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Let’s Face It, You Need New Friends, Part 1

It’s a new year and the time when people usually venture out to try something new or different to improve their lives. Typically these activities are centered on diet and exercise, but I am going to challenge you to do something else. Get some new friends. I had the pleasure of spending lunch on a webinar hosted by the National Coalition on School Diversity titled Addressing Racial Dynamics in the Classroom, led by Rachel Godsil and Linda Tropp. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I went into the webinar with an open-mind. The hour made a significant impact on me.

If I am honest, I ended the webinar with feelings ranging from frustration to resolve to hope. I also gained a deeper understanding of implicit bias, racial anxiety, stereotype threat and attributional ambiguity. I genuinely urge you to read the full piece to gain your own understanding, because I cannot do it justice here.

One thing that really registered with me – and I want you to take an honest look at your inner circle to see if it is true for you – was the fact that you probably need more black friends, Latino friends, Asian friends, white friends, Christian friends, Muslim friends, Jewish friends, homosexual friends, friends with (dis)abilities, poor friends, rich friends, young friends, old friends, and the list goes on and on. To put it plainly, you and I need to build genuine relationships with people who are not like us, and leave our assumptions about them at the door.

I applaud you if you are championing efforts of equality and equity. You are doing the right thing. However, in terms of race, the research shared in this webinar found that being an advocate only in your professional work may be insufficient.

“It is not enough for people to be taught that negative stereotypes are false or to believe in the mortality of non-prejudice. People need to feel a connection to others outside of their group; once people feel connected, their racial anxiety decreases and so does their bias (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008; Voci & Hewstone, 2003).”

Before we get too comfortable with the simplicity of the idea that being able to say, “Oh, my best friend is ________________” (fill in the blank), having a diverse group of friends doesn’t keep us from having automatic associations, prejudices, and biases toward certain groups. We have to consciously work though those ideas daily. What forming those relationships allows for us is the opportunity to have a more accurate perception, and keeps us from relying on a single story, an idea shared brilliantly through a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I asked my one of my best friends, who is white, what our friendship has done for her, and she said, “Having a friendship with you has forced me to see things from a different perspective. It has changed my thinking, and opened my eyes to things I previously didn’t see.”

I can absolutely say the same thing based on my friendship with her. I have literally grown in my humanity by expanding my friendship circle to those who are different from me. 

As educators, we are models for our students. We need to make sure that we are asking them to work collaboratively and embrace difference, and we need to do the same in our own lives.

11 Comments

Jaraux washington commented on January 13, 2015 at 8:30am:

Love not tolerance

Awesome post Val,

I totally agree. At schools right now we teach tolerance....sounds good but not really. To tolerate something means (to me) I don't like it yet I can endure it's presence for a little while. Tolerance does not develope real relationships and communication, rather it develops what i call politically correct mentality. ( i feel how I feel but i just wont share it with you, nor am i willing to have an honest conversation about it)

Tolerance will not change the bias, strong holds or views of anyone, only true relationships and real conversations do that. So I love your post. Love conquers all things and to love another i have to know them personally.

Thanks for your courage and your tenacity on this issue

Jaraux

Brianna Crowley commented on January 13, 2015 at 9:30am:

Can't Agree More...Difficult to Practice!

Val, thanks so much for writing this piece. I value YOU as an important voice in my PLN--one that pushes me to react to the world with thoughtfulness and empathy. Thank you for that. 

A few years ago I looked around my close friend group and realized that it was very white, highly educated, Protestant Christian (in background if not practice), middle class, and early 30s. Although one of my closest friends has a childhood rooted in urban poverty, and a family of immigrants from South Korea, she too lives a similar lifestyle to mine now--similar problems, decisions, and entertainment. I value her voice and her experience as it has changed me forever, but as I looked around my friends, I felt like I wasn't living the life you describe so aptly in your piece. I wasn't seeking out those different from me to build genuine relationships.

The problem was this: how do I start? Where do I meet people different from me? How do I maintain contact and form a genuine relationship--not an awkward or stilted one?

These questions largely remain in my life, but one concrete step I have made is to become involved in the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentorship program in my area. I specifically requested a little sister who was not of my own race. Interestingly, the organization originally pushed-back on that request...but did eventually pair me with a wonderful 12-year-old who I still mentor today.

My relationship with my little sister has allowed me to also form relationships (although casual) with her family--older cousins, aunts, friends. It's a genuine relationship because we all care about her, and it's allowed us to interact regularly.

The rest of my diverse friends live far from me and have been connected to me through my virtual, professional networks. I still feel I have much work today in my close, personal, and local group of friends. Thanks for reintroducing me to this challenge as it is one I so strongly believe in.

