Whatever You Do, Don’t Make a Black Friend

For Halloween two years ago I dressed up as the token black friend. I double checked the party invitation list to make sure no other black people were going (it was a formality, I pretty much knew I’d be the only one) and then wore whatever normal clothes I wanted as my costume. Easy. To help those who might need a hint as to who I was, I put some coins in my pockets to jingle and then let the guessing begin.

Both research—which I will get to shortly—and personal experience say tokenism, the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, is bad. To borrow the battle cry of the “War on Drugs,” ‘Just Say No.’ There’s a new war in town and it’s the war on tokenism. Hopefully if you’re reading this, you’ve signed up to fight!

About a month ago, I surveyed some friends and asked them what experiences or resources helped them to be more understanding of racial issues and social justice and then compiled responses into a resource list I published last week.  This is the experience counterpart to that. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of friends, but not enough to be statistically relevant. So, I did some additional reading on the topic to find information to corroborate (or refute, or tweak) suggestions from friends. I have included a bibliography at the end for those interested (and because while plagiarism seems to be en vogue these days, I still can’t bring myself to jump on that bandwagon). But first, an allegory.

Two Totaled Cars (and a partridge in a pear tree)

The last two cars I totaled both involved oil. I was riding down the NJ Turnpike trying to get to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania with my friend when my car stopped responding to my foot on the gas. Instead of accelerating, I slowed and eventually pulled over to the shoulder. Once stopped, smoke billowed from underneath the hood. I called AAA. When the tow truck driver arrived, he asked what the temperature gauge said. “What’s a temperature gauge?” I asked. He rolled his eyes at yet another car-clueless female. “When was your last oil change?” I shrugged my shoulders, shrunk back and answered sheepishly, “I’m supposed to put oil in my car? I only know about gas.” I had failed my car.

The next car I totaled caught me by surprise. This time, I did my part dutifully putting oil in it, perhaps overdoing it at times to compensate for my previous ignorance and neglect. What I hadn’t realized, however, was that there was a hole in my oil pipe. The oil I put in wasn’t enough for my car to work; I needed a pipe that wasn’t broken. Because of structural damage, my car was effectively working against my good intentions. The problem was bigger than my personal actions. 

Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want

The first thing that needs to be clear is what you are trying to accomplish. To challenge your perceptions or hidden biases? To personally help relieve a structural issue? To be a more effective ally? To understand the causes? Knowing what you want, what you really really want, will inform which of these strategies you may want to employ.

There’s good news and bad news, but I’ll start with the bad: research shows that even white people who are well integrated in black communities do not change their policy recommendations as their perceptions and attitudes about blacks improve. White people are no more likely to support policies that counter discrimination even when they have very positive feelings about blacks and even if they are willing to admit that racism, in its various forms, is a problem. Bummer, right? These people may recognize there is a hole in the pipe but insist that their putting oil in the car should be enough.

 Don’t be those people. You cannot treat the problem of racism like car number one.

Survey Says

My friends had lots to say about how they came to see that there were real challenges and obstacles blacks faced that they didn’t, to realize that their experiences, though normative, were not the same as those of black Americans; and to learn empathy. I will get in to particulars later, but for now here’s what they said:

  • Immersion – 13
  • Friendships – 11
  • Courses – 10
  • Active listening/discussion groups – 5
  • Group membership – 4
  • Volunteering -3
  • Childhood integration – 3
  • Acquaintances – 3
  • Events – 3
  • Tutoring – 2
  • Museum/exhibit – 2
  • Personal experience – 2
  • Social media – 2
  • Cohabitation – 2
  • Faith – 2

The Research

I focused my research on three areas: sociological research on contact theory and interracial friendships, educational psychology research on metacognitive learning theories, and books specifically discussing race in the church Divided by Faith, written by sociologists, and The Next Evangelicalism, written by pastor and theologian.

Contact Theory and Interracial Friendships

Analysis of the effectiveness of interracial friendships fell along the following lines: depth, proximity, diversity, and status.

It’s counterintuitive but you don’t need depth. Having a single black friend compared with a single black acquaintance yields no substantive difference in perceptions and attitudes towards blacks. Attitude change is insignificant when one has either a black friend or a black acquaintance but not when you have at least one of both. “In general, whites must have both friend(s) and acquaintance(s) who are black before there is any appreciable impact on their attitudes toward blacks. It seems more important to escape tokenism by establishing multiple contacts with blacks than to attain a high degree of personal intimacy with one’s black contacts.”

