George Floyd’s death created shockwaves around the world, and prompted many conversations between family members and friends about race. Some of them, for the first time. I had my own conversation with my white best friend about a topic we hadn’t ever discussed in any sort of detail- although it was always there in the background.
My best friend Louise called me up one evening, a week or so after the video of the killing of George Floyd went viral, to talk about it; I was expecting it. Not because I thought it would come up in conversation sooner or later but because my other white friend, had told me to expect a call from her after a disagreement they had had over Black Lives Matter. Louise had called to explain herself. She hadn’t brought it up to me before, since as she explained,
“It wasn’t like he was a relative of yours who had died”.
Louise and I have been friends for years since our days at university together. We had spent hours on the phone talking about all sorts of things; life, ambitions and worries-and yet the topic of racism never came up. I never felt comfortable bringing it up with her I realise. Maybe I had assumed she would not understand or I feared the usual attempts to convince me that my experiences had nothing to do with race, whenever I discussed it outside of the home. Yet, sometimes I had to challenge the bias that showed up in the stereotypes Louise shared about minorities; black men in particular, regarding generalised assumptions about their demeanour.
The fact that George Floyd wasn’t a relative wasn’t the point, but I didn’t know what to say to her-clearly she hadn’t been paying attention to the protests. Many of those people weren’t personally related to George Floyd but for the black community and its allies- who were still raw off the back of a string of unlawful killings of unarmed black men and women, this felt personal.
Louise and my other white friend , had fallen out because of a video Louise had shared of a Black African woman living in America who thought the Black Lives Matter movement is hypocritical because it does not highlight the loss of black lives at the hands of other black people. That as a black person, she does not feel like a victim of any systematic oppression. A sentiment Louise found “interesting”.
No-one in the movement is denying the existence of black-on-black violence, but since this type of violence is down to personal disputes or social factors like living in poverty and crime-prone communities and not race, it’s about as relevant as bringing up white-on-white violence. I then proceeded to explain to her why sharing these kind of videos can be seen as denial and deflection from the issue of police violence against black people and why people would see this argument as problematic in the context of Black Lives Matter.
So, I decided to test the waters by discussing how the killing of George Floyd is relevant to UK and wider discussions about racism. That sometimes, it isn’t just the overt, violent acts of racism that are damaging but also the more covert micro-aggressions and implicit bias that exists within people and systems that handle you differently because of your skin colour. This is seen in the disparities between races in issues like Stop and Search (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2016), deaths in police custody (Statista Research Department, 2020), health outcomes from Coronavirus (ONS,2020), success in job applications (Nuffield College Centre for Social Investigations, 2019) and poverty and low income (Poverty in the UK Report, 2019), that disproportionally affect the black community, across a few different aspects of society.
“I didn’t realise that” Louise said. “And I never meant to deflect from the issue. I fully support what Black Lives Matter is hoping to achieve, especially as I have friends who are black”. With this, Louise then steered the conversation towards her own experiences of discrimination as a white person; around members of the Afro-Caribbean community who excluded her when at parties in university or when she was volunteering in Tanzania where she was treated differently by the locals and assumed to be wealthy. All of this, I agreed, meant that she had had a taste of what it is like to be discriminated against as a minority, but wasn’t exactly on the same scale of the discrimination the black community is talking about now. I decided to leave the topic for now in the hopes that she would reflect on the points I had made.
The next day, I received a message from Louise, with a link to Candace Owens video on George Floyd titled “I DO NOT support George Floyd! & Here’s Why”. In the video Candace expresses that while George Floyd did not deserve to die, holding “him up as a martyr sickens” her and continues to reel off his criminal history prior to being released from prison in 2014 and starting a new life in Minneapolis. I watched the video and I found a lot of what Candace said to be flippant about his death, misrepresent statistics, and was very hurtful about whether black victims of police brutality are worthy of being remembered or even mourned. Truthfully, I found it insensitive that Louise would share this with me after the conversation we had just had. Was I supposed to have seen some truth in what Candace was saying because she was a fellow black person?
