Now, friendships are fraught with complications like dating, wealth-consciousness, and race. The race landmines can be awkward and mostly harmless as this Facebook message from an acquaintance:
“you'd be so proud of my current asianness. i just made authentic pho soup.”(She’d also declared herself an “honorary Asian” over spring rolls when I saw her last month. It’s awkward, because it sounds like a lunch special could stand in for all refugee, assimilation, and minority experiences.) The landmines can also be as scathing as someone (our generation, my race, and just last week) suggesting that my dating someone who isn't Asian is a failure of character and a personal betrayal. That person and I may never speak again.
It’s common for majority-folks to disclaim, “It's impossible for me to put myself in your shoes, and experience what you must feel every day.” I disagree. Most people have had at least one searing experience with alienation - perhaps as a woman in a male-dominated field or as the fat kid in a skinny school. Many people, though, use it as a card to win some unspoken victimization contest, rather than as a foundation for understanding.
Once, a girlfriend and I got into a serious email exchange after two nights out: one where I’d gotten us on the list at Verve (she was one of the few white people there and decided to leave) and the other when she’d invited me to East Andrews (I was one of the few people of color, and didn't enjoy the 80s rock cover band). We both said some things after drinking some things, I think. Sober, she wrote, “It makes me angry that people of other races assume that I’ve never been discriminated against when they discriminate more against me than I ever have or will against them. Since I’m white, that’s what they expect from me.” There are two kinds of discrimination here, and both must exist simultaneously to exist at all. Conversely, if one goes, the other evaporates, too.
It can be done. First, minorities have to acknowledge that white friends are trying and missteps don’t constitute racism; this way, we can all get on the same team. (That’s one of the two twin racisms.)
Second, majorities have to stop being defensive to the point of killing discussion before it starts. Out of frustration, some people refuse to discuss cultural or racial differences at all, because they feel that acknowledging them gives prejudice power. But like anger or addiction, we can't get rid of something we don't acknowledge.
Thirdly, never argue against each other. Argue for understanding. Trust that you want to understand your friend as much as she wants to understand you, even –especially- when the conversation starts out uncomfortably. These exchanges rarely come up casually, and when they do, no one wants to lose a friend over it. About these landmines, she wrote, “It makes me angry that I can cause pain and pour salt into this wound every time I open my mouth without even knowing it.” When any of us don’t know, it’s because we're all reluctant to educate each other. I wrote her, “I know your heart enough to refuse to believe that you would choose to continue to cause pain unknowingly.”
We grew closer in these days of emails than we had in years of nights out. Difference is often where the beauty of friendship lies.