Some people might suggest moving into a black neighborhood or worshipping with blacks. Those both come with a large caveat. Proximity alone, like intimacy, is not very effective. Proximity without personal contact is virtually meaningless. The more black people around that you have real personal contact with the better, which leads me to my next point.

Diversity trumps intimacy. Having a variety of black contacts appears to be more important than a very close black friend. “It is not the closer intimacy of good friendship that is critical, but simply the experience with individual blacks that can come from relatively superficial relationships.”

This sounds icky but it’s been proven through rigorous testing. No spoonful of sugar to go along with this either: research consistently showed “an almost unbroken pattern of substantial positive change in whites’ racial attitudes as the relative socioeconomic status of their black friends increases.” This means that most likely interclass friendships are more potentially harmful than helpful in changing attitudes for the better of blacks, confirming people’s unspoken feelings of superiority. In fact, research seems to say that the higher the status of the black person the better, but at a bare minimum you have to be at the same socioeconomic status.

Here are the ideal conditions for interracial friendships to effect positive attitude changes:

  1. Non competitive
  2. Sustained not episodic
  3. One-on-one and informal
  4. Setting must confer equal status on both parties

Metacognitive Learning Theory

One of my favorite college courses was educational psychology. One of the most fascinating things I learned in it was about the power of metacognitive skills. You know what meta means and you know what cognition means so you can probably figure out what the word means on your own but if you need help, the dictionary definition reads: an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process.

Why did I think it might be important for understanding racial attitudes? In learning anything, it is powerful to know the frameworks you use in your thinking, to know what you actually do and don’t know, and to know how you came to know what you know in order to change. An article by Chick, et. al. on how metacognitive reflections enhance learning in race-related courses states, “Wiggins and McTighe’s (2006) concept of self-knowledge, or acknowledging “one’s ignorance and how one’s patterns of thought and action inform as well as prejudice understanding” (p. 100), is especially relevant in race-related courses since a lack of such metacognitive awareness will interfere with learning.” For evangelicals, I highly recommend the two books Divided by Faith and The Next Evangelicalism to spur and assist in your thinking about why you think the way you think.


The Particulars

Immersion: Teaching, travel, and other “I was the only one” experiences
The hallmark of this category is putting yourself in the minority. You are surrounded by the other, rather than pulling the other into your world. Several friends mentioned extended international travel, working in predominately black schools, or joining cultural organizations consisting of members of mostly other cultures. Basically any experience you’d describe with “I was the only white person at/in…” The three examples just listed show different degrees from full immersion while traveling or living abroad, significant immersion through your workplace, and recurring immersion through clubs.

You will learn and feel things very differently while participating in a group that is 50-50 in its racial composition rather than 99-1 and to some extent, the further outside of your comfort zone, the better. I won’t go as far as to say no pain no gain, but if you don’t feel even slightly awkward you need to add more weight.


  • Join or attend meetings for a professional organization geared toward blacks
  • Adopt a church to attend semi-regularly that is predominately nonwhite
  • Join a church that is nonwhite
  • Join some other special interest or affinity group likely to be composed of nonwhites
  • Join an intramural sports team that is specifically for nonwhites
  • Move into a black neighborhood and get to know your neighbors, ride the bus with them, shop where they shop, etc.
  • Join a community organization in a black community
  • Adopt a new hobby
  • Lead a girl scout/boy scout troop in a black neighborhood

Repeat after me: one black friend is a placebo. Bette Midler was right, you gotta have friends with an emphasis on the ‘s’.  In the bluntest of terms it’s quantity over quality (though the people themselves have to be quality), which stinks if we’re in low supply where you live. It is also important that these relationships be with blacks of the same socioeconomic status. I hate typing that, saying that, thinking that—I hated reading that—but that’s what the research says. Don’t shoot the messenger. While cross-class friendships are great and admirable and valuable for many reasons, research shows they are counterproductive to improving attitudes and feelings about race.  Intimate friendships are better than nothing, but variety is where it’s at.


  • Most likely your field has a professional organization for blacks. Go to their happy hour or some other social meeting.
  • Next time there’s an opening in your house for a roommate see if there is a housing board for a black church.
  • If you’re in DC check out social events at African Art, Anacostia Community Museum, and NMAAHC.
  • If you live in a college town, get on the email list of an ethnic student groups email lists to find out when activities are.
  • Are there any nonwhite people at your gym? See if they could use a workout buddy.