I've included a link to this blog in my own post about social justice. Thanks for adding to our conversation here, and for adding to my own learning. 

Lauren Stephenson commented on January 13, 2015 at 10:58am:

Thank you

Val,

Thank you for this extraordinary post. You're right--no matter who your best friend is or how progressive you think your views are, there is always room to expand your social circle and befriend people who will push and remold your perspective.

That's what true friendship is about, isn't it? Connecting authentically and having someone challenge you to think differently--and better. This is particularly important for those of us who are role models to kids.

Thanks for the gentle push. :)

Lauren

Keshi Satterwhite commented on January 13, 2015 at 12:23pm:

Diversifying my friends, really?

I have learned about diversifying my investment portfolio, but never heard conversations about diversifying my friends. I must admit, if it wasn’t for my career choice, my circle of friends probably would be predominantly African American.

You have shared a very interesting perspective and have me thinking outside of what I like to consider my "wall-less box" of possibilities. Possibilities that will include extending my circle beyond the small, yet close-knit, colorless group I refer to as my group of friends.

meredith danielle commented on January 13, 2015 at 3:14pm:

bells of truth!

Val,

I LOVE this post (and POINT)...it can not be over-emphasized.  As a Black, Hispanic woman, due to a number of factors, this rings so true for me.  In hindsight, I realize that growing up I took this for granted, but I was afforded such cultural experiences (which tends to be so much broader than racial diversity) that alleviated a great degree of any "implicit bias, racial anxiety, stereotype threat and attributional ambiguity"  impacting my relationships well into adulthood.  I truly believe diversity is by far one of the greatest (albeit untapped) resources available to us.  As a result, and as a mother especially, I make every effort to reach out, connect, connect others...so that at the end of the day, we realize that what we have to share will always be greater than any assumption.

Val Brown Val Brown commented on January 13, 2015 at 4:32pm:

I am always pleasantly

I am always pleasantly surprised when my writing resonates with someone else inside (or outside) of the Collaboratory. Often they are the thoughts I share with my husband, or my close friends, and I am not sure how they will be received by others. Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment on the post. 

Briana, you bring up a very good point regarding how to get started. If you are physcially in a homogenous community, then I encourage you to keep building relationships through your virtual community. Bill Ivey and I briefly discussed on Twitter that we think as long as it's a genuine relationship where both parties are learning and growing, then you don't have to be face to face. The other suggestion I have when it comes to beginning these relationships is to just strike up a conversation with someone. I think it is that simple and (depending on your introversion rating) that difficult. 

According to the census, I grew up in a dominately (97%) African-American city. However, right now I am typically the only black people in the room. Plus, I am an extrovert. So if I want to talk to anyone 9 times out of 9 times, I will be speaking with some one different from me -- when it comes to race. The more I get to know them, the more I realize there is a lot we have in common AND they can add a unique perspective to my life. #winwin

Brianna Crowley commented on January 13, 2015 at 9:15pm:

At this point, Lady, there should be no surprise! :)

Although I know you are a humble leader, I chuckled to read that you are surprised when your written thoughts resonate. You are one of the most genuine, get-to-the-heart bloggers I read! Seriously, I'm surprised that you're surprised. You are a ROCKSTAR! 

But, I digress...with a smile. 

I'm glad to hear about your conversation with Bill. People I work with through my Teacherpreneurial role and other professional communities DO feel like my inner circle. We follow each others' work often more closely than those who I technically could see every day in my building. We collaborate more closely, and even share beds when trying to make money stretch at a conference! So the more I think about it, the more I agree with you and Bill's conclusion--it counts. 

But I'm also glad you raised my awareness to the possibilities that surround me. Intentionality is a powerful force when applied to realtionship. 

Justin Minkel commented on January 15, 2015 at 3:51pm:

Amen.

Val, I love this post. I think part of the reason our society has moved so far on issues like gay marriage and so little on issues like race-based police brutality is that so many people have gay sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, and friends, and that the more people come out of the closet, the more people who know those people come out of the closet. It's hard to despise a group once you love someone, or even really like someone, who is in that group.

I like the "wedding test," which has made me cringe at many weddings including my own. Many of us think we have a relatively diverse group of friends, but when you look around at your own wedding, it comes home to you what the makeup of your closest friends (and family) looks like.

I went to get my fingerprints taken today to renew my license, and the truth of your post hit me hard. Most of the people I saw in the county prison (I went through 3 sets of bolted doors to get to the fingerprint machine) were white, but they are from another world than mine.

The guy getting fingerprinted with me was there for a conceal/carry gun permit, a man in his 70's who has done so much hard labor his fingerprints didn't show up on the machine at first. A vast gulf separates me from him, not to mention the 20 mostly white women in jump suits who the cop escorting us through the doors told to "Face the wall, ladies," as we passed.

