It's time to have that awkward conversation with your friend who's a different race to you


We are a very diverse country. With 11 official languages, and rich histories and cultures attached to each one, we are bound to make friends, and even fall in love, across cultures and races.

In light of the experience of getting to know someone who has different beliefs and world views to yours, there can be a bit of tension in getting to know each other, but that should never keep us from forming these enlightening bonds. 

An article in communicates that having friends across races and cultures is a way to promote multiculturalism; in other words, "you may not share a friend’s religion or race, but, once you have a friendship with such a person, you can then promote acceptance and understanding on the part of others".

However, depending on the mindsets of the people you befriend, the friendship may be a source of tension more than it is an instrument of tolerance and appreciation for other cultures. 

READ MORE: What it's really like to love someone of a different race 

Regardless of the races and cultures involved, there are subtle yet significant differences that exist in interracial friendships that often cannot be ignored. In her letter to one of her white friends, Milisuthando Bongela "I’ve had a handful of close white friends over the years, but I left the relationships with some of them in the past five years because they do not know how to know me as a complex African person. They only know how to relate to me as their agreeable black friend." 

When I was in varsity, this is what I feared the most about interracial friendships: that there would be huge gaps in how we could relate to each other that we would awkwardly ignore but never quite get over.

I remember that, in high school, the biggest issue was race and the cultures attached to it. There was the undeniable fact that I am black and they are white - 'us' and 'them' - and this was something neither of us could move past no matter how much we tried; that there is nothing that could penetrate past that fact. 

But I realise now that this needn't be a reason to forfeit an opportunity for a good friendship. 

READ MORE: "My social anxiety almost killed me" 

I asked a few people of their experiences of interracial friendships and this is what they had to say: 

For most of my life, my friends have been black, all of them. I grew up in a rather racist neighbourhood so I always believed that I could and would never have white friends. But in essence, I realised that interracial friendships are hard to maintain anyway. I'm not lazy to maintain them, I just feel that it's easier to mix with like-minded and like-cultured people - it gets challenging and tiring having to explain and illustrate things to people when I could be using that time and energy to further expand my knowledge of my own culture.

Two of my best friends are white and thankfully, they’re for the most part, super woke. Although, I must admit the one more so than the other. The great thing about my friends is that they often, out of their own volition and because they want to understand, read up on political experiences and struggles that they don’t relate to in order to understand. We will speak openly about issues, but they also never expect me to put in the emotional labour for them unless it’s to ask me about things they don’t understand, even though they’ve already researched. We can talk about things like privilege, poverty and racism without anyone feeling uncomfortable because they know how to acknowledge their advantages in life without feeling defensive or aggressive about it. And that makes the world of difference and has strengthened our bond.

READ MORE: This is why I’ll never recommend a friend for a job again – here’s what I've learned 

The basis of every relationship - no matter the nature of the relationship - lies in how far the parties are willing and able to understand each other. If it is a relationship based on ignorance, and fed by the belief of 'I will never understand this and that's fine', then it will not go very far.

Friendship survives on what we know about each other, the nuances in our personalities and how we celebrate them, and the ways in which we perceive the world and how the world perceives us. Ignorance of these is what causes tension and strife. 

Milisuthando addresses this in her article when she poses this question to her friend: "can there be true care and a true love between us if this is not something you even know about me and about our interactions?"

Here are a few tips to strengthening interracial relationships: 

Listen, pay attention, and learn. Just because something doesn't affect you, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't read up on it and have an educated opinion on it so you share it with your friend. In 2018, ignorance is not bliss at all, so make an effort to understand your friend's perspectives and how they deal with the various challenges directed to their race and culture. Ask questions, do your research, and create safe spaces for your friends to speak openly about what they face on a daily basis.

Be open to new experiences. If you don't try, you'll never know. If you care enough about them, be open to sharing your friend's life by sharing in their experiences, especially if they will take you out of your comfort zone and broaden your worldview. Learn to observe their lives, beliefs, worldviews and opinions without being judgmental or dismissive, and without needing to change anything for your comfort. 

READ MORE: How to call out problematic family and friends

Have those awkward conversations and don't hold back. The one thing that contributes to the regression of our society is that no one ever wants to have the awkward conversations when we're supposed to. Is there a matter of racial privilege that just came up in your conversation? Talk about it, iron it out, and understand each other's perspectives. 

Conflict might arise, address it openly. If you're afraid to call out your friend on something offensive that they don't realise they're saying or doing, you're only contributing to the disparities between races. Call them out in a stern yet polite way so they don't do it again if it was a mistake. Likewise, if you're the friends who is at fault, apologise and educate yourself on the reasons behind your offense - never dismiss it just because you don't understand it or find it offensive!

The narrative of not seeing colour is old and it implies that you don't see - or choose not to acknowledge - the very thing that makes someone unique and different from you. We all see colour, and sometimes it's more of a factor than anything else, so instead of avoiding it, embrace it. The sooner we all understand and accept each other's differences, the sooner we can move closer together in the name of diversity. 

Watch below: best friends talk openly about issues personal to them

*Name has been changed. 

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