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Friend or Exploiter

I’m rewatching the 1st season of Ginny & Georgia on Netflix and although you could watch these teens and only relate it to teenagers today or your teenage years, you can actually relate these teens to adults in today’s world. Ginny, a bi-racial Black and White girl, is navigating having friends and a boyfriend for the first time in a wealthy predominantly White community (it’s so much more than this, but I’m giving you a very short description here). She and her friends, along with her boyfriend, have multiple interactions about race. Her friends witness or partake in racist comments toward Ginny. Some of them are capable of noticing it and comforting her, while others are silent or laugh along. Mostly, each of them is completely engulfed in their individual worlds, many times not sharing the “shitty” downs, emotional truths, and hurts with one another, with consistent failures to actually support one another. While more than one of them is dealing with an identity crisis, they rarely take the time to get deep enough into the conversation about it to come to a place of understanding or be able to stand with one another through it.

More interestingly is the BFF relationship between Ginny and Maxine. Maxine a feminist, queer, and “woke” friend of Ginny - is overly aware of oppressive systems with no problem expressing it when it affects her. However, if you pay close attention, is she ever really doing anything to challenge the racist behaviors of her peers? Is she ever really looking out for Ginny and helping Ginny with her life struggles? Not really. Ginny seems more of a character in the play she stars in. Is Ginny her token Black friend?

Maybe it’s because it’s 2023, but I’m really going to crawl under the skin in our conversations about being anti-racist. The parts of it that some of us only talk about with other BIPOC so as to not offend our White friends. The parts that HR policies and practices cannot change. The parts that are at the core of our humanity - in our relationships, especially the awkwardness that exists in our relationships.

This next step in healing our wounds of whiteness is evaluating our relationships and discerning friend from exploiters.

According to Oxford Learning Dictionary, an exploiter is:

  • a person who treats people unfairly for his or her own advantage, for example by making them work for very little in return

  • a person who treats a situation as an opportunity to gain an advantage

  • a person who develops or uses something for business or industry

You can operate with your own definition of a friend. In my experience, many of us break our friends into a variety of groups. We have work friends, acquaintances, “real” friends, friends with benefits, friends we call for venting, core friends, childhood friends, and so on. I believe it would be safe to say the label friend tends to be reserved for relationships we hold in positive regard. While many of us have varying expectations of our friends, I do believe we generally hope they have our best interest.

As a person of color in a world living in liberal spaces, it becomes challenging to trust if those who call you friends or attempt to build a relationship with you are friends or exploiters. I’m not sharing from a place of paranoia or bitterness but from a place of experience. Similar to Maxine and Ginny’s relationship, there have been many Maxines in my life in which we’ve hung out, went to lunches together, celebrated birthdays, and even got to a point of me sharing vulnerably -- but who would idly standby on many occasions while I was a target of oppression. They would find me after meetings and tell me how messed up the situation was, but would never stand up in the meeting to my defense. They could articulate in our intimate conversations my brilliance and make sure I knew how qualified, credible, and capable I was, but could not do the same when I was being questioned publicly. Some of the more hurtful moments were when I learned they explicitly had an opportunity to support me and chose to side with the system and authority in order to save themselves from (usually a false belief of) losing their job.

Now, let’s consider why some of us folx of color may experience an unusual amount of requests for lunch and coffee dates with White people. It could definitely be we’re just so awesome and everyone wants to be our friend. I fear however that’s not always the case. Let’s unpack it a bit. For many folx of color that shock and awe White people with their “articulate” “intellect” and ability to speak their mind - we’re perceived as rare shiny gems. If we’re not too intimidating and approachable, then we may be seen as more likely to say yes when invited to get to know each other (reducing their fear of rejection). If a White person can befriend us, what does a White person gain? I’m going to just list a few possibilities, but I would love to know your answer to this question:

  • Knowledge of the BIPOC person’s experience

  • Looking good by appearing as not being racist

  • Someone to teach them how to be less racist

  • Access to diverse spaces or diversifying their homogeneous life

  • The use of the BIPOC person’s skills and gifts

When you read this list, it seems ridiculous. I’m sure White people are not saying to themselves, “I will make friends with Tracy to be my token BIPOC friend and diversify my life.” I am also not saying that each relationship started by a White person towards a person of color is to gain or exploit that person. What I’m asking people to consider is, do these sentiments underlie your desire to be in a relationship with BIPOC that you may not be willing to admit. Can it be what is felt by that person because of the ways you show up or do not show up before, during, and after your coffee or lunch date?

The reality is - if you are a White person, you have power and privilege. That will always exist within the relationship. Will you be in a relationship with a person of color in which you acknowledge your power and privilege, use your power and privilege for their benefit or gain, and be a disruptor when they are faced with oppressive systems and people? If you are not -- can you call yourself a friend? Can you be with them, hold them in their authenticity and vulnerability, and ask, “Are you okay? What can I do?” Can you show up over and over again, by their side, when they can use your support?

To my BIPOC reader, this part is how we heal from the wounds of whiteness, by discerning our friends from exploiters and only giving our gifts, energy, time, commitment, and vulnerability to our friends. Break up with those toxic people who you know are only taking advantage of you. They are taking, but not giving. Stop convincing yourself there is some better reason to continue to remain in a “friendship” in which you are being exploited. There is no “good” reason to remain. You can make new friends. You will actually find more friends by allowing yourself to stop being fake in these exploitative relationships and by being your true self. You will attract people who value you for who you are, including the boundaries you set for yourself.

Malcolm X said -

“Don’t you run around here trying to make friends with somebody who’s depriving you of your rights. They’re not your friends, no, they’re your enemies. Treat them like that.”

Do I really need to say more?

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