Am I My Sister’s Keeper?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Bethany Suckrow -Friends Like Mirrors3

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Bethany Suckrow
I’m a writer and blogger at at bethanysuckrow.com, where I shares both prose and poetry on faith, grace, grief and hope. I am currently working on my first book, a memoir about losing my mother to cancer. My musician-husband, Matt, and I live in transition as we move our life from the Chicago suburbs to Nashville.
Bethany Suckrow
Bethany Suckrow

Latest posts by Bethany Suckrow (see all)

Bethany Suckrow
  • Bethany, I feel as if you’ve given us a peek over your shoulder as you wrote in a journal, sorting out your motives and measuring your responses.
    It’s so hard.
    I hope this won’t feel like gratuitous advice-giving, but I’m finding so much wisdom in Osheta Moore’s podcasts, particularly this one: http://shalominthecity.com/2017/03/16/episode-27-my-sistas-keeper-our-monthly-conversation-on-race-and-peacemaking/.

    One of her good points was this: it’s better to have the awkward race conversation than NOT to have it, so it sounds as if you are right on track — even though this process is far from easy for anyone.

    • Michele, I LOVE podcasts and had no idea Osheta was doing her own! Thank you for the recommendation, I will definitely give it a listen. Thanks for reading. <3

  • Lauren Ward

    Girl–I went through this experience recently too. These things are hard to navigate, because speaking up can risk offending someone, but essentially for me it came down to making a friend uncomfortable versus creating safe spaces for others. The scale wasn’t comparable. I appreciate your honesty here.

  • Lisa Sands Scandrette

    Thanks for your vulnerability, Bethany. I am so guilty of fleeing from difficult conversations and I am learning to do better…

  • I felt all these squirmy feelings when reading, because I could imagine keeping quiet too. I’m trying to change that habit, and I’m glad you are too. Trying to own my power as a white woman to effect needed change in this world.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Heather. We do have deep potential as white women to disrupt unjust systems, we just have to be willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Glad to be working alongside you, sister.

  • Thank you for going first, Bethany. Love your heart.

  • Amy Chumbley

    Bethany, thank you so much for sharing! It is so difficult to have those tough conversations! I tend to put my head in the sand and hope the uncomfortableness goes away. “There wasn’t enough trust and honesty between us, and I couldn’t figure out how to build it on my own.” Gosh, this is the very thing I am dealing with! I recently heard Kathy Escobar on her podcast “Faith Circus” talk about the difference in being a peacemaker and a peacekeeper. My take away was that God calls us to be peacemakers and to do that we have to engage in some tough conversations, be uncomfortable, take the risk of someone misunderstanding, etc… A peacekeeper is someone who tends to try to keep the peace at all cost, not rock the boat, and that is not healthy! There can be no growth if we aren’t willing to be vulnerable and honest. This morning as I prayed over my situation I knew I had to have a tough conversation and God was telling me to be full of grace and truth, telling me not to hold anything against her but to engage in the hard work of reconciliation. The e-mail has been sent but no response yet. I pray that this issue in my friendship will be resolved and lead us to a deeper more meaningful relationship!

    • I love that distinction between peacekeeping and peacemaking, Amy. That’s been a central struggle in my life – I think in many ways, church culture expects women to be peacekeepers, and race plays a huge part in that too. But peacemaking is messy, hard work and yes, it requires uncomfortable conversations. Thanks for commenting – I hope the tough conversation you’re facing ends with real peace and understanding.

      • Amy Chumbley

        Thank you!

  • Wow, you did such a great job capturing the messiness and complexities of friendship, complicity, privilege and racism. Thank you for doing this hard work and for sharing it with us!

  • I think the freedom to speak up, even if it’s poorly, is important! And hopefully, with practice, we will learn to do it well. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Tracy Nelson

    so good – can you explain what your friend meant about “fetishized”? …. and what you mean when you say you “ghost” ed your friend? …. thank you for sharing your heart.

    • Tracy, I’m so sorry I didn’t see this comment sooner. These are great questions, so I figure it’s better late than never for me to answer you!

      Fetishization creates situations where people of color feel pressured to perform their race. Well-meaning white women tend to objectify black women and their experiences and cultural expressions for their *own* enjoyment or entertainment. It’s often really subtle and hard to pinpoint, but one example I know of is a white woman making her black friend watch a tv show with a strong black female character, because she assumed her black friend would love it and wanted to see her reaction. The problem here is that black people are not a monolyth – they can like or dislike anything, even black art. They don’t have to identify with it, but white people often expect them to, especially when depictions of black people portray suffering or struggle (enslaved people in the deep south, etc). Another really common example of race-based fetishizing in American culture is the way white men fetishize the stereotype of docile, sexual Asian women.

      As for “ghosting”, that’s slang for ending the friendship by ignoring/avoiding the friend, rather than confronting the conflict that you have with them. Sorry if that confused you!

  • Kelley J. Leigh

    Well said. Thank you.