How to Talk about Race and Racism in Your Friendships

Photo courtesy of Rachael Langer

How to Talk about Race and Racism in Your Friendships

How to Talk about Race and Racism in Your Friendships

In interracial friendships, talking about race can be hard. Sometimes, if not often, the burden falls on the person of color to start the conversation. That’s what happened when Yseult Polfliet and Hannah Summerhill met at an event focusing on race and bridging the gap. Polfliet asked why more White women weren’t participating in the conversation that evening. As a Black woman, Polfliet couldn’t ignore it. Afterward, Summerhill, who is White, introduced herself to Polfliet and asked if she wanted to continue talking. They became friends, and after a series of monthly living room conversations, they launched Kinswomen, a podcast about navigating difficult conversations on race, racism, and allyship between women.

Polfliet and Summerhill know that these conversations can be awkward, especially between friends. But their hope with Kinswomen is to get women used to having hard talks with one another in a respectful and compassionate way. They know it’s not always easy—friendships, especially interracial ones, are lifelong journeys, and part of the process is understanding that people don’t always get it right at first. “Being honest is the only way we can be in a more comfortable place,” says Polfliet.

A Q&A with Yseult Polfliet and Hannah Summerhill

How does race come up in your friendship?

Polfliet: We talk about race issues all the time. We have aha moments together that make sense on so many levels. We’re both introspective. For example, we had a conversation, and I realized that the most harmful White people I’ve ever encountered are the White people I have let close to me rather than the people who are not as close or people I don’t know. Because they’re close to you, they have access to you, and there’s unsaid permission that builds up.

So I had that aha moment with Hannah. Because we get to talk about this so much, we get to dissect things. I’m faced with someone who’s open to hearing my experience, and I feel free to share. It’s not always a deep, serious, and trauma-based realization. Sometimes it’s funny stuff, like her growing up and loving something that I feel is super White. We have given ourselves enough space where I trust her, where I can open up in vulnerable moments, and she is super receptive, and she doesn’t feel that I come for her Whiteness. I have had interactions with White people where I’ve made a comment about something and they feel that my making a comment about society is a comment on their personality or about them as a person. If I’m talking about society, and I’m saying White people are problematic, I’m not saying that Hannah’s problematic. I’m saying White society is weird, and so we can probably agree on that and agree when things are awkward.

A lot of the time, people don’t want to acknowledge the awkwardness. They want to run away from it, or they want to make it feel as if we’re the same or that if we’re best friends then everything is fine. But we have to talk about the elephant in the room because that’s the only way we’re going to get closer to one another. It’s talking about how we grew up, what we love, and what we think is normal, and not only talking about the common ground that’s White. It doesn’t take away from our friendship to admit that because she’s White and because I’m Black, there are going to be differences. It makes it more rich. She knows about my culture, and she wants to come visit my country. I get to open up on all aspects, and she’s created space that not all White people do when they’re friends with people of color. It’s celebrating the differences and accepting the awkwardness and bonding over it rather than seeing it as a means to separate from one another.

Summerhill: We have the podcast where we’re always talking about race and racism, and we usually invite guests of color to come on and share their experiences. Then in half of the episodes, Yseult and I are talking about that intersection or that tension that exists between White people and people of color and, in our case, White people and Black people. We realize we exist in the world completely differently, and every time we hang out or have a casual conversation, whether we’re getting dinner as friends or working together as business partners, there are things to negotiate and to navigate that neither of us necessarily anticipated. Race comes up as a factor in every moment of every interaction.

Yseult is a mirror to my own Whiteness because White people go through life thinking that they’re the default race and that they’re raceless, and they never have to talk about race or experience race or think about it, and they see themselves outside of racism. I definitely went through many decades of my life like that before diving into anti-racism work. So every day, as Yseult said, we have aha moments, and they’re not always comfortable. Sometimes they’re super painful and super traumatic because the relationships between people of color and White people in this country are layered deep, going generations back in trauma and exploitation and harm. All of that is an undercurrent of our friendship that we can’t ignore.

If you’re a White person in an interracial friendship, how do you acknowledge your harm and move forward as a friend?

Summerhill: The immediate reflex when you’re White is usually defensiveness. There’s an impulse to take it personally. I’ve grown up, like so many White people, thinking that being called racist or anything close to that is the worst possible thing. But as Yseult said, I’ve now learned that just because I’ve messed up that isn’t necessarily a reflection on my entire character. It doesn’t mean that all bets are off and the friendship is over. Because there is this fear around even talking about racism, people avoid it because they don’t want to be implicated in it in any way.

For me, what I’ve realized is to not take things personally. It’s recognizing that the ego has to exist completely separate from this work. If you’re a White person who’s committed to anti-racism, you have to remove your ego completely because this work requires so much unlearning and reeducating and reconditioning. Your whole world and your viewpoints are going to be fractured and torn apart in a good way because you’ll start to see the truth, but it can be disorienting and uncomfortable and scary for White people.

I’ve learned that if Yseult’s going to share something with me that makes me defensive, I need to listen and know that it’s my ego whose impulse is to go, “But I didn’t mean it like that.” That’s minimizing the experience in her reality and that’s the opposite of what I want to do. I call them fragility flare-ups whenever my Whiteness comes spouting out and I respond by saying, “I don’t know,” “It wasn’t me,” or “I didn’t do it” instead of, “Okay, I hear you. Thank you for sharing that with me. I got it, and I appreciate that you feel you can share that with me because I know it’s uncomfortable to confront somebody if they’ve done something wrong.”