Granted, Louise expressed that she doesn’t “agree 100% with the views of any one person”, but she wouldn’t expand on which views she did agree with when I asked. The fact that Louise expressed admiration for someone who shares these views regardless of how “eloquent” Candace is in how she expresses herself, made me think my friend wasn’t really in support of fighting anti-black racism as much as she said she is. What I had hoped to hear from her wasn’t an outpouring of platitudes or expression of guilt or shame on behalf of her race, but a genuine desire to engage in conversation on the topic of race and to listen to my perspective with the hope of learning. As my friend, I expected to see a little sensitivity on the matter and for her not to make the issue about her and her feelings. I couldn’t help feeling that she wouldn’t even have brought up the topic to me if it weren’t for fear of the fallout from the disagreement with my other white friend.
After this exchange, I felt myself drawing away from Louise as I reflected on our conversation from the last week. It made me rethink our entire friendship and piece together any other clues on her thoughts about race from the past. Louise was forthright in saying that she believes “there is an issue with policing in America and their treatment of the black community”, but I couldn’t align that with what she was trying to tell me when she said she liked a few of Candace Owens’s views and was convinced by some of her arguments. It’s not so much that I mind when people have alternative views to me, but with a friend as close as Louise, I would have appreciated the opportunity to discuss which points she agrees with and why, instead of her closing off the debate by trying to appease me with a vague statement of support for my argument. Furthermore, I knew this topic was causing friction between Louise and my other white friend too, with Louise feeling attacked by her very passionate arguments in support of Black Lives Matter and had shut down communication with her.
A month went by without talking to Louise as I felt I couldn’t really move on without settling the feeling that I didn’t really know my best friend as well as I thought I did. I was glad though, when eventually she did finally reach out and give me a call.
“I feel like you have been really distant lately, is everything ok?” she said. I told her it’s true, I had pulled back a bit and that I needed time to reflect on some aspects of our relationship. I was hurt by some of the views she had expressed some interest in and that coupled with the fact Jane (our other white friend) told me she doesn’t want to talk about racism and Black Lives Matter with her, made me wonder how we can get past this as friends.
“Is it true talking about racism and Black Lives Matter is off limits with you?” I asked.
“It’s off limits with Jane, she just gets too intense about it and I feel like she thinks I’m a racist. I feel much better talking about it with you” Louise explained. We talked more about this and why it was important to talk about difficult topics with one another, even if we were afraid of causing offence. It’s better to explain your views rather than shutting down the conversation when probed, I argued, otherwise it leaves it to the other person to read between the lines and draw their own conclusion about what you are trying to say. This is what had caused me to wonder if we could continue to be friends whilst tiptoeing around such an important issue as race. Without me knowing if she really understood how it impacts me as a person and why George Floyd’s death had opened up some wounds.
“So, do you want to continue to be friends?” Louise asked.
“I-“, I hesitated because I felt I had to be honest and I knew I couldn’t give the answer she was looking for right now. I took a deep breath and continued.
“Your friendship means a lot to me but I can’t go back to how we were before without knowing we can be honest with each other about things and especially this topic and that you’re not just going to tell me what I want to hear. I can’t trust your intentions right now, because you’ve said and done things that have been tone-deaf and insensitive. Maybe we should talk more about this when we meet.”
With the pandemic taking hold and local lockdowns being enforced in Louise’s city, we never got to have that conversation and we didn’t message much in between. This physical distance only compounded the feeling of emotional distance between us, as despite our last conversation being productive, I still wasn’t sure what this meant for the future of our friendship. I felt like a friendship that once felt pure and uncomplicated was now tainted and strenuous and I didn’t know what it would take to turn it back to what it was before. Race and racism aside, it would have been nice to just simply have a friend.