Unfriending Friends

Being a minority of any kind in academe can be difficult, writes Manya Whitaker. But you can be much happier if you don't force relationships with people whom you are not naturally inclined to befriend.

January 22, 2016

I, like many other fresh-out-of-grad school professors of color, entered academe with the naïve idea that other people of color on college campuses would be natural allies and perhaps even friends. I’m aware of the statistics and know that I am among a privileged few who have the fortune to land a tenure-track position. I also know that the presence of diverse bodies does not negate the presence of racism. If anything, racism is more prevalent in a space where the majority has become so used to being the only that they have never had to think about how their words, body language, values or even methods of intellectual inquiry can be derivative of white supremacy. Of full-time professors, the 16 percent who are of color bear the burden of educating not only the students but also their colleagues about systemic inequities.

For those reasons it is incredibly important that faculty and staff members of color find allies. At the most basic level, we need the numbers. We need the numbers to recruit more people of color. We need the numbers so that when issues of diversity emerge, more than 12 voices will be arguing on behalf of all marginalized and underrepresented groups. We need the numbers to show our white colleagues that yes, black and brown people can and do earn advanced degrees.

Beyond allyship, it’s important for faculty of color to cultivate friendships because we need the community. We need the emotional support on the days when we’ve had to deal with just one too many microaggressions. We need the ability to talk about things of cultural importance and not have to explain why we can’t just go to any hair salon. We need to be able to wear what we want, relax our shoulders and not monitor our language. We need the space to be ourselves -- our individual selves instead of our professional selves.

Yet with that said, not all people of color are interested in getting to know your real self. It took me a while but I’ve figured out how to recognize when someone is not my ally or my friend. I share these insights with you.

You have to accept the truth. It is easy to dismiss ignored emails, absence from social events and even silence during contentious meetings as minor. You can devise reasons why your so-called friends avoid eye contact, arrive late and leave early, and basically do everything in their power to avoid conversation with you. And when they are forced into conversation, you can act as though fake smiles and surface-level banter are simply an attempt to maintain professionalism at work.

But what you can’t dismiss or reason away are when “friends” actively work against you. These actions are not always explicit, but are nonetheless hurtful and impactful. Their silence when they should be speaking with you is indicative of their indifference to issues of importance to you. Their absence when they should be standing beside you speaks to their lack of courage. Most of all, when they consistently find a way to co-opt conversations that are not about them and their problems, they are not interested in building community. Your pain or happiness should not be fodder for their narrative.

It took me so long to identify and interpret such behavioral patterns because I didn’t want to see them. I wanted to believe that people with whom I interact daily were not so egocentric and selfish that they would throw away a relationship with one of the few people who shares their day-to-day lived experiences. I overlooked their consistent disrespect because I might not find other people of color whom I could befriend for a very long time. I ignored the annoyance, hurt and sometimes anger that I felt in response to the ever-increasing negativity they brought into my life for the sake of the larger group, in the name of community. In any other circumstance in which I would have ended a negative or unfruitful relationship with a person, I stuck to it because hey … we all we got.

This has been a mistake. Too often I’ve allowed myself to dwell in relationships with people who do not add to my life. They may not necessarily detract, but they are not pushing me to grow. Being a minority, any kind of minority, in academe is extremely difficult. It took four years for me to realize that I was making it harder on myself by forcing relationships with people whom I am not naturally inclined to befriend, with people who were more interested in using me to reify their worldview than they were in constructing a new worldview.

I have to forgive myself for that. I wanted so badly to build community that I overlooked moments when those with whom I wanted to build were instead tearing me down.

Most impactful were the group hangouts-turned-grief sessions. Complaints dominated our conversations. Complaints about the institution, complaints about the city, complaints about personal lives, complaints about colleagues, ad nauseam. At first I cosigned. I wanted to be supportive and show my understanding of how difficult it is to do the jobs we do in the circumstances in which we do them. I, too, am sick of being The Only. I, too, want to live in a thriving metropolis with an abundance of available singles. I, too, want students to respect what I offer the institution without having to cite my pedigree.

But I also want to be happy. I want to make the best of this opportunity, because it is an opportunity. I am in a tenure-track position at a well-paying institution with amazing benefits. I am given agency to teach the courses I want to teach when I want to teach them, how I want to teach them. I look forward to going to work on Monday. I love chatting with students in my office. I like the challenge of writing grant applications while teaching a new course and finishing a book manuscript. I love my job. I want to be able to love my job without feeling guilty about it.

My “friends” weren’t allowing me that space. I didn’t feel as though I could express my joy at being able to do exactly what I wanted to do in my career. It felt as though my happiness made me a traitor in this politically correct revolutionary world of academe in which I am either with you or against you.

This was unfair.

This was not support or allyship. This was not community. Being in a community doesn’t feel lonely. Being in a community isn’t emotionally taxing. Being in a community does not mean biting your tongue and setting aside your emotional experiences in order to validate those of others.

So I made difficult decisions to end relationships with people whom I once considered friends, and I advise you to do the same. It doesn’t have to be hostile or aggressive. It doesn’t even have to be a thing. When they don’t return emails, stop emailing them. When they don’t show up to events you’ve organized, stop inviting them. When they talk incessantly about themselves, don’t listen. When they dwell on negativity, counteract it with positivity.

Give voice to what you love about yourself and your life. While empathy can affirm that you are not the only one enduring difficult times, trapping pain within a tight circle ensures it is never released. Instead, you need to find ways to release the hurt and begin healing journeys.

And after you’ve stopped investing in undeserving people, find the people who are willing to help you heal -- regardless of their identity characteristics. In my experiences, my white colleagues are those most willing to explore self-care strategies in the face of racial battle fatigue. Just because someone looks different than you doesn’t mean they can’t understand your struggle.

But you first have to identify who is helping you overcome your struggle and who is capitalizing from it.


Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College.




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