Try something new this year. Get some new friends.

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.

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