fair to me as a judge of character, or to my white friends. Looking back, I now realize my father wanted me to be prepared to live in a world that would try to pit us against one another. He wanted me to know that I would have to choose myself and be on my own side, or I would be eaten alive.
In seventh grade I was good friends with a girl named Tristan. We ate lunch together, visited one another’s houses, and talked politics. That normal, adolescent, East Side Madison friends stuff. We had a science class together, and one day we had a substitute teacher. He and I had gotten off on the wrong foot after he mispronounced my name and I corrected him. He seemed annoyed that I would expect him to say my name correctly.
Later in class, Tristan leaned over and whispered to me about her weekend. Before I even had the chance to reply, the substitute teacher yelled at me for talking. “I wasn’t talking,” I told him, “she was.” I pointed out Tristan. “Isn’t she your friend?” he asked, “because you’re really throwing her under the bus.” I argued back that she was the one who’d thrown me under the bus to get in trouble for something I hadn’t done. I was shouting and on the verge of tears over the confrontation, and the substitute teacher told me to go to the office for the rest of class. I stopped talking to Tristan that day. I hated that she had proven my father right.
Years later, of course, I wrote about this on Facebook and Tristan messaged me to say she had never forgotten that day and was still very sorry. When I read her message, I realized that I had held Tristan accountable because I couldn’t instead confront the adult that had pit us against one another. We were kids, after all, but we could’ve handled the entire situation differently if we had been empowered by the leadership of a thoughtful adult to do so. Instead, we were used like props for an adult who was trying to establish control of the classroom. Worse still, I became the disposable prop to him (not Tristan).
I wish Tristan’s parents had that same talk with her that my dad had with me about what it means to be a good friend to a person of color. Had they said to Tristan, if you’re going to be friends with black people you’re going to have to be brave enough to stand up for your friends when it really counts, you’re gonna have to take responsibility for interrupting racism, maybe our friendship could have withstood the test of middle school.
In this era of intolerance shaped by a leadership that inspires violence and hostility, and a history of white supremacy nationally, we have to be better friends. I have read a lot over the last year about how to be a better ally, but being an ally removes you from the struggle of the people for whom you’re standing up.
Being a friend is about being intimately connected to another person and their wellbeing. Your Black Lives Matter shirt is not enough now; it really never has been. Your rant on Facebook won’t resolve the wage gap and neither will mine. Your locally grown tomatoes purchased at the co-op won’t end deportations. We have to work together now. We have learn from each other, forgive one another, and challenge each other to rebuild trust. We are our only hope. We cannot be divided and conquered; we must be bold enough to value everyone.
This is a beginner’s guide to revolutionary friendship, summarized in five steps:
Learn to identify discrimination by listening to people who experience it
Friends are the people you turn to on your hardest days. They are people you can turn to for strength after the world has taken a bite out of you. Notice if you are complaining from a place of privilege, or if you are dominating conversation, and then stop so you can make space for your friends.
Examine your bias and take responsibility
We all have bias. Each of us carries with us stereotypes and outdated terminology. We have to own not only our ability to treat people poorly, but also the toxic ways we think about people, ourselves included. To be available for friendship we have to accept that we need folks around us who will challenge us to acknowledge the harm we promote and rethink what we have embraced as normal.
Show up when it isn’t about you
This is a great time to have a firm grasp of human rights so that even when your rights are not directly being violated you recognize that other people’s are. In order to be a good friend it’s important that you rise to the occasion and stand up for the people in your life who are targeted by injustice. If you are unprepared to stand up for your friends you will end up using them as human shields.
Face being challenged
Being a good friend is not about being in alignment. It’s not about always agreeing. It’s about having the skills to listen to each other when it’s hard and treat each other well even when you’re frustrated. It’s a lot of work to understand where someone’s coming from when you have never been there. True friends disagree, and push each other to learn.
Be action-oriented, not credit-driven
After last year’s presidential election I was having coffee with a friend. I asked her what she thought would define us in this moment. Without missing a beat, she said, “I think we’re all going to take really good care of each other.” This is our chance to be loving and kind and supportive in the face of injustice. Whether we’re doing each other‘s dishes or watching each other‘s kids or pouring milk in one another’s eyes after being pepper sprayed, it is going to be about what we do.
The question won’t be what kind of T-shirt did you wear, or what did you write on social media. The questions will be, “What did you do when your neighbors were being arrested and deported?” and “What did you do when the rights of people to make decisions about their bodies were being stripped away?” and “Who did you love enough to stand up for?”
I hope with all my heart that your answer is that you loved everybody and did everything you could think of to make sure they knew it. May your friendship be loud enough that we all know that we are not enemies.