We've all been there — having fun relaxing with friends and family, when someone says something a little racially off. Sometimes it's subtle, like the friend who calls Thai food "exotic." Other times it's more overt, like that in-law who's always going on about "the illegals."
In any case, it can be hard to know how to respond. Even the most level-headed among us have faltered trying to navigate the fraught world of racial awkwardness.
So what exactly do you do? We delve into the issue on this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast, featuring writer Nicole Chung and Code Switch's Shereen Marisol Meraji, Gene Demby and Karen Grigsby Bates.
We also asked some folks to write about what runs through their minds during these tense moments, and how they've responded (or not). Their reactions ran the gamut from righteous indignation to total passivity, but in the wake of these uncomfortable comments, everyone seemed to walk away wishing they'd done something else.
Aaron E. Sanchez
It was the first time my dad visited me at college, and he had just dropped me off at my dorm. My suitemate walked in and sneered.
"Was that your dad?" he asked. "He looks sooo Mexican."
Aaron E. Sanchez is a Texas-based writer who focuses on issues of race, politics and popular culture from a Latino perspective. Courtesy of Aaron Sanchez hide caption
He kept laughing about it as he left my room.
I was caught off-guard. Instantly, I grew self-conscious, not because I was ashamed of my father, but because my respectability politics ran deep. My appearance was supposed to be impeccable and my manners unimpeachable to protect against stereotypes and slights. I felt exposed.
To be sure, when my dad walked into restaurants and stores, people almost always spoke to him in Spanish. He didn't mind. The fluidity of his bilingualism rarely failed him. He was unassuming. He wore his working-class past on his frame and in his actions. He enjoyed hard work and appreciated it in others. Yet others mistook him for something altogether different.
People regularly confused his humility for servility. He was mistaken for a landscape worker, a janitor, and once he sat next to a gentleman on a plane who kept referring to him as a "wetback." He was a poor Mexican-American kid who grew up in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso, Texas, for certain. But he was also an Air Force veteran who had served for 20 years. He was an electrical engineer, a proud father, an admirable storyteller, and a pretty decent fisherman.
I didn't respond to my suitemate. To him, my father was a funny caricature, a curio he could pick up, purchase and discard. And as much as it was hidden beneath my elite, liberal arts education, I was a novelty to him too, an even rarer one at that. Instead of a serape, I came wrapped in the trappings of middle-classness, a costume I was trying desperately to wear convincingly.
That night, I realized that no clothing or ill-fitting costume could cover us. Our bodies were incongruous to our surroundings. No matter how comfortable we were in our skins, our presence would make others uncomfortable.
Karen Good Marable
When the Q train pulled into the Cortelyou Road station, it was dark and I was tired. Another nine hours in New York City, working in the madness that is Midtown as a fact-checker at a fashion magazine. All day long, I researched and confirmed information relating to beauty, fashion and celebrity, and, at least once a day, suffered an editor who was openly annoyed that I'd discovered an error. Then, the crush of the rush-hour subway, and a dinner obligation I had to fulfill before heading home to my cat.
Karen Good Marable is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been featured in publications like The Undefeated and The New Yorker. Courtesy of Karen Good Marable hide caption
The train doors opened and I turned the corner to walk up the stairs. Coming down were two girls — free, white and in their 20s. They were dancing as they descended, complete with necks rolling, mouths pursed — a poor affectation of black girls — and rapping as they passed me:
Now I ain't sayin she a golddigger/But she ain't messin' with no broke niggas!
That last part — broke niggas — was actually less rap, more squeals that dissolved into giggles. These white girls were thrilled to say the word publicly — joyously, even — with the permission of Kanye West.
I stopped, turned around and stared at them. I envisioned kicking them both squarely in their backs. God didn't give me telekinetic powers for just this reason. I willed them to turn around and face me, but they did not dare. They bopped on down the stairs and onto the platform, not evening knowing the rest of the rhyme.
Listen: I'm a black woman from the South. I was born in the '70s and raised by parents — both educators — who marched for their civil rights. I never could get used to nigga being bandied about — not by the black kids and certainly not by white folks. I blamed the girls' parents for not taking over where common sense had clearly failed. Hell, even radio didn't play the nigga part.
I especially blamed Kanye West for not only making the damn song, but for having the nerve to make nigga a part of the damn hook.
Life in NYC is full of moments like this, where something happens and you wonder if you should speak up or stay silent (which can also feel like complicity). I am the type who will speak up. Boys (or men) cussing incessantly in my presence? Girls on the train cussing around my 70-year-old mama? C'mon, y'all. Do you see me? Do you hear yourselves? Please. Stop.
But on this day, I just didn't feel like running down the stairs to tap those girls on the shoulder and school them on what they damn well already knew. On this day, I just sighed a great sigh, walked up the stairs, past the turnstiles and into the night.
