Ask Code Switch: What About Your Friends? We help our listeners understand how race and its evil play cousin, racism, affect our friendships. And we're doing it with help from WNYC's Death, Sex & Money podcast. Be a good friend and listen.

Ask Code Switch: What About Your Friends?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If this friendship existed in a vacuum, this would be perfect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She said that I segregate my friends. And I was like, hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Like, my friend isn't racist, but she's not anti-racist.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: OK. It's fine that you wear hoop earrings and you get your hair braided. Like, that's not a huge deal, but this is a huge deal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I don't want her to feel like it's a judgment coming from me, necessarily.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I feel like the friendship has deteriorated.





What's good, Shereen?

MERAJI: A lot of things had to happen in the universe so that you and I could be friends.

DEMBY: Say more.

MERAJI: Stars had to align, planets had to shift. And when I say friends, by the way, I don't just mean co-workers; I mean friends.

DEMBY: Oh, we're a miracle.

MERAJI: We are a miracle.


MERAJI: We do all the friend things. We text all the time. We hang out when we're in the same city...

DEMBY: When we're in the same place.

MERAJI: ...Or at least we try to (laughter).

DEMBY: I'm not going to bring up the fact that you and Nico (ph) flaked on me and Kay (ph) when we were out in the Bay. I'm not going to bring it up.

MERAJI: That was the holidays, and there's family obligations. Also, you and Kay gave us the tiniest window of availability. It was, like, a 20-minute window on a random Monday (laughter).

DEMBY: Y'all were, like...

MERAJI: You made it so hard.

DEMBY: I mean, (laughter) we can't help it if we got, you know, a busy social calendar. Plus, y'all were, like, in San Jose, like, a minute away.

MERAJI: Yeah. That was true. That was far.

DEMBY: But we were willing to make that trip for you.

MERAJI: Whatever.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: As you all can see, we even fight like friends.

DEMBY: (Singing) Friends.

MERAJI: And that's when you really know a friendship is real.

DEMBY: (Singing) Friends forever.

Yeah, that's "Saved By The Bell." All right. So, yes...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...The universe and the stars had to align a certain way just for us to be friends, because the data show that cross-racial friendships or interracial friendships are just not that common. For those of you who are new to CODE SWITCH, I'm black, obviously - I hope it's obvious (laughter). And Shereen contains multitudes.

MERAJI: Guess what I am.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: If you can't guess by my voice...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: ...I'm Iranian and Puerto Rican.


MERAJI: And you're all listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. This is an episode from our regular series Ask Code Switch where we try, at least - with the help of experts. We're not just out here freestyling and making stuff up. We try to help our audience better navigate the various ways that race and its evil play cousin, racism...

MERAJI: (Laughter) Its evil play cousin.

DEMBY: ...Affect our lives.

MERAJI: And the theme of this week's Ask Code Switch is race and friendship.


CHRIS ROCK: We live in a crazy time where Dr. King and Mr. Mandela's dreams are coming true. And black people and white people and Asians, Indians and everybody's hanging out together to have interracial posses. It's unbelievable what's going on, man.


ROCK: Unbelievable. Unbelievable. It's unbelievable. All my black friends have a bunch of white friends, and all my white friends have one black friend.


MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: That part of Chris Rock's stand-up that you just heard was used in a Washington Post article from a few years back to highlight a pretty shocking statistic from a study done by Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute.

MERAJI: Yeah. It's a study you bring up a lot...

DEMBY: I do (laughter).

MERAJI: ...In a lot of CODE SWITCH meetings. And the takeaway from the study is, basically, white Americans have mostly white friends.


MERAJI: Seventy-five percent of white Americans have entirely white social networks - no people of color at all. Zero.

DEMBY: None.

MERAJI: And black people are eight times more likely to have a white friend, but black people's social networks are pretty homogenous, too.

GRACE KAO: The very low rates of interracial friendships for whites and blacks, it's pretty alarming.

MERAJI: Grace Kao is a Yale sociologist, Gene. She studies interracial relationships, both romantic and platonic. And she also found that white Americans and black Americans tend to have the fewest cross-racial friendships. Her new book, "The Company We Keep," came out in 2019. And to write it, she and her co-authors analyzed a huge dataset from over 100 schools across the United States. And students were surveyed as adolescents in the mid-'90s and then again as young adults in 2008.

KAO: What we say about this group of kids at this point of time is generalizable to the entire U.S.

MERAJI: And for those of you who are wondering right now why so much of this data seems like it's black and white, Grace's research actually includes multiracial people, Latinx folks and Asians. And Grace found that Asians are more likely to have cross-racial friendships.

KAO: It's a lot easier, just by chance, for an Asian kid to have a friend that's not Asian. I think that's an artifact of just being such a small number in the typical American school and also in the U.S. as a whole.

MERAJI: And the Latinx students in the dataset who are considered, quote-unquote, "white Hispanics," were the most likely to have friends of another race.

KAO: But I want to remind you that, of course, they did not look good in terms of just the odds of having a friend.

