This is a confession.
A few months ago, I ended a friendship. I did it badly.
This isn’t really about whether or not the friendship should have ended. It needed to, for a lot of messy and tangled reasons. Maybe this is taboo, but I’ve learned the hard way that some friendships are meant to end, much like romantic relationships. We don’t keep bad boyfriends forever, nor should we. Sometimes two people just aren’t good for one another. Sometimes one—or both—friends are serial boundary-violators who refuse to listen to each other, or be vulnerable together.
But there is one reason this friendship should not have ended, and that is what I’m trying to untangle here with you now.
My friend Marie* is bright, smart, funny, talented, the kind of person who could gather different people from all walks of life and stir up meaningful conversation. When times were good, we would sit around and talk about the things we’re most passionate about: art, music, food, theology, politics, feminism.
Our friendship unraveled over a lot of things, mostly because we couldn’t be vulnerable with each other. There wasn’t enough trust and honesty between us, and I couldn’t figure out how to build it on my own. Amidst the tangled mess, one thing I kept noticing was Marie’s racism. I couldn’t confront it. She would say something and I would cringe, but the words would hang like a thought bubble over my head, trapped and unuttered.
Even now, it’s hard for me to write that. “My friend was racist.”
It feels judgmental, taboo, unkind. Even if it’s true, am I allowed to say so? Even if it’s true, is there a tactful or gracious way to challenge her? If I am going to confront this issue, then I also have to unpack my beliefs about racism as a concept–what I think of when I hear that word, versus what I actually experience, and what I intend to do about it. After all, Marie is not a swastika-wielding white nationalist. She’s a well-meaning white woman just like me, who marches in Black Lives Matter protests and has black friends. And if she is like me, then what does that say about me and my intentions and my failures to live up to them? And if we’re all problematic, then what right do I have to tell anyone else that they’re racist?
I talked myself out of saying anything. It was a racism that manifested itself in appropriation of black culture, actions so casual and normalized in our society that I kept telling myself it was a small thing, something she would learn in her own time. I let it get tangled up with all of the other (valid) reasons that I didn’t want to stay friends and I quietly faded from the friendship, responding to her contact less and less.
One night a few months later, I was talking with my other friends about all of this, one of whom is black. Ashley* told us about an incident between her and Marie that had made her uncomfortable.
“I’ve never felt so fetishized as a black woman,” she said.
The rest of us sat in silence for a moment, absorbing her hurt and frustration. And that’s when it dawned on me: I had taken the easy way out, at Ashley’s expense. I wasn’t responsible for what Marie had done to her, but I was complicit because I had been noticing Marie’s racism for months and never said anything. I felt like such a coward. My little self-righteous house of cards collapsed. It had been my turn to speak up and my boldness completely evaporated. I knew better, but I didn’t do better and that killed me.
Friends are like mirrors, for better or for worse. When I look at my broken friendship with Marie now, I can see all of my insecurities about being that kind of white woman reflected back at me: how I had been too afraid of the discomfort, too timid to do the hard work. I see how my choice to ghost her was, in part, an attempt to distance myself, to reassure myself that I wasn’t like her. Instead I had made myself complicit, problematic as ever. I see how my silence as a white woman refusing to talk about race with my white friend had cost my black friend her emotional labor, her peace, her dignity. The fact that I didn’t really think about any of that until Ashley shared her hurt with us, made me want to crawl underneath the table with shame. Talking with Ashley about Marie’s racism brought me face-to-face with my own and it really sucked. I apologized to Ashley for my silence, but I knew it wasn’t enough.
In the end, Marie and I had the difficult friend-break-up conversation. It was about a lot of things, not just the race issue, but race did come up and it did not go well. (Duh.) I’m not sure it ever would have—there were too many other areas of our friendship where we weren’t being real with each other. But I know for sure that my choice to “ghost” her probably ruined any chance we had of making it vulnerable, honest or fruitful.
I let my fear of failing at having the tough conversation keep me from having it at all, and I know that’s what I need to learn from this. Our fear of failing as white women is a big liability for our sisters of color. We can’t let the awkwardness and pain keep us from speaking up, even if we do it terribly. I’ve started asking my friends to tell me when they think I’m being problematic. Real friends tell each other when we’re being racist. Together, the truth will set us all free.
*Note: Names changed to respect privacy.