Polfliet: I realized that I could trust Hannah because she saw me as a person and not as a Black girl. Feeling human is the first step in feeling safe with someone for me. I realized that she wasn’t seeing me as just a statistic, especially given the circumstances in which we met. I can’t trust someone who sees me as the outsider. I have to know that you’re genuine, that you’re not trying to check a box. But if you can connect and see me as a person, then we can probably have a conversation.

That’s how you build any friendship. I have to feel seen for all aspects of who I am and not just as a Black girl. I’ve grown up and been around a lot of White people. At some point, you tune in with this ability to see and call out when someone is trying to fetishize you in a weird way. We always talk about fetishizing people of color in a sexual context, but we never put it in the context of friendship and interpersonal relationships. That is real, and you learn how to navigate around that. I had to explain to Hannah that this is something that happens to me. I’ve been around other women where it doesn’t feel like they’re getting to know me or I’m getting to know them.

How do you respond and address when someone is hurt?

Summerhill: Sometimes it takes some time between us. There have been moments where something will happen, and maybe a couple of days later, Yseult will say, “That was really uncomfortable for me, and I’ve had some time to think about it, and I just want to talk about it.” Sometimes it just doesn’t necessarily land. Sometimes it takes a minute to realize when something is messed up. Even with my White friends that I have to call out when they say problematic things, sometimes it takes me a couple days to articulate why what they said was wrong.

As Yseult mentioned, the trust is the most important part. So many people want this to be so easy and bypass all of the time that any relationship takes to build. They want to get right to the closeness and the bond, but trust comes with time. It takes time and consistency and communication, and those are the pillars interracial friendships need.

Polfliet: If you’re a friend, I don’t see it as “calling out.” I call out people I don’t care about and I don’t know. But if you’re my friend, I’m going to put in effort and give you time to sit in that idea. I cannot sit with discomfort when I know that I can address it. I can sit in discomfort in an uncomfortable conversation because then we’re having the conversation, but I can’t sit knowing that something awkward happened. I have to say something. So usually I let it sit for a day because I want to reflect on it, and I want to be able to come from a place of love.

I can’t be friends with White people if I can’t talk about when they’ve said something weird. And it’s going to happen more often than we want to believe because we’ve grown in different environments. Hannah is super receptive, and that’s why this friendship works so well. Hannah is open enough to hear me out. We have unsaid ground rules we’ve implemented in our relationship that we’ve never even shared with each other. We talk about things when they’re bothersome, and then we address it as soon as possible. I have Black friends who are friends with White people and they think, This person is not changing. Obviously they’re not going to change if you don’t say anything. You address it only if you care. If I don’t care, then I’ll walk away. But then you leave someone in the dark because they legitimately don’t know. I’m not talking about obvious things. It’s the subtle things that you would know only if you’re a person of color—that’s where the other person needs your insight in order to understand where they messed up. That’s compassion, and that’s the love on an interpersonal level that I have with Hannah.

Talking about race is crucial for boundaries and trust, so how do you bring up race in your friendships without causing harm?

Polfliet: Being honest is the only way we can be in a more comfortable place. That is the only way I can be friends with White people—if I’m around people who are willing to hear me out when I’m frustrated about something and if I can come to you and talk about the fact that I experienced something racist today. It’s a normalcy that you have to implement from the beginning with your friend so that it becomes natural to talk about icky stuff.

I’m still going through it, but there’s a decolonization period in your life where you have to address all these things that you thought were normal because you were around so many White people. Even me, I’m super vocal and I never hold back as I talk about racial issues, but I still catch myself and think, Wow, my mind was colonized. And then you feel ashamed because you’re this proud person of color, but here you are discovering how messed up that was to believe or to be put in that situation. It’s not easy.

No person of color ever wants to be in an uncomfortable situation. If we talk about it, it is because we need to talk about it, and that’s our reality. I’ll always talk about race because there’s always a problem about race. There’s always space to talk about it.

Summerhill: I have other friendships that are longtime friendships, but they feel very passive because they’ve been sitting in the status quo that was established in college or in high school or earlier. Sometimes it can be hard to introduce any tension into it because it has not been part of our relationship, but the responsibility of a White person is to call on the White people around them to have the hard conversations.

For me, these conversations don’t always have the most positive outcome when my White friends aren’t receptive to thinking about their own impact and responsibility when it comes to racism. I desire truth and transparency now in all my relationships because it’s so strong in my friendship with Yseult and our business partnership and what we do every day, but it can definitely break down the relationships that I’ve had for a long time that aren’t ready for it.

You might not necessarily be able to articulate those thoughts, but that’s what we want to try to do: to crystallize those subconscious thoughts, those comforts and biases, and bring them to light. We need to have more honest cross-racial dialogues in our society as a whole because it’s uncomfortable for many people. It’s rife with tokenizing and fetishizing and microaggressions, and we have to figure out how to do it well.

Yseult Polfliet and Hannah Summerhill are the cofounders of Kinswomen, a platform aimed at bridging the gaps between women of color and White women and normalizing cross-racial dialogues. In addition to their podcast, which has been named Best of 2020 by Elle, Marie Claire, and Cosmo, the Kinswomen host anti-racism classes and trainings for companies and consumers. You can learn more about them and join their monthly conversation series at www.kinswomenpodcast.com.