DEMBY: Wait, wait, wait. What did - what?

MERAJI: I know. OK. So to use the government's language, white Hispanics are the most likely to have actual cross-race friendships if they have a friend (laughter).

DEMBY: If they have a friend.

MERAJI: Right. And what Grace told me was what alarmed her maybe more than the fact that white and black students tended to have so few friends of a different race was the fact that kids who said they had no friends at all were disproportionately kids of color - black, Asian and Latinx.


KAO: There's just this real sense of isolation in not being accepted by kids at school. That's a real problem. How awful is it to have to go to school every day and not have a single friend?

MERAJI: And in case you're wondering - because I was (laughter) - according to Grace's research, white girls are the most likely to have friends, followed by white boys.

KAO: I would say it's less than 10% of white girls that can't name a single friend at school. But for black, Hispanic and Asian males, it's more like 30%.

MERAJI: And do you have those numbers for black, Hispanic and Asian girls?

KAO: Yes. They're better, but they're not as good as the white girls. So for black, Hispanic and Asian girls, it's more like 20%.


MERAJI: So why is the data breaking down this way? Well, Grace is a quantitative researcher. She's the person who says, hmm, we're observing this phenomenon. Even though the country is getting more diverse, people still have homogenous social networks...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...Let's see if the numbers bear that out. And Grace and her colleagues found that, yes, the numbers do bear that out. They did find that the more diverse a school was, the more likely the kids surveyed would go on to have cross-racial friendships as adults, even the ones who didn't have those kinds of friendships as kids.


MERAJI: As for the why...

KAO: I could guess. But, you know, like, we don't actually - you know, there's a tradeoff, right? You can either talk to people and get really detailed information, but then you talk to 10 people. Or you can study 90,000 people, and you can't talk to any of them.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: So unlike Grace, I am a qualitative researcher.

MERAJI: That's Beverly Daniel Tatum. She's a psychologist and author of "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race."

TATUM: And so I have done lots of interviews with not nearly as many as she's got in terms of her numbers - very impressive dataset that she has. But friendship is largely determined by proximity. You know, you get to know the people who are nearby. For the black person who grows up in a largely black environment, it's not a surprise that that's their social network and how they spend their time outside of the workspace - you know, probably attending, if they attend church, a historically black church. The same would be true for a white person who grows up in a predominately white neighborhood or almost entirely white neighborhood - likely to have a very white social network.

But for those people who live in racially mixed communities and have that experience growing up attending a diverse school, living in a racially mixed neighborhood, they are much more likely to have a diverse group of friends than those who have not had that experience. You know, you become comfortable in a mixed environment if that's what you've grown up in. And it doesn't seem odd to you.

DEMBY: I'm very dramatically clearing my throat. #HousingSegregationInEverything. I feel like that's going to come up a bit in this episode...

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: ...Just a hunch.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Well, it is in everything. And segregated neighborhoods means segregated schools. And when you're growing up, that's where you make most of your friends. That's where you're spending so much of your time. For more on that, I spoke with another expert on cross-race friendships. Her name is Cinzia Pica-Smith. She's an associate professor at Assumption College. And she teaches prospective educators and therapists, many of whom are white and will end up working with kids of color in the public school system.

CINZIA PICA-SMITH: Children will find each other across racial lines when they enjoy equal status, when they collaborate with one another on common goals and when they are supported by authority. And that is not happening in schools today. First of all, schools are segregated across the nation. So they're absolutely set up inequitably.

Secondly, even in schools that are demographically racially diverse - for those rare occasions when they are - tracking happens in those schools so that students of color are overrepresented in lower academic tracks. And then in those schools, students of color are more likely to be taught by less experienced, white, middle-class, monolingual teachers. And those teachers often lack professional development on implicit racial bias.

DEMBY: So basically she's saying, even on the rare occasions in which students are going to putatively integrated schools, they're still being divvied up by race because of tracking. And you've also got kids of color - black and Latinx and native - being punished, you know, far more harshly for the same infractions - we've reported on this before - not to mention just curricula that leaves them out entirely, that doesn't mention them at all.

MERAJI: Yeah. And Cinzia told me, no wonder these students are marginalized and having a hard time making cross-race friendships, let alone any friendships.

PICA-SMITH: When we have created a system of education that is racially equitable across the board, we're going to see children enjoying cross-race friendships at a much higher rate.

MERAJI: Gene, taking it back to the Bay for a second...

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...I have that Coup song in my head...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: ..."Strange Arithmetic." Do you know that one?

DEMBY: I don't. I don't.

MERAJI: Oh, it's so good.


THE COUP: (Singing) Teacher, my hand's up. Please, don't make me a victim. Teachers, stand up. Tell us how to flip this system. Move.

MERAJI: (Singing) Tell us how to flip this system. I feel like the answer to everything we talk about on CODE SWITCH is flip this system.


DEMBY: Burn it all down...

MERAJI: Yes. But barring that, Gene...


