Forget Diverse Friends. Learn About Race

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Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — In her fourth Reddit Ask Me Anything, our Race Manners columnist, Jenée Desmond-Harris, opened herself up to more of your burning questions about race. Check out the conversation here.


HannibalHarris: In the wake of a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, which found that 40 percent of white people and 25 percent of nonwhite people have no friends of the opposite race, it occurred to me that even "40 percent" could be a charitable reading of "friendship." Like, is it possible that white people could or would greatly overstate their relationship with someone of another race so as not to appear racist?

Is there anything wrong, in your eyes, with not having friends of another race or ethnicity? Should people intentionally seek out those kinds of friendships or is it unfair to the people who are being sought?

Jenée Desmond-Harris: If I had the option of assigning every white person in the country a nonwhite "friend" (I agree, that's a very loose category) or 50 hours of education on the legacy of overt racism and the subtle ways it plays out in all of our lives, I would choose the latter every time. Superficial social relationships are far less valuable than an actual understanding of how race and racism work in this country (combined with a vocabulary for discussing those things).

I don't think it's ideal to have a mono-racial group of friends, but it's far less ideal to have a mono-racial worldview. In fact, I think civil and pleasant cross-racial relationships may cause people to pat themselves on the back just a little too enthusiastically.

I do think people should seek out legitimate, honest, deep friendships with people of other races. If they're doing that to enhance their lives and increase their sense of perspective and compassion rather than to add color to their list of Facebook friends (or provide cover in case they're ever accused of racism), that doesn't strike me as unfair at all.

Brentosclean: How did you feel about the film Fruitvale Station, and what exactly do you think was the purpose of the film being made? I liked the film a lot, but I didn't quite understand the objective of it. It seems to me that there is a very clear right and wrong with what happened with Oscar Grant, but in my experience discussing the tragedy, everyone clearly understands the right and wrong. Was it targeted to middle America for more exposure on the tragedy? I couldn't figure it out.


JDH: You say, "In my experience discussing the tragedy, everyone clearly understands the right and wrong." I'd disagree, just because of some of the comments I've heard about the Oscar Grant case and Trayvon Martin's death, which reveal that some people's racism makes them absolutely unable to see the loss of a black person's life as problematic. But those people definitely don't represent "everyone" (far from it), and they definitely won't see Fruitvale Station.

So my best guess is that the film was designed in part for those people who understand that racial profiling is wrong, that police misconduct is wrong and that black men are victimized by both of these things, but who don't necessarily feel the effects of those situations. The film gave them an opportunity to know Grant intimately and to experience the tragedy on a personal and emotional level, which I think can be a really powerful way to mobilize those who may otherwise have been somewhat detached. I'm guessing that someone who simply read an article in the paper about the story would have an entirely different relationship to it than the filmmakers had in mind as they worked on telling this story.


NOISY_SUN: Do you prefer "black" or "African American"?

JDH: I actually don't have a strong preference, and as a writer I use them interchangeably to avoid repetition. However, I think it's important to remember that there are some cases in which "African American" really isn't accurate (even in terms of its original meaning). There are black people in the United States who are from other countries, and so, while they may identify as black, "African American" just doesn't work.


That said, I advise against becoming too attached to any one label for black people (or anyone else). As we all know, these things evolve with time (take "Negro," for example). I also think it's fine that different people have different preferences and embrace or reject labels at different times.

I'd also offer a reminder that even those with the best intentions might not know every individual's personal preference (or might not be up to speed), and that this is one case where, in my view, the terminology is far less important than the context and intention. My 96-year-old (white) grandmother has been known to say "colored" and "dark" without a fraction of the judgment or hate that comes from many people I hear saying "black" or "African American."


Uberlad: What's your very best piece of advice?

JDH: One column that has a special place for me because it touched on an issue that I've thought a lot about in my own life is my first Race Manners, " 'Mixed Kids Are the Cutest' Isn't Cute?" I was really touched by the response I received from people who were bothered by beauty biases they saw in their families, the media and even in themselves, and I was happy that I was able to explain why comments that are really well intended on an individual level can be extremely problematic on a larger scale and reflect some troubling stuff. (I think this is a common theme in discussions about race.)


My next favorite was the advice I gave in "How Not to Derail the Dialogue on Race" because it touches on just about all the pet peeves I'm constantly addressing, starting with the idea that black people aren't monolithic and including the fact that talking about race isn't racist.

The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.


Need race-related advice? Send your questions to

Previously in Race Manners: "Is Hair Care Oppressing My Black Daughter?"

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