When I was 5 or 6, my mother asked me a question: "Does anyone ever make fun of you for the color of your skin?"
This surprised me. I was born to a Mexican woman who had married an Anglo man, and I was fairly light-skinned compared to the earth-brown hue of my mother. When she asked me that question, I began to understand that I was different.
Robyn Henderson-Espinoza is a visiting assistant professor of ethics at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. Courtesy of Robyn Henderson-Espinoza hide caption
Following my parents' divorce in the early 1980s, I spent a considerable amount of time with my father and my paternal grandparents. One day in May of 1989, I was sitting at my grandparents' dinner table in West Texas. I was 12. The adults were talking about the need for more laborers on my grandfather's farm, and my dad said this:
"Mexicans are lazy."
He called the undocumented workers he employed on his 40 acres "wetbacks." Again and again, I heard from him that Mexicans always had to be told what to do. He and friends would say this when I was within earshot. I felt uncomfortable. Why would my father say these things about people like me?
But I remained silent.
It haunts me that I didn't speak up. Not then. Not ever. I still hear his words, 10 years since he passed away, and wonder whether he thought I was a lazy Mexican, too. I wish I could have found the courage to tell him that Mexicans are some of the hardest-working people I know; that those brown bodies who worked on his property made his lifestyle possible.
As I grew in experience and understanding, I was able to find language that described what he was doing: stereotyping, undermining, demonizing. I found my voice in the academy and in the movement for black and brown lives.
Still, the silence haunts me.
My 20s were defined in no small part by a friendship with a guy I never met. For years, over email and chat, we shared everything with each other, and we made great jokes. Those jokes — made for each other only — were a foundational part of our relationship and our identities. No matter what happened, we could make each other laugh.
Channing Kennedy is an Oakland-based writer, performer, media producer and racial equity trainer. Courtesy of Channing Kennedy hide caption
It helped, also, that we were slackers with spare time, but eventually we both found callings. I started working in the social justice sector, and he gained recognition in the field of indie comics. I was proud of my new job and approached it seriously, if not gracefully. Before I took the job, I was the type of white dude who'd make casually racist comments in front of people I considered friends. Now, I had laid a new foundation for myself and was ready to undo the harm I'd done pre-wokeness.
And I was proud of him, too, if cautious. The indie comics scene is full of bravely offensive work: the power fantasies of straight white men with grievances against their nonexistent censors, put on defiant display. But he was my friend, and he wouldn't fall for that.
One day he emailed me a rough script to get my feedback. At my desk, on a break from deleting racist, threatening Facebook comments directed at my co-workers, I opened it up for a change of pace.
I got none. His script was a top-tier, irredeemable power fantasy — sex trafficking, disability jokes, gendered violence, every scene's background packed with commentary-devoid, racist caricatures. It also had a pop culture gag on top, to guarantee clicks.
I asked him why he'd written it. He said it felt "important." I suggested he shelve it. He suggested that that would be a form of censorship. And I realized this: My dear friend had created a racist power fantasy about dismembering women, and he considered it bravely offensive.
I could have said that there was nothing brave about catering to the established tastes of other straight white comics dudes. I could have dropped any number of half-understood factoids about structural racism, the finishing move of the recently woke. I could have just said the jokes were weak.
Instead, I became cruel to him, with a dedication I'd previously reserved for myself.
Over months, I redirected every bit of our old creativity. I goaded him into arguments I knew would leave him shaken and unable to work. I positioned myself as a surrogate parent (so I could tell myself I was still a concerned ally) then laughed at him. I got him to escalate. And, privately, I told myself it was me who was under attack, the one with the grievance, and I cried about how my friend was betraying me.
I wanted to erase him (I realized years later) not because his script offended me, but because it made me laugh. It was full of the sense of humor we'd spent years on — not the jokes verbatim, but the pacing, structure, reveals, go-to gags. It had my DNA and it was funny. I thought I had become a monster-slayer, but this comic was a monster with my hands and mouth.
After years as the best of friends and as the bitterest of exes, we finally had a chance to meet in person. We were little more than acquaintances with sunk costs at that point, but we met anyway. Maybe we both wanted forgiveness, or an apology, or to see if we still had some jokes. Instead, I lectured him about electoral politics and race in a bar and never smiled.
"Friend" redirects here. For other uses, see Friend (disambiguation), Friends (disambiguation), and Friendship (disambiguation).
Friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between people. Friendship is a stronger form of interpersonal bond than an association. Friendship has been studied in academic fields such as communication, sociology, social psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. Various academic theories of friendship have been proposed, including social exchange theory, equity theory, relational dialectics, and attachment styles.
Although there are many forms of friendship, some of which may vary from place to place, certain characteristics are present in many types of such bonds. Such characteristics include affection; kindness, love, virtue, sympathy, empathy, honesty, altruism, loyalty, mutual understanding and compassion, enjoyment of each other's company, trust, and the ability to be oneself, express one's feelings to others, and make mistakes without fear of judgment from the friend.
