My best friend is white. In fact, several of my friends are from racial and ethnic backgrounds that differ from my own. As a black woman in the U.S., these may be unusual truths or may even sound like the old cliche, “Some of my best friends are black.” Now that President Barack Obama is in the White House lots of people having been saying, both publicly and privately that race relations are improving in America. And perhaps they are. However two recent incidents have caused me to think less optimistically about the role of race in our social interactions.
One recent Saturday night I attended two parties. As I was on my way out of the first—a holiday gathering— I was surprised to see a group of about four white couples at the dining table. The other guests, all of whom were black, were mingling in the kitchen, living room, or were on the lanai. This was a fairly large gathering of about fourteen or more couples eating, drinking and chatting throughout this home, while their children played in a game room. Because the sizable home’s layout, I did not realize that this group had formed at the dining table until I passed them on my way out. To be sure, the eight or so whites at that table were in the minority at that party; everyone else was black. And the fact that they were even there as invited guests of my friends the black hosts suggests that some cross race socialization was taking place .
But why was there this segregation at the party? Perhaps there was a good explanation for this group to be off by themselves—they work together and were talking shop or are neighbors discussing their homeowner’s association—I don’t know. And perhaps there was co-mingling after I left.
When I left that party, before I could finish mulling over what I had witnessed, I went to the graduation party of another friend’s son. I was very excited to be attending this graduation of a young man—a young black male—part of the demographic least likely to be among the college educated. This young man had graduated from one of the nation’s top schools. As though continuing an unwritten theme of the evening, however, this was another segregated social event. Except for one or two Latinos, every one of the graduate’s friends at this reception was black!
I was glad to see so many young black men who were in/or graduating from college but how is it possible to attend a predominately white college and make no white friends there? I would ask a similar question about a white graduate with only white friends too. How is it possible to attend even a “majority” school and make no minority friends? Friendships are not regulated and we don’t want them to be. But these incidents remind me that in many cases Americans continue to live segregated lives.
Despite decades of bussing and other integration efforts, many kids ”choose” to hang out with their own race at school. I see evidence of this weekly when I meet with a high school mentee. Everywhere I look, there are bunches of black students together, white students together, and Latino students together. When my step-daughter was in middle school, I saw students waiting for the school bus in the same fashion. I often thought it unrealistic that none of the friends on the TV show of the same name had any interactions with minorities, particularly since that show was set in the highly cosmopolitan city of New York. (Eventually black actress Aisha Tyler made a few appearances as a love interest, finally adding some ”color” to the show.)
Whether or not one has friends or acquaintances who are a different race is not an academic issue. Recent research indicates that even spending relatively short amounts of time with someone of a different race reduces bias and prejudice. The extended-contact effect even ripples out to include your friends. In these research sessions, strangers of differing races are brought together for four hour-long sessions. In these structured interactions, pairs move from simple conversations to those that address more serious matters and eventually to a trust exercise. Some of the people form relationships that move beyond the research environment. People who have been through these exercises instantly score lower on prejudice measures and are less afraid of encounters with people of another race. Research suggests that even low doses of ”exposure” to someone of a different race can impact our attitudes towards that group.
Do you live in an area that is racially and ethnically diverse? How many of your friends or people in your social circle are from a different racial background than your own? Social settings do not have the structure of these research sessions, but in some cases we can build trusting relationships even in a purely social environment. Why might this be important?