‘Uncommon Bonds’ Explores What It Takes for Women to Have Real Friendships Across Race

By catherine lizette gonzalez Apr 04, 2018

Editors Kersha Smith and Marcella Runell Hall were friends for several years before they began working on their new book, "Uncommon Bonds: Women Reflect on Race and Friendship." 

Before their collaboration began, Smith, a Black woman, and Hall, a White woman, lived around the corner from each other in Brooklyn, New York. Their lives intersected through careers in academia and first-time motherhood. "In our time together, and in our long, luxurious conversations about life, relationships and the importance of friendships, we talked a lot about what it means to have your girlfriends and why that is so much more complicated around race," Hall, dean of students at Mount Holyoke College, told Colorlines. 

According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, friendship patterns in the United States remain largely segregated due to personal choices that are shaped by bias and systemic racism. In a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute75 percent of White people reported that their core social network is entirely of their own race. "Uncommon Bonds" takes this scholarship further by elevating women’s personal stories through poems, essays and letters. Here, Smith, a psychology professor at the City University of New York, spoke with Colorlines about authentic emotional bonds that acknowledge race and power dynamics.

Why might some cross-racial friendships be “uncommon bonds”?

It really depends on who you speak with. Many of the women we feature in this book have been very successful in developing cross-racial friendships and relationships. A whole host of people—and I’m including myself—also haven’t had a lot of success. For one, social structures in our society like redlining and school segregation keep people of color and White people segregated. Secondly, I think there are real differences in the lived experiences of people of color and White people, particularly Black people. I find that for Black women in particular it’s very difficult sometimes to develop friendships with White women because there is a tendency to ignore or downplay or de-emphasize the acrimony that Black women feel. When there isn’t a true acknowledgment of the discrimination and segregation that Black women and women of color experience day-to-day, it’s really hard to build a friendship. The authenticity, the totality of the person, just isn’t there.

What are authentic relationships in this context?

Authentic relationships are kind of the opposite of these parallel partnerships that sometimes happen between friends. There are relationships that we have with other women who are racially different from us because many of of us work in integrated spaces. But these are not our truest girlfriends. We wanted to highlight girlfriends who know you in and out, where there’s a sense of reciprocity in the relationship. There’s a bearing of all aspects of their identity to this person. When someone knows you three-dimensionally, there is much more of an homage to this sense of authenticity because there is nowhere to hide in your truest self.

There are many points of vulnerability and tension in the book. How can vulnerability and tackling painful moments help form authentic friendships across race?

With any relationship that we foster, develop or maintain, there has to be some sense of continuity and struggle for it to grow. For each and every person who wrote a chapter for this book, race is a salient aspect of their identity. It takes these difficult conversations for the individual to have an appreciation for every single last aspect of the other person.

An academic press, [Counterpoint], published the book, but the stories come in many forms. Why did you invite so many writing styles?

Had we just focused purely on academic writing, we would have missed the boat on this authenticity. We also would have missed the boat on the fluidity of friendship. Opening the book up to different types of women and allowing them to write in different genres allowed contributors to be their authentic selves. In some ways, it’s true to the subject matter of the book.

The last chapter, “Trust,” builds on the many ways that some White women have failed to show up for women of color, particularly in politics and organizing, like in case of the 2016 presidential election. How do these political moments translate into interpersonal interactions?

The veil has kind of been lifted off of White women. They can no longer hide behind this exclusionary feminist identity.  I think some White women were—dare I say—happy for the exposure. But then there were a whole host of White women who never really saw that coming. Hopefully, White women are thinking about themselves and their privilege in more complex ways than they had previously. For Black women and women of color, [the election of Donald Trump] was an affirmation of things they already knew. This is not an “aha” moment for us. What was shocking for us was how blatant it was, but the phenomenon itself was not so surprising to us.

The book also highlights cross-racial friendships among women of color. In “The Salon,” women of color form a mentorship program for first-generation college students, many of whom are of color. Why are spaces like this important?

We need these spaces so that we can decompress and feel a sense of power over our existence. These become spaces where we can recuperate and feel a sense of affinity. Black women have been having these really critical moments where we feel okay to celebrate each other or feel a sense of kinship where we can be okay with one another. That’s really important because we know what it feels like to experience disenfranchisement in the workplace or in school. 

Can you talk more about that sort of kinship? 

There is something about those who live in the bones of individuals—to be able to celebrate culture, promote tradition and expand the understanding of culture and tradition. And that’s not at the detriment of any other culture or tradition, but it’s a way to strengthen your own. I think a lot of times when people of color talk about having some pride and affinity for their own group, they are automatically seen as “nationalist” or “separatist.” Part of that has to do with the fear that [White] people have about marginalized folks taking ownership of their own culture and tradition. It’s really important psychologically to have that space, familiarity and comfort with people who are culturally the same as you, especially when you’re in an environment where you’re the only one. Paul Laurence Dunbar talks about this idea of “wearing the mask.” For Black people, for people of color, many times we still wear a mask. This is about disrupting spaces so that we don’t need to wear a mask any longer.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.