I walk up to black strangers all the time asking to be friends, but I don’t know how well a cold request for friendship comes across coming from a random white person. So, as a good friend would tell you at a bar before you go approaching that hottie over there, “Be cool.”

Immersion was a category cobbled together from experiences I classified as being immersive and friendship was sometimes stated other times implied, but courses were actually the single largest naturally occurring category. Empirically, studies have shown integrating antiracism lessons into curriculum to be effective. This is probably most useful for learning about the structural aspects of racism (or seeing the hole in the oil pipe) and where sharp metacognitive skills really shine.

When I lived in Laos, I went with a colleague of mine to try to buy a dehumidifier and had the hardest time explaining to him what it did. When I told him it was a machine that took water out of the air he asked if there was a leak, or if it was raining. He was confused because he didn’t know where the water was coming from. The only water he knew about was the water he could see despite living in one of the most humid places on the planet. When I asked him if he knew what humidity was, he apologized and said “I only finished high school so I don’t know what that is.” He didn’t know about water the gas. The more you know…


  • MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses that relate to race, justice, any form of inequality
  • Start your own class – it’s fairly easy to find syllabi online. Just google course name + syllabus et voila. Check the reading list to see if most of the readings can be purchased through amazon or borrowed at a library get the books and follow along. Feel like you’re missing out on the lectures? YouTube is great for that. You can find more on there than you’d think. Try typing in the lecture topic and see what pops up.
  • Keep an eye out for museum or library public symposia or local conferences. Basically any multiday group learning environment you can find.
  • The Great Courses
  • Are there national organizations putting on symposia or conferences that are live streamed? I once attended a conference from overseas over several days.
  • Work through the list of resources I provided last week

Active listening/discussion
These experiences combine friendship or acquaintances with informal learning. You’re studying material together but it’s small enough that you can build relationships and  trust to ask honest questions.


  • Book club
  • Dialogue group
  • Church ministry

Several people mentioned joining groups focused on issues related to another race. These memberships involved a regular and personal investment of time or money. They are more regular than just attending an event and their composition may be mixed.


  • Join any group that deals with black issues, preferably one made up mostly of black people

Here’s where knowing your goal matters most. Volunteering is an absolutely great way to help right some of the wrongs that exist in the world. I wholeheartedly support being generous with your gifts and time in this way. Volunteering has the potential to be either one of those full body workouts or an isolation exercise. Either is time well spent. For the full body version, lets return to the research on proximity and parity. In your volunteering do you actually get to know or at least interact with the people you’re helping? Proximity without contact was shown to be ineffective for changing attitudes. Also, chances are even if you are meeting the people you’re helping, that they are not the same socioeconomic status as you. Am I saying don’t volunteer? Absolutely not. No siree. But to get the most out of it, try volunteering with black organizations that put you in direct contact with the people that you are serving or volunteer—for any organization—with a group of mostly black volunteers (so find a group of blacks who volunteer and join them). If that’s not possible, just volunteer how you can. How about adopting a sister church that is traditionally black to do service projects with? This will be both eye opening in understanding the perspective of those you’re serving but also allow you to understand the perspectives of those you’re serving with. We know more than we should about black-on-black crime, how much do we know about black-on-black generosity?

If you’re in DC check this out:

Childhood integration
A few people attributed their knowledge of black issues and differing realities to growing up in diverse environments. My guess is no one reading this is a child, but a few of you may be parents. Like with learning languages or instruments, an early start is gold. Talking to kids when they are young and exposing them to other cultures is invaluable. Again, if you don’t live in a diverse place where your kids can have play dates with black children or black classmates this may mean finding dolls, books, and movies or TV shows that represent blacks to throw in the mix.


The research says that acquaintances are best when paired with friends. Many of my suggestions for this are the same as those for friends but…try a little less hard. But seriously though, talk to all the black people you have reason to see regularly. Do you have black neighbors? Invite them over for a barbecue in the summer or do a block white elephant party around Christmas time. Are there black service workers or guards in your office or at your favorite lunch spot? Learn their names and inquire about their families. You are probably around more black people than you think. Speak to them. Take some time to think about who you see regularly that you could engage but don’t.

I love going to these types of things: cultural festivals, book talks, lectures, tours, concerts.