The understanding of friendship in children tends to be more heavily focused on areas such as common activities, physical proximity, and shared expectations.:498[a] These friendships provide opportunity for playing and practicing self-regulation.:246 Most children tend to describe friendship in terms of things like sharing, and children are more likely to share with someone they consider to be a friend.:246 As children mature, they become less individualized and are more aware of others. They gain the ability to empathize with their friends, and enjoy playing in groups. They also experience peer rejection as they move through the middle childhood years. Establishing good friendships at a young age helps a child to be better acclimated in society later on in their life.
Based upon the reports of teachers and mothers, 75% of preschool children had at least one friend. This figure rose to 78% through the fifth grade, as measured by co-nomination as friends, and 55% had a mutual best friend.:247 About 15% of children were found to be chronically friendless, reporting periods without mutual friends at least six months.:250
Potential benefits of friendship include the opportunity to learn about empathy and problem solving. Coaching from parents can be useful in helping children to make friends. Eileen Kennedy-Moore describes three key ingredients of children's friendship formation: (1) openness, (2) similarity, and (3) shared fun. Parents can also help children understand social guidelines they haven't learned on their own. Drawing from research by Robert Selman and others, Kennedy-Moore outlines developmental stages in children's friendship, reflecting an increasing capacity to understand others' perspectives: "I Want It My Way", "What's In It For Me?", "By the Rules", "Caring and Sharing", and "Friends Through Thick and Thin."
In adolescence, friendships become "more giving, sharing, frank, supportive, and spontaneous." Adolescents tend to seek out peers who can provide such qualities in a reciprocal relationship, and to avoid peers whose problematic behavior suggest they may not be able to satisfy these needs. Relationships begin to become more focused on shared values, loyalty, and common interests, rather than physical concerns like proximity and access to play things that more characterize childhood.:246
A study performed at the University of Texas at Austin examined over 9,000 American adolescents to determine how their engagement in problematic behavior (such as stealing, fighting, and truancy) was related to their friendships. Findings indicated that adolescents were less likely to engage in problem behavior when their friends did well in school, participated in school activities, avoided drinking, and had good mental health. The opposite was found regarding adolescents who did engage in problematic behavior. Whether adolescents were influenced by their friends to engage in problem behavior depended on how much they were exposed to those friends, and whether they and their friendship groups "fit in" at school.
A study by researchers from Purdue University found that friendships formed during post-secondary education last longer than friendships formed earlier.
Friendship in adulthood provides companionship, affection, as well as emotional support, and contributes positively to mental well-being and improved physical health.:426
Adults may find it particularly difficult to maintain meaningful friendships in the workplace. "The workplace can crackle with competition, so people learn to hide vulnerabilities and quirks from colleagues. Work friendships often take on a transactional feel; it is difficult to say where networking ends and real friendship begins." Most adults value the financial security of their jobs more than friendship with coworkers.
The majority of adults have an average of two close friends. Numerous studies with adults suggest that friendships and other supportive relationships do enhance self-esteem.
Older adults continue to report high levels of personal satisfaction in their friendships as they age, and even as the overall number of friends tends to decline. This satisfaction is associated with an increased ability to accomplish activities of daily living, as well as a reduced decline in cognitive abilities, decreased instances of hospitalization, and better outcomes related to rehabilitation.:427 The overall number of reported friends in later life may be mediated by increased lucidity, better speech and vision, and marital status.:53
As on review phrased it:
Research within the past four decades has now consistently found that older adults reporting the highest levels of happiness and general well being also report strong, close ties to numerous friends.
As family responsibilities and vocational pressures lessen, friendships become more important. Among the elderly, friendships can provide links to the larger community, serve as a protective factor against depression and loneliness, and compensate for potential losses in social support previously given by family members.:32-3 Especially for people who cannot go out as often, interactions with friends allow for continued societal interaction. Additionally, older adults in declining health who remain in contact with friends show improved psychological well-being.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have difficulty forming and maintaining friendships, due to a limited ability to build social skills through observational learning, difficulties attending to social cues, and because of the social impacts of impulsive behavior and a greater tendency to engage in behavior that may be seen as disruptive by their peers. In a 2007 review, no treatment was identified which effectively address peer functioning in children with ADHD, and treatments which addressed other aspects of the disorder were not found to eliminate issues related to peer functioning.
Certain symptoms of autism spectrum disorders can interfere with the formation of interpersonal relations, such as a preference for routine actions, resistance to change, obsession with particular interests or rituals, and a lack of social skills. Children with autism have been found to be more likely to be close friends of one person, rather than having groups of friends. Additionally, they are more likely to be close friends of other children with some sort of a disability. A sense of parental attachment aids in the quality of friendships in children with autism spectrum disorders; a sense of attachment with one's parents compensates for a lack of social skills that would usually inhibit friendships.