MERAJI: ...You and I have some of the things that can lead to cross-racial friendships.

DEMBY: Like what?

MERAJI: I went to diverse schools. I'm the product of a cross-ethnic marriage.

DEMBY: True.

MERAJI: So I've been putting in these reps since, I don't know, infancy.

DEMBY: You've been in the game forever. I don't got none of that, though (laughter). I grew up in a, you know, black neighborhood. Went to black middle school, black elementary school, mostly black high school. Yeah, I mean...

MERAJI: Well, we work together, too.

DEMBY: Oh, that probably helps.

MERAJI: Here's Beverly Daniel Tatum again.

TATUM: So when we talk about friendships that develop through work, those are also about proximity, right? You are seeing people every day, you're engaged in common tasks. But then the question is, do they cross boundaries outside of work?

DEMBY: All right, so we've established that you and I have a relationship that extends outside of work. But, you know, there's a lot of people who like to claim, you know, that somebody they work with - they have a colleague, let's say - who, for the purposes of saying that they have a diverse friend group, they promote their brown work colleague to full-time, capital-F friend.

MERAJI: You know who you are.

DEMBY: Yes. They be doing, like, race inflation, you know what I mean?

MERAJI: (Laughter) Right. And, you know, that one POC friend is just the person that you have a 15-minute conversation with at the coffee maker.

DEMBY: That's a slow coffee machine. Just...

MERAJI: (Laughter) Or, I don't know, what is the - the water cooler, whatever that thing is these days. Anyway, when Beverly is talking about crossing boundaries outside of work, she's actually talking about spending quality time together, maybe talking about stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with work, and that's where she says things can get challenging.


MERAJI: And to help illustrate that point, we're going to hear now from a woman named Chrishana. She wrote to us about some tension that arose in one of her friendships that crossed that work boundary.

CHRISHANA: I think it really started after I had my bachelorette and I didn't invite her.

MERAJI: So Chrishana met her friend Sarah, who she's talking about right there, when they were both at orientation for their new jobs as public defenders. Chrishana's black. Sarah became her first real white friend. Chrishana actually calls Sarah one of her best friends. But she rarely invites her to do things with her close black friends.

CHRISHANA: Like, she made a joke, and she said that I segregate my friends. And I was like, hmm, you may have a point. And I've been thinking about it for a long time, for months now.

MERAJI: Chrishana didn't grow up around white people and never thought she would have a close friendship with someone white.

CHRISHANA: I think it was, like, a defense mechanism, that, like, white people didn't want to be friends with me. And so for me, I was like, well, I don't want to be friends with them either.

MERAJI: And this attitude is very common and makes total sense, says Cinzia Pica-Smith.

PICA-SMITH: When educators, especially white educators, see that children of color are coming together in same-race friendships, white educators will panic and say, well, they're self-segregating, and they're expressing prejudice, they don't want to be with the white children. What we find is that in spaces where there is racial inequity, that is a protective response. It is not about out-group prejudice; it's about preservation. In white children, exclusive in-group same-race friendships is correlated with out-group prejudice.

DEMBY: Whoa. OK. So she's saying that black kids are huddling together at the school cafeteria table in order to - for solidarity because they're ostracized otherwise in mostly white schools, right?


DEMBY: But those whites-only tables, which are most of the rest of the tables, that is white kids policing, like, their space for whiteness.

MERAJI: Yeah. But the black kids are the ones who are called self-segregating, which I find very interesting.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah. Because whiteness is normal. Right. Exactly. Right. Right. Oh, man.

MERAJI: And, you know, and Chrishana said it herself. She had black friends for most of her life to protect herself from being rejected. But somehow, she managed to make friends with Sarah. They managed to beat the odds. They got close as adults - very, very close. They were real friends. They hung out outside of work. But Sarah felt like there was still a boundary up between them. Why did Chrishana hang out with her separately from her other close friends who were black?

CHRISHANA: I think I became a little defensive, and I said, well, I haven't met any of your white friends either. And so - and I was like, we should talk about this.

MERAJI: And it's moments like this, Gene, where friends will start growing apart because so often, that discussion never happens. Here's Beverly Daniel Tatum again.

TATUM: There are situations that can cause tension in a relationship, and you have to be willing to be able to talk about it. There's a study that was done probably 20 years ago, maybe more, at UC Berkeley by a sociologist named Troy Duster, who was interested in black-white friendships in college.

And what he found was that both groups of students were interested in developing cross-racial friendships, but they wanted to do it in different ways. The white students wanted to kind of just hang out together. Let's, you know, go have pizza, have a beer. The black students were more interested in engaging with white peers in a more structured environment. They wanted to have dialogue about race and social justice issues. Meanwhile, the white students didn't really want to talk about race; they just wanted to hang out.


TATUM: Because of the racial context in which we're all living, if we want to have cross-racial relationships, part of what makes them successful is our willingness and ability to learn how to talk about racism, even in the context of the friendship.


DEMBY: So did Chrishana and Sarah ever talk about any of this?

