The Power and the Promise of Cross-Racial Friendships
March 19, 2019 | Ann Kowal Smith
Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and me, Elizabeth remains one of my favorite childhood books. Written in 1967 by E.L. Konigsberg, this book with a mouthful of a title depicts a friendship between two elementary school girls. Powered by imagination, and fueled by that sense of belonging nurtured by a true best friend, their friendship was creative and protective, even in its ups and downs. I loved that book. It was only years later that I realized how unusual their friendship was: Jennifer was black and Elizabeth was white.
I recently had the honor and privilege of introducing Dr. Deborah Plummer, author of Some of My Friends Are… The Daunting Challenges and Untapped Benefits of Cross-Racial Friendships, at her Northeast Ohio book launch. Dr. Plummer is a nationally recognized psychologist and diversity management thought leader. She is a scientist, researcher, changemaker and professor in several disciplines – and a prolific author.
Debbie’s book, supported by twenty years of rigorous research on cross-racial friendships, helps us to understand how and why this literary friendship of my childhood was both unusual but also deeply formative and important. In examining cross-racial friendships, she relies on extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence from her own research and the research of others. But her personal reflections and unflinching candor invite us to examine our own friendships: the acquaintances, the lovers, the friends “of the heart.” Debbie doesn’t shy from describing the hard work of cross-racial friendships, but she celebrates the lasting impact, on the friends themselves and ultimately the communities they share. As she asserts, cross-racial friendships bring us
closer to a shared American experience, moving us from separate and unequal to together and equal. Cross-racial friends, especially those of the heart, reduce bias and change cultural beliefs not just for the individual[s… but for] their families and circle of friends.
But in her book, Debbie does something more. She gives us a very important gift: the gift of agency. And with this agency comes the power, responsibility and accountability to become personally involved in tackling racial divides.
Racism in this country is pervasive. It has a deep and tragic history supported by institutions and structures that make it nearly impossible to apprehend, let alone comprehend and address. Racial division is such a part of our society that we are all complicit. And while all of us can feel its effects, for many, especially people of color, it is an inescapable reality.
Our global climate of polarization around politics, religion, race and nationality magnifies this reality. But prevailing arguments for systemic approaches – where nothing can change unless everything changes – rob us of both the ability and the agency to address division, because none of us operates at the systems level. As a result, this immutable reality leaves all of us who care about racial equity and justice angry, frustrated and powerless.
Debbie’s book restores the agency and, by extension, the power to act, by providing us another way. By encouraging cross-racial friendships, Debbie offers the tools to bridge our differences and find common ground. She taps the friend in each of us with the responsibility (and the challenge) to reach across races, to create a culture of understanding and belonging – together. In her words, “over time, these friendships have profound effects on healing divisions among different racial groups and fostering racial equity. Racial equity takes place one cross-racial friend at a time.”
Returning to Jennifer and Elizabeth, I’m intrigued by the role gender plays in the development of the connections Debbie espouses. Debbie’s book launch was extremely well attended by a racially mixed group of well over 50 people, but there were only two men: Debbie’s husband and mine. Is there something about friendship that belongs uniquely to women? Science tells us that men and women are different when it comes to making and keeping friends, especially “friends of the heart.”
But if women are more inclined to openly discuss issues and engage personally with their friends, perhaps women are best positioned to lead this work, to set the example for all to take part in bridging racial divides. And Debbie asks us all to do just that. In living room salons across the country, she encourages us to gather our friends – women and men – to read her book and create space for conversation around race and friendship.
Some of My Friends Are provides a revolutionary way forward, one that we can start right now. She enables us to see our own ability to take action, to become agents in the fight for an equitable and peaceful world. And Debbie inspires her readers by painting her dreams, a world where the Jennifers and the Elizabeths of the world can be childhood friends, and “no barriers based on race would prevent [them] from being friends again as adults.”
Image: Paul Klee, Forest Witches, 1938. [Public Domain] via wikimedia.org