A study done by Frankel et al. showed that parental intervention and instruction plays an important role in such children developing friendships. Along with parental intervention, school professionals play an important role in teaching social skills and peer interaction. Paraprofessionals, specifically one-on-one aides and classroom aides, are often placed with children with autism spectrum disorders in order to facilitate friendships and guide the child in making and maintaining substantial friendships.
Although lessons and training may help peers of children with autism, bullying is still a major concern in social situations. According to Anahad O'Connor of The New York Times, bullying is most likely to occur against autistic children who have the most potential to live independently, such as those with Asperger syndrome. Such children are more at risk because they have as many of the rituals and lack of social skills as children with full autism, but they are more likely to be mainstreamed in school, since they are on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Children with autism have more difficulty attending to social cues, and so may not always recognize when they are being bullied.
Children with Down syndrome have increased difficulty forming friendships. They experience a language delay causing them to have a harder time playing with other children. Most children with Down syndrome may prefer to watch other students and play alongside a friend but not with them, mostly because they understand more than they can outwardly express. In preschool years, children with Down syndrome can benefit from the classroom setting, surrounded by other children and less dependent on adult aid. Children with this disability benefit from a variety of interactions with both adults and children. At school, ensuring an inclusive environment in the classroom can be difficult, but proximity to close friends can be crucial for social development.
Studies have found that strong social supports improve a woman's prospects for good health and longevity. Conversely, loneliness and a lack of social supports have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, viral infections, and cancer, as well as higher mortality rates overall. Two researchers have even termed friendship networks a "behavioral vaccine" that boosts both physical and mental health.
There is a large body of research linking friendship and health, but the precise reasons for the connection remain unclear. Most of the studies in this area are large prospective studies that follow people over time, and while there may be a correlation between the two variables (friendship and health status), researchers still do not know if there is a cause and effect relationship, such as the notion that good friendships actually improve health. A number of theories have attempted to explain this link. These theories have included that good friends encourage their friends to lead more healthy lifestyles; that good friends encourage their friends to seek help and access services when needed; that good friends enhance their friends' coping skills in dealing with illness and other health problems; and that good friends actually affect physiological pathways that are protective of health.
The lack of friendship has been found to play a role in increasing risk of suicidal ideation among female adolescents, including having more friends who were not themselves friends with one another. However, no similar effect was observed for males. Having few or no friends is a major indicator in the diagnosis of a range of mental disorders.
Higher friendship quality directly contributes to self-esteem, self-confidence, and social development. A World Happiness Database study found that people with close friendships are happier, although the absolute number of friends did not increase happiness.Other studies have suggested that children who have friendships of a high quality may be protected against the development of certain disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Conversely, having few friends is associated with dropping out of school, as well as aggression, and adult crime.:500 Peer rejection is also associated with lower later aspiration in the workforce, and participation in social activities, while higher levels of friendship was associated with higher adult self-esteem.:500–1
The dissolution of a friendship may be viewed as a personal rejection, or may be the result of natural changes over time, as friends grow more distant both physically and emotionally. The disruption of friendships has been associated with increased guilt, anger and depression, and may be highly stressful events, especially in childhood. However, potential negative effects can be mitigated if the dissolution of a friendship is replaced with another close relationship.:248
Friends tend to be more similar to one another in terms of age, gender, behavior, substance abuse, personal disposition, and academic performance.:248:426:55–6 In ethnically diverse countries, there is broad evidence that children and adolescents tend to form friendships with others of the same race or ethnicity, beginning in preschool, and peaking in middle or late childhood.:264
In general, female-female friendship interactions among children tend to be more focused on interpersonal connections and mutual support, while male-male interaction tends to be more focused on social status, and may actively discourage the expression of emotional needs.:320-2 Females report more anxiety, jealousy, and relational victimization and less stability related to their friendships, and males report higher levels of physical victimization. Although males and females tend to report comparative levels of satisfaction with their friendships.:249–50
Among older adults, women tend to be more socially adept than their male peers, and many older men may rely upon a female companion, such as a spouse, in order to compensate for their comparative lack of social skills.:55
See also: Ethology, Altruism in animals, and Sociobiology
Friendship is also found among animals of higher intelligence, such as higher mammals and some birds. Cross-species friendships are common between humans and domestic animals. Cross-species friendships may also occur between two non-human animals, such as dogs and cats. Research by McLennan measured the heart rates of cattle, and showed that the cows were more stressed when alone or with an unfamiliar cow than they were with friends, lending support to the idea that cows are social animals, capable of forming close bonds with each other.
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|Look up friendship in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- ^In comparison to older respondents, who tend to describe friendship in terms of psychological rather than mostly physical aspects.:498