MERAJI: Well, you will find out very soon...

DEMBY: Ooh, a teaser.

MERAJI: ...Because this episode is a collaboration with WNYC's "Death, Sex & Money" podcast, hosted by Anna Sale, and she spoke at length with Chrishana and Sarah. Here's Anna.

ANNA SALE: And we have tons more stories from people about when race became a flashpoint in their friendship. And it's interesting to hear these moments that have stuck with people for years and how rarely friends have actually talked directly about them afterwards.

MERAJI: We're going to drop that "Death, Sex & Money" episode in our feed tomorrow. Until then, we're going to hear from a couple more listeners who wanted to better understand how race was affecting their friendships.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. OK, so we're talking about friendship on this episode, and Shereen, you started off this whole episode with data from the Yale sociologist Grace Kao.

MERAJI: That's right. She's the quantitative researcher who found that Asian Americans are more likely than black and white Americans to have friends outside their race. They're also more likely to go to predominately white schools and live in predominately white neighborhoods. So if they're going to have friends, they kind of have to be interracial.

DEMBY: What a coincidence - that is the exact situation that our next letter-writer, Amy (ph), found herself in.

AMY: I mean, I think I'm at a place right now where I think I'm a lot more comfortable in a room full of white people than a room full of Asian people. And like, what does that make me?

DEMBY: OK. So Amy is a junior at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She's the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and she was raised in a really, really white suburb.

AMY: And that meant that I grew up, unfortunately, with very few friends of color - probably due to internalized racism, but also because there were very few people of color in my town and my school district in general.

MERAJI: Can we talk a little bit more about probably due to internalized racism?

DEMBY: Listen, listen, listen. So Amy told us that when she was really young, she rejected her mom's Chinese cooking - like, she actively avoided eating it. She was like, yo, I don't want to eat this. So her mom made Chinese food for everybody else and - I'm doing air quotes - "American food" for Amy.

MERAJI: Wow, that was really nice of her mom. My mom would never...

DEMBY: I know. (Laughter) You going to eat what I'm cooking.

MERAJI: Or you're going to starve.

DEMBY: (Laughter) In the high schools, that was really interesting, too, because Amy told us that she thought her high school was overwhelmingly white, but with some distance, a couple years out, she realized that it might not have been as white as she remembered. So her younger sister went to the same high school and managed to make a bunch of friends of color. So Amy just kind of actively avoided and blotted out the people of color who were around her.

AMY: The few Asian friends I did have at the time were really hard friendships due to a lot of reasons that did not have to do with race.

DEMBY: Amy also told us that she did not fit in with the other Asian girls in her high school because she was, in her words, loud and bad at math.

MERAJI: Not the words I would use.

DEMBY: Yeah. Yeah. But as we were talking about before, white friend circles are policed to maintain their whiteness. And so Amy's friend circles, which are mostly white, have been full of people, she said, who tormented her.

AMY: They would make fun of my parents' accents. They would call me Ling Ling (ph). I remember my senior year of high school, I was officially labeled the token Asian friend by my friend group. And looking back, most of the bullying came from girls who were my friends, who were part of my friend group and who I remained friends with until we graduated high school.

MERAJI: That makes me mad. I'm sorry.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah. I mean, it should. It's - ugh. So now Amy's in college. She's wrestling with all these big questions about her identity, which is what folks do in college. But her social universe, it looks kind of the same. And she kept pointing out that her friends are her ride-or-dies, but they are just not making any space for her in conversations about race.

AMY: I have white friends who patronize me and talk over me when it comes to discussing politics, particularly when it comes to discussing race and politics, and then being the one in charge of calling out microaggressions is also exhausting. And they're just like, is nothing OK? Like, why is, like, everything a problem for you? And it's just, I mean, their friendship is important and awesome, but it's hard when, like, this thing that means a lot to me feels like a burden to them.

MERAJI: Is the college that she goes to super white?

DEMBY: So it is a PWI - a predominately white institution. It's also way more diverse than the suburb she grew up in. And the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis area, is diverse, but she hasn't really availed herself of those communities. But she's trying, or she wants to try. In fact, she talked to some other students of color about how she was feeling about all this stuff.

AMY: Another Asian girl who grew up in suburban Minnesota - a suburb, like me - suggested that I stop talking to all of my white friends because that's what they did in high school. And I was super confused and surprised and shocked by this suggestion because it's just never really occurred to me before. But my dilemma is, is there are healthy middle ground? Am I a sellout to my race? Can I keep on being friends with white people and still retain my identity? And am I allowed to be friends with people who are also sometimes oppressors?

DEMBY: Right. And also, we just want to say to Amy, like, she should know that she came out of these white suburbs - which are not accidentally white suburbs, right? They are segregated white suburbs for a reason. She came out of that place with the exact universe of ideas and skepticisms about brown people and people of color that those places are meant to reproduce. You know what I mean?