As I made some passing comment about how cold it's been this winter as we walked to our cars, I wondered what his life is like.

I learned as much from the other students in my Africana college courses as I did from the coursework itself. I only had one truly close African-American friend in my four years of college, but I learned a tremendous amount from the stories and perspectives of classmates in those courses, who I wouldn't have met through normal college life without choosing that major.

Thanks for this post, Val.

Kris Giere commented on January 15, 2015 at 7:54pm:

Come over for dinner

Thanks, Val, for the great piece.  I can't wait for Part II!

As I reflect on your piece, it reminds of someone who once told me that you can't count people as part of your circle of friends unless you sit down and share a meal with them.  Another friend added that the demographics of who you invite into your home is also very telling of how diverse your friends really are.  I can't remember who first mentioned it to me, but I've started to judge the diversity of my friends by who I invite to dinner or into my home, not just who I talk to or engage socially.  As an introvert, my circle is much smaller than some, but this thought is one I keep in mind as I reflect on my own diversity.  It is also one I actively encourage others to consider as they contemplate their own circle of friends.

Who do you invite over for dinner?

Marsha Ratzel commented on January 17, 2015 at 7:37am:

Collecting the good, bad and difficult

Thanks Val for writing and posting this.  I read it, decided I had nothing to add to the convo and clicked off.  Except that my brain was still on the page....so I've thought about what you had to say and now I feel able to offer an idea.

I live in a place that is very homogeneous.  I come from farmer families who all worked in the same way, lived the same life and were pretty intertwined.  Kind, hard working and great people who were a fantastic launching pad.

When I graduated from high school, I wanted to see more & explore the world.  So I went to college in the urban core of Boston.  Talk about getting out of your comfort zone....it was at the height of forced desegregation busing and Boston was a mess.  Killings, demonstrations and lots of anger.  From riding horses through Kansas fields to the riot police lining the streets of my walk to college----huge shift! 

It was hard and scary.  

I learned more than I can tell you.  I will tell you that I was completely unprepared...when people would ask me "What are you?"  

I had no answer.  "Where are you from?"....

"Kansas" I would reply,   "No that's not what I mean, where is your family from?"  I only could stare back because I had no idea.  My family had been on those farms as far back as our stories went and I had no idea.  Quickly I learned people identified themselves as Italian American, Africian American or Irish American....I wasn't anything that I knew of.

Hard transition.  I thought I was proud of being from farmer families.

I was portrayed as naive, absurdly innocent and dismissed.  I took a leave of absent from my college during the 2nd semester of my freshman year to come back home, go to a local college and regroup.

When I went back, I realized that I am proud of who I came from.  For me my lesson was that it didn't matter that I didn't know where I came from or what I was.  I figured out to be different is AOK and I spent the next 3 years loving the fact that I wasn't the same as everyone else.  It's all that I was a weirdo that no one from New York City or Boston or Baltimore had ever encountered before...heck my freshman roommate was a model.  I mucked stalls and she modeled!!!  Talk about contrast.  This second time around I was prepared for not being accepted.

That really threw most people for a loop.

They wanted me to feel bad and I simply didn't cop their attitude.  I also feel like I was lucky because I was attending a woman's college....which addressed and prepared us for a lifetime of discrimination and belief that women aren't as capable as men.  What they taught me about being proud of being a woman applied to being from Kansas!  

I lived in Boston for a decade and then in southern California for 13 more years.  I went through almost the same kind of finding acceptance when I moved to San Diego....I had to learn the vibe of a new place and culture. Again I was a weirdo East Coaster who loved to read and talk about big ideas/politics and no,I didn't like the beach or tanning. I had to carve out my place...recalibrate and be open to learning new ways of being.

I think that's the best part of stretching yourself.  It's hard and scary.  You get bruised.  You learn.  You find your niche.  And Val, I think there's real wisdom what you've said to look for those diversity of experiences, people, cultures and lifestyles. Collecting experiences makes you richer. I feel like I look back across the decades and feel so lucky that am not only the 18 year old farmer/horse lover .....I am still that and so much more!!!

Does that make sense?

 

Val Vaganek commented on May 3, 2015 at 8:37pm:

Right On

What a great story Val, full of blatant truths and really pushing us to move out of our comfort zones and see the world we live in with different eyes. I grew up in a northern town and only associated with white folk, since there wasn't other types of people in my sheltered area. 

In college, my world expanded a little bit. But since I moved to central Florida 28  years ago, my horizons have broadened and I have met so many diverse people...genders, sexualities, colors, religious beliefs...I LOVE diversity and try to honor the essence in each human being that enters my life.

Thank you for a piece well written.

Looking forward to meeting you someday soon,

Val

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