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Interracial Friendships Are Not A 'Struggle' For Me

08/15/2013 03:50 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2013
Nina Bahadur

Does race make or break friendships?

This week, Reuters released the results of a poll conducted with Ipsos which found that 40 percent of white people and 25 percent of nonwhite people have no friends of different races. Professor Brittney Cooper read the results of the poll and wrote an essay for Salon reflecting on how her life experiences are in line with it.

As a girl who grew up in London with an African-American mother and a White/Indian father, this article made me sad, confused, and a little bit angry. While I have no intention of dismissing Cooper's points or discrediting her experiences, I can't wrap my head around her suggestion that interracial friendships die out with age -- and are, by definition, frustrating and fruitless endeavors.

My key takeaway from Cooper's essay is her claim that "maintaining integrated friendships past a certain age is more struggle than triumph." I believe that what Cooper says is true in her life, and the lives of many others. But I really struggle with the idea that this is a universal truth, especially in light of Cooper's admission that, since college, she has "not had many nor actively sought opportunities to make friends with white people."

I would like to bring a different perspective to the table: for me, interracial friendships -- and romantic relationships -- are currently not a struggle. I don't foresee them becoming one, though you never know what is around the next corner. There should always be respect and vulnerability when we talk about our personal experiences of race in America, but I am not willing to simply give up on the idea of interracial friendship or accept the rhetoric of "my people" versus "your people."

As someone who did not grow up in this country, let alone the Deep South, did not attend a historically black university and did not come of age in the late '90s, my ideas about what it means to be black, and what interracial friendships look and feel like are obviously going to be very different from Cooper's.

I grew up with parents of different colors, and it took me a long time to realize that this was notable in any way. It was not until I spent almost three years in a serious relationship with a boy who was half Boston Irish, half Argentine that I realized what being in an interracial relationship could feel like. A couple of times, walking down the street with him in New York, I was harassed by men of color, making comments like: "What are you doing with whitey?" and "Can he even handle you?" The implication was that I was some kind of race traitor -- that there were two sides, and I was letting "my" side down.

While thinking about this article, I made a mental list of my closest friends in life, the colors of their skin, and where they came from. The list was diverse, from white Oklahoman football players to South African ex-pats to a girl who grew up in Manila, an Indian girl from D.C., a white girl from the Bay Area, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, a redhead from Colorado, a Nigerian-American guy raised in Neenah, Wisconsin, a white boy from Pittsburgh who joined the army and a young woman whose family moved to the U.S. from Uruguay when she was a child.

My friends and I have ideas of who we are that are very clearly shaped by our relative privilege. We have differing socioeconomic backgrounds, but we all went to college and now have comfortable jobs. It is by virtue of said privilege that we all met in the first place, and that we were in a position to form these friendships. A discussion of race and interracial friendship cannot possibly be had without delving into complex issues of class and institutional integration (or lack thereof), as well as our personal stories.

Being a woman of color is not a monolithic experience. Your conception of race depends on where you come from -- your family, your community, your schooling, your hometown. Your experience of friendship depends on the people you meet. We will all have our stories and we will all, at some point, be disappointed and sickened by racism.

But racism should not choose our friends for us.

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