DEMBY: Just because she's brown doesn't mean she would not have internalized any of that any less than all the white people who do that all the time. Luckily, we found an expert who thinks about stories just like this a lot.

DAVID ENG: Amy's is a very typical story.

MERAJI: Whose voice is that?

DEMBY: Oh, yeah.

ENG: My name is David Eng.

DEMBY: David Eng is an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania in mighty, mighty Philadelphia.

ENG: And I'm also a professor in Asian American studies, comparative literature and women's studies.

DEMBY: And you are the author of...

ENG: I am the author of a new book, Gene...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

ENG: ...Co-authored with my dear friend, Shinhee Han, who is a New York-based psychotherapist. It's called "Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On The Social And Psychic Lives Of Asian Americans."

MERAJI: Damn. David Eng is doing all the things. He has all the woke jobs.


DEMBY: All the woke jobs, you know what I mean? He should be teaching Jamaican America studies, too.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: But, yeah, David and his co-author, Shinhee, their book "Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation" is a collection of case histories and commentaries about Asian American college students that David and Shinhee have encountered in their work because Asian American college students, they say, have a particular set of anxieties and concerns.

ENG: Not dissimilar to the dilemma that Amy brings up here in her letter to CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: And so, in their work, David and Shinhee are addressing those anxieties sociologically and psychologically.

ENG: I do the structural critique. She tends to the symptoms.

MERAJI: All right. So racial melancholia and racial dissociation, let's get into those two things.

DEMBY: Yes, it's a little wonky sounding. We're going to do an explanatory comma here - for me, too, because I'm like, what?


DEMBY: David said that way back in 1917, Sigmund Freud wrote this essay in reaction to World War I. It was called "Mourning And Melancholia." Freud said that there's this thing called mourning...

ENG: Mourning, which is normal. You lose something - lose a boyfriend, lose a girlfriend, lose a parent - you mourn it. You get over it. You move on.

DEMBY: But there's this other thing called melancholia.

ENG: Melancholia for him is never-ending. It's, for him, pathological. And it's a mourning without end.

DEMBY: And so two decades ago, David and Shinhee coined this idea they called racial melancholia. It's about this ongoing mourning as it comes to identity.

ENG: Processes like immigration and assimilation, which are never complete, they put immigrants and Asian Americans along a continuum where they can never quite mourn or get over the losses of homeland, of language, of culture.

MERAJI: So this is what I've been suffering with my entire life.


MERAJI: There's a word for it - there's two words for it, racial melancholia.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: I want to say it with a Spanish accent. Anyway...

DEMBY: (Laughter) I was going to say, you put some Shereen on it.

MERAJI: (Laughter) What about racial dissociation?

DEMBY: OK. So dissociation is when people are having experiences that don't line up with the way they're explaining those experiences to themselves. So if you're having an experience that is racialized but you don't have the vocabulary to talk about that experience being about race or racism or you don't believe that that experience is about race or racism, you get caught up in this weird bind. David calls this the conundrum of colorblindness.

ENG: And you already see this with Amy. In her first paragraph of the letter she sent you, she says that she has internalized racism, and that's part of the reason why she didn't really have many friends in high school who were Asian American. And then she says, they were very difficult friendships, but they weren't due to race (laughter). So it's a strange contradiction.

DEMBY: Amy didn't tell us what made the few friendships she had with other Asian American kids so tough.

MERAJI: But also, she said that her white friends were her tormentors.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: So clearly, she can handle difficult relationships.

DEMBY: Exactly.

ENG: When she says, my friends were also my bullies, that part really kind of broke my heart because if you really consider someone a good friend, they should not be your bullies.

DEMBY: And the bind she's in is that she's isolated herself from all the brown people who might be able to validate the way she feels about all this stuff.

ENG: When she talks to her white friends, they have no idea what she's talking about, and they talk over her. And when she talks about race and her experiences, they disbelieve it. And then when she talks to her friends of color, they seem too radical for her. And again, that is the contradiction.

DEMBY: And just to zoom out a little bit more, David said that to understand what Amy is going through specifically, we have to zoom out to the larger context of Asian American folks in American life. David says that Asian American folks have toggled between inclusion and exclusion as model minorities. And it's a very complicated history, but the thing about model minority status that we should remember is that it is entirely provisional.

You can be, you know, a nonblack person of color who might be allowed some proximity to whiteness, you know, as long as you don't shake the table or point out the problems with that arrangement. And that's true in the macro sense, in the larger societal sense. But you could see up close how it plays out for somebody like Amy.

ENG: This idea of Amy being able to align with her white friends, to be an honorary white, to be a model minority, to be adjunct to whiteness, that is a long, long history.

DEMBY: And real quick, David pointed out that the doctrine of colorblindness - that, you know, race doesn't matter, that we shouldn't talk about it, blah, blah, blah - that really set in in the 1990s, about a generation or so out from the civil rights movement, right? And it meant that a lot of younger people who grew up after that time just do not have the vocabulary to talk about inequity and injustice.