If your main goal is to contribute directly to one of the structural issues, tutoring is great! If you are looking for it to change your views of black people here’s how it can be most effective. 

  • Coach a sport – you’ll get to know many more kids and their parents that’s a variety of contacts
  • Teach something after school at local school – help out with the yearbook club or odyssey of the mind
  • Be a scout leader – again, like coaching a sport
  • Work with a tutoring organization that encourages engagement beyond just help with an academic area

Social media
Some people mentioned reading articles posted on social media helped give them a different perspective. I have wondered how social media might also be useful for those without immediate access to real black people. Podcasts, blogs, black twitter might all be limited but still useful proxy for black acquaintances as well.

Personal experience

Experiencing the discrimination that people of color experience can be powerful. I have often wished that just as someone devised a way to simulate the pain of labor for men to know what childbirth is like that there could be some kind of black simulator. Some people mentioned not being able to find products compatible with white skins tones in a store in a black neighborhood or noticing an absence of black faces on the cover of magazines and stuff like that. This I feel like is the category most up to chance.

Easy, live with black people. Marry one and you get to cohabitate with us forever.

Here is where my biggest criticism comes in. Church leaders do their congregants a spiritual disservice when they allow them to continue in their belief that the problem of race is a social or political issue and not a spiritual one. Racism has social and political components but equality, justice, favoritism, and mercy are spiritual issue that contribute both personally and corporately to the deeply complex problem of racism in America today.

My feelings are captured best by the eulogy delivered by Martin Luther King at the funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the most moving part of the movie Selma to me. I looked up the original words that answered his question, “Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?”

A State trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone.

He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law.

He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician, from governors on down, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.

He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote.

He was murdered by the indifference of every white minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of his stained-glass windows.

And he was murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who passively accepts the evils of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.

Several friends did mention that conversations they’d had with leaders of their churches or faith-based employers had been particularly impactful. I’m grateful and proud to attend a church with leaders who are deeply thoughtful in this way, I don’t take this for granted. But I do believe that there are far too many ministers who make it a non-issue, who make it a political issue, or who are satisfied to take and teach others to take the placebo.

Hopefully this has helped nudge your thinking about ways to better understand the black experience.

Leave a comment with other suggestions! How have you come to understand the challenges that blacks face today?


Chick, Nancy, Terri Karis, and Cyndi Kernahan. “Learning from Their Own Learning: How Metacognitive and Meta-affective Reflections Enhance Learning in Race-Related Course.” Learning from Their Own Learning: How Metacognitive and Meta-affective Reflections Enhance Learning in Race-Related Course. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Jan. 2009. Web. 3 Feb. 2017.

Dixon, John, Kevin Durrheim, Colin G. Tredoux, Linda R. Tropp, Beverley Clack, Liberty Eaton, and Michael Quayle. “Challenging the Stubborn Core of Opposition to Equality: Racial Contact and Policy Attitudes.” Political Psychology 31.6 (2010): 831-55.

Duckitt, J. (2001). Reducing prejudice. In M. Augoustinos & K. J. Reynolds (Eds)., Understanding prejudice, racism, and social conflict (pp. 253-272). London: Sage.

Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Jackman, Mary R., and Marie Crane. “”Some of My Best Friends Are Black…”: Interracial Friendship and Whites’ Racial Attitudes.” Public Opinion Quarterly 50.4 (1986): 459. Web

Pedersen, Anne, Iain Walker, Mark Rapley, and Mike Wise. “Anti-Racism – What Works? An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Anti-racism Strategies.” Anti-Racism – What Works?Murdoch University Office of Multicultural Interests, Mar. 2003. Web. 3 Feb. 2017. <http://www.omi.wa.gov.au/resources/clearinghouse/antiracism_what_works.pdf&gt;.

Quillian, Lincoln, and Mary E. Campbell. “Beyond Black and White: The Present and Future of Multiracial Friendship Segregation.” American Sociological Review 68.4 (2003): 540.

Rah, Soong-Chan. The next Evangelicalism: Releasing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. San Bernardino, CA: ReadHowYouWant, 2012. Print.

One thought on “Whatever You Do, Don’t Make a Black Friend

  1. Andrew Mungai says:

    I think you are mad, but I like you kind of insanity… someone, I consider very wise, once told me the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Racism in USA is institutionalized and not by chance, it is by design. Only very deliberate and very aggressive education (academic and civic) has any hope of making a dent.

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