And so the students who David and his co-author, Shinhee, say they're talking to and meeting with, they're struggling with sometimes debilitating anxiety, specifically because they've essentially been denied the language to articulate these things that are happening to them and shaping their lives.

MERAJI: Because colorblindness makes them dissociated.

DEMBY: Exactly.

MERAJI: Phew, that's a lot, Gene.

DEMBY: Right? Like, melancholy and grief and alienation as a consequence of structural racism, ain't that some - that's a lot.

MERAJI: I feel like the government should all pay for us to have therapy.


DEMBY: Listen, I'm with it. Put that on your platforms.

MERAJI: So did David have any advice for Amy?

DEMBY: Well, one thing she said she has going for her is that right now, she is in college. Like, for a few reasons, that's a really big boon to her. Like, for least a little while longer, she's in a place with a critical mass of people of color. David pointed out that people who live in homogenous spaces and then go to reasonably diverse colleges don't suddenly have diverse friendships after college, right? So there's a good chance that this is the most and last diverse space she may find herself in.

MERAJI: Take advantage, Amy.

DEMBY: And like, that's important because David was like, look, there is no way you can get around being around brown people, and Asian people specifically, if you want to have brown and Asian friends. And because she's on a college campus, she also has access to counseling, which I wish I would have taken advantage of when I was in school. The big caveat, David said, was that whoever she talks to needs to have some cultural competency...

MERAJI: Definitely.

DEMBY: ...Right. Because if they don't know any of this history, and if they don't know anything about the history of race in America - as he put it, about the problem of culture, about the problems of language, about Asian American immigration, about the idea of being a model minority - Amy might end up reenacting the same dynamics in the clinic that she's experiencing outside of the clinic. But, David said, she might find the space she needs to work through some of her feelings in the classroom.

ENG: So I think that there is, a lot of times, a false idea that ethnic studies programs - Asian American studies classes, African American studies classes - that these are all me classes. It's about me, me, me and, you know, my victimization. It's not. It's actually about trying to understand the longer histories that get us to the racial conflicts that are around us - all around us today.

And my job in the classroom is to provide the students with the history but also a critical vocabulary, not just to understand their own life experiences but how to contextualize those life experiences into a much longer history. And part of the way in which the clinic and the classroom come together is that in both of those spaces, these students are trying to re-narrate the story for themselves. And if they can re-narrate it either in the clinic or in the classroom, that can often be a very healing process.

MERAJI: It definitely can. I am a product of those classes (laughter). And I can say it was definitely very healing for me.


DEMBY: And Amy, our producer Jess wanted to tell you that you don't have to stop kicking it with your white friends because they're white - me and Shereen says this, too - but you definitely do not need to kick it with people who treat you poorly. Just remember that.

MERAJI: So maybe you need to stop kicking it with them.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Perhaps. Yes, perhaps.


MERAJI: All right. So far in this episode, we've been talking a lot about the ways that race can be a point of tension in interracial or cross-racial friendships. But, of course, that can also be the case when two people share a racial identity.

DEMBY: Ooh, child, let me tell you. Our next letter is about that exactly. And for that, we are bringing in our CODE SWITCH teammate Leah Donnella. What's good, Leah?


MERAJI: All right, Leah. What's the situation?

DONNELLA: OK. So this letter came from a woman named Sarah (ph) in New York.

SARAH: Dear, CODE SWITCH, I once had a co-worker who quickly became a friend outside of work. She was black, and I'm half black, half white. And we quickly bonded over a passion for racial and gender equality.

DONNELLA: Sarah says this friendship with her co-worker flourished instantly.

SARAH: Like when a couple starts dating - attached at the hip. I spent time with her kids, who called me auntie. And she and I frequently had lunches, coffees, happy hours and dinners. And I invited her to my wedding.

DONNELLA: So these two are super close. And one of the things they're both dealing with is this manager at work who Sarah described as being abusive.

SARAH: He targeted women of color, getting angry when we schedule doctor's appointments, blaming us for our white male counterparts' mistakes, unwarranted threats of termination and pay reduction. But slowly over time, he began to leave me alone, whereas he doubled down on treating my co-worker horribly.

MERAJI: Uh-oh.

DONNELLA: Yeah. So this all came to a head one day at a company-wide meeting when this manager praised Sarah for a project she had recently done.

SARAH: And my co-worker, understandably at her wit's end, she sent me a string of texts telling me that his praise meant nothing and I should watch out for him. Then she explained that there were two types of black employees at the company - ones with integrity, like her, who set a good example for her kids, and complicit slaves on the plantation, like me.


DEMBY: Damn. She went in.

DONNELLA: She did, yeah. And Sarah said that she was completely humiliated and also totally thrown off by those messages.

MERAJI: Understandably.

DONNELLA: She didn't know where they were coming from, especially because she says she had gotten so many threats herself from this manager and had consistently stood up and called him out for his racism and sexism. So she asked her co-worker to talk, to see if there had been some sort of misunderstanding.

SARAH: I told her that she'd really hurt my feelings, and she said I was wrong to accuse her of doing so and that I was stirring up drama. She declined to come to my wedding, and I never succeeded in convincing her that I wasn't a traitor to the race. I told her I needed to step away from the friendship, and she sent me a text with many exclamation points about how this was all in my head. And then she blocked me on Facebook. Then I blocked her on everything else. I still feel insecure about being a traitorous, tragic mulatto but have chipped away at my racial impostor syndrome with the help of family and other friends. I hope this story resonates with someone. Sarah.

DEMBY: So it feels like, OK, this is a question about race, but also there's other stuff going on here, too.

DONNELLA: Oh, yeah, there's a lot of other stuff. I mean, there's definitely race and racism, maybe some colorism, workplace harassment. So I called in someone to help sort through this. Her name is...

JOY HARDEN BRADFORD: Dr. Joy Harden Bradford. I am a licensed psychologist in Georgia and the creator of "Therapy For Black Girls," and the platform is really designed to take mental health topics and make them very relevant and accessible to black women and girls.

DONNELLA: Joy has a weekly podcast where she talks about mental health issues. She also curates a directory of therapists in the U.S. and Canada who she says do great clinical work with black women and girls, and she said in her clinical practice, the No. 1 thing that people want to talk about is work.

BRADFORD: But I think outside of that, you know, we likely spend quite a bit of time with our friends, and so, you know, tension and other concerns with our friends comes up quite a bit in therapy.

MERAJI: This situation with Sarah and her friend has to do with both friendship and work.

DONNELLA: Yeah, exactly. And Joy said that even though this kind of story wound up manifesting as a friendship issue, it really stemmed from being in a toxic workplace.

BRADFORD: Because it sounds like the boss is just awful, and so there's a lot going on there. And it sounds like what the friend has done is misplace the anger that she rightfully feels towards this boss and put it onto her former friend.

DONNELLA: Sarah's friend probably couldn't freak out at her boss, but she probably felt like she had to freak out at someone.

MERAJI: Oh, definitely. If she's the kind of person like I am, she can't keep stuff bottled up inside. And I just want to take this moment to apologize to anyone that I have done this to at work.

DEMBY: I humbly accept your apology, Shereen.


MERAJI: I'm so sorry, Gene.

DEMBY: I appreciate your doing that.

DONNELLA: I will not comment on that.

MERAJI: I'm sorry, Leah.

DONNELLA: But Sarah is also in a position where she's likely to take her friend's comments very seriously, and that's, one, because she cares a lot about racial justice, but it's also partly because, as she said, she was somewhat sensitive already about her racial status.

DEMBY: Right.

DONNELLA: So, you know, she told me she used the phrase racial impostor syndrome for a reason.

SARAH: And I'm kind of embarrassed to say that my first gut reaction was to go find some other black people to tell me that I'm a good black person.

DONNELLA: You know, you said you were humiliated. Like, was there a part of you that was worried, like, she could be right or, like, she was like, pointing to something that you hadn't, like, seen about yourself?

SARAH: Oh, sure. I mean, I immediately started, like, flipping back in my mind, like, in what way could I be, you know, I guess in her metaphor, like, sucking up to the plantation owner?

DONNELLA: Here's Joy again.

BRADFORD: People who identify as biracial often do struggle with this kind of making sense of both of their worlds kind of pieces. And so it sounds like, you know, this is something that was, like, a sensitive spot for Sarah already. And I think that that is also something, you know, if she's going to work with a therapist, would be something to talk with a therapist about. You know, like, is this showing up in other places in her life?

DONNELLA: One element that could be at play here when it comes to work is also that lighter-skinned black women, whether they're biracial or not, do get treated preferentially. That's according to a woman named JeffriAnne Wilder, who's studied colorism for more than 20 years. And she said that lots of black folks actually tend to be mostly friends with people who have similar skin tones, and when they do have friendships that cross those lines, they rarely, if ever, talk about the colorism that they're experiencing.


DONNELLA: Yeah. So we don't know, obviously, exactly what was going on in this friend's head, but it's very possible that the friend may have been experiencing worse treatment from her boss and been incredibly frustrated but felt like there was no good way to express that frustration and no one to talk to. Of course, that doesn't mean it was right for her to call Sarah a complicit slave on the plantation.

DEMBY: Yeah, that was - she just pulled up the shank. Like...

DONNELLA: That's still a little...

DEMBY: And also, just like, because they're friends, she probably might have known that that was the thing that would make Sarah feel the worst. You know what I mean?

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. Good point.

DONNELLA: But still, it sounds like this friend was in a very stressful situation, and when people are really stressed, they don't always act in exactly the ways that they would be most proud of.

MERAJI: So Leah, do these two go anywhere from here? I mean, is there a way to salvage this relationship?

DONNELLA: Well, OK, so Joy said that in situations like this, there are a couple of steps you can take, and there are also a couple of things to remember. The first thing is you can't save a friendship by yourself.

BRADFORD: Is there a level of reciprocity in the friendship? So are you kind of giving and taking in the relationship as much as the other person is also giving and taking?

DONNELLA: When I spoke to Sarah, she said she had reached out to her friend a bunch of times in a bunch of different ways. But each time, the friend just kind of brushed it off and said that Sarah was being dramatic.

DEMBY: I just know what that's like, though. Oh, that's - yeah.

DONNELLA: Joy also said that when someone wrongs you, they need to apologize, for sure. But you also have to be honest with yourself about whether you can actually get over what they did.

BRADFORD: Even when someone apologizes, we are by no means required to let them back into our lives even if we accept the apology. So I think that that's the difficult part for people, too, is that they think, OK, well, I can apologize and try to make this thing better. And then we can kind of pick up where we left off in the friendship. When the truth of it is that the other person is entitled to say, this hurt me too much, and I don't think that I want to resume the relationship.

DONNELLA: Joy says, lastly, it's crucial to acknowledge that losing a friendship is very, very painful and can be comparable to breaking up with a romantic partner.

BRADFORD: There isn't often a script for what happens when a friendship breaks up, but it can be the same kind of devastation - and maybe sometimes even more devastating - to lose somebody who has been a really close friend to you. And so I think sometimes there can be the tendency for other people in our lives to maybe minimize the pain of losing a friend. But it can really be a very traumatic loss. And you would likely experience a grief reaction to the loss of this kind of a relationship just like you would anything else.

DEMBY: Yeah. I just want to say real quick, like, talking through these questions is like - reminds you of all the ways that the rules of friendships are, like, much more implicit than they are for, like, romantic relationships. Like, there might be - like, you probably have some things that are, like, big, bright lines for whether your partner did something out of bounds or whether your parent did something that was out of bounds, right? But for friendships, we don't know how to talk about, like, the things we expect of our friends and the things we need to change to keep our friendships alive. You know what I mean?

DONNELLA: Yeah. Joy was saying we have no real, like, script for how to fight with our friends...

DEMBY: Yeah.

DONNELLA: ...For how to even, like, say you did this minor thing that hurt me...

DEMBY: Yeah.

DONNELLA: ...So, like, when something big comes up, we have no idea what to do.

DEMBY: Absolutely.


DONNELLA: In Sarah's case, she wound up talking things over with her friends and family and stepping away from that friendship. And she said she did give herself time to grieve, almost a year and a half. And ultimately, she hopes that sharing this story will be helpful to other people.

SARAH: I just think people would feel a lot better if we talked a little bit more openly about friendship breakups and about stuff that's really quite embarrassing like this because if you come out of the interaction and you feel righteous, you know, that's an easy story to tell. But we don't really want to come out and say, like, this was humiliating. And I'm (laughter) still really embarrassed about it.


MERAJI: You know what this makes me think about is it makes me think about what David Eng said about melancholia. And just, like, if you don't have that time to grieve, if you don't mourn these friendships and you don't know how to mourn them, you can be suffering (laughter), trying to figure out what went wrong forever, you know?

DEMBY: Right. Some of the most, like, long-lasting periods of sadness in my life have been around friendships that just sort of dissipated. You know what I mean? It was weird to talk about them, like, that way. Like, until much later did I appreciate that they were like some of the most important and intense friendships, you know, relationships I had. That's real. Good luck, Sarah.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Good luck.


MERAJI: Well, thanks, Leah. You gave me definitely a lot to think about.

DONNELLA: Oh, thank you.

MERAJI: Time for some friendship counseling.

DEMBY: Honestly, I feel like we stopped getting friendship counseling, like, after elementary school. You guys are friends. You're going to sit down here, and you're going to apologize...

MERAJI: Yeah. That's right.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Like, after elementary school, people don't do that no more.


MERAJI: And that's our show. But before we go, we heard from a bunch of you that you miss hearing the songs that are giving us life, so we're getting back into it. And this week, we had to go with a classic.


TLC: (Singing) What - what about your friends?

MERAJI: (Singing) What about your friends?

TLC: (Singing) What about - what - what about your friends? What about your - what about your - every now and then I get a little crazy...

DEMBY: That, of course, is "What About Your Friends" by TLC.

MERAJI: This is the song giving us life. And you can follow me at @RadioMirage and Gene at @GeeDee215 - that's GeeDee215. And you can follow the whole CODE SWITCH team at @NPRCodeSwitch. You can follow Leah at @AskLeezul.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: And of, course, you can always email us at And subscribe to the newsletter by going to

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Jess Kung and Leah Donnella, who you just heard. And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH family - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan, Adrian Florido, LA Johnson and Steve Drummond.

MERAJI: Leah also edited this episode.

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

MERAJI: Doing all the things...

DEMBY: Did I not say that?

MERAJI: ...Having all the woke jobs.


MERAJI: Our interns are Dianne Lugo and Isabella Rosario. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.


TLC: (Singing) ...Which results in unfortunate destiny. They dog me out then be next to me just because I am what some choose to envy.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.