10 Tips For Being A Better Girl Friend And Ally

Last week, in an interview with The New York Times, Miley Cyrus dismissed Nicki Minaj’s criticism of racism in the music industry – exemplified by MTV, which denied “Anaconda” a VMA Video of the Year nomination – claiming that Nicki is “not too kind” or “polite” and too “angry.” And then, as I’m sure you’ve watched over and over again today, willingly or not, Miley got called out for it by Nicki on live television. Miley tried to pass the buck, blaming the media, as if her quotes were misconstrued (they weren’t), offering Nicki a disingenuous “Congratu-fuckin-lations,” and then condescendingly yelping,”It’s just an award!”

Miley’s earlier remarks and that whole onstage exchange are emblematic of the lack of sisterhood that often exists amongst women from different backgrounds and especially among feminists. As 25-year-old Black woman, I’ve had my fair share of white girlfriends all throughout elementary, high school, college and now in adult life. Sadly, many of them have made Miley Cyrus’s crucial mistake: they lacked racial awareness and sensitivity.

Like most Americans my age — both black and white — I was raised to believe that race didn’t matter much, only the content of people’s character. I did not challenge that assertion until later in adolescence when the political nature of race became impossible to avoid, like when friends’ family members called me “nigger” or made comments about my hair or skin. Eventually, I became more aware of my blackness and what that racial delineation meant in a very racist country. And immediately, many of my friendships were threatened by that understanding. “But race isn’t important” and “I don’t see race, I see people,” were among the responses I often received when I approached white girl friends with the problems I was facing. Soon, I began to have a hard time viewing my white girlfriends as friends at all. After all, would a friend simply dismiss crucial aspects of your identity? Or deny the taxing impact of dealing with inequality?

Whether or not you see or acknowledge race, it still has huge implications that people of color cannot remain ignorant to (unless, perhaps, they are economically/socially privileged – though even status usually can’t help any persons of color escape America’s racist reality). Those implications weigh on an individual psychologically and emotionally. Of course, a good friend is one that can wholly support her friends’ psychological and emotional needs. I write this list from the perspective of a Black woman who has dealt with these issue with white girlfriends, but much of this can apply to friendships across cultural and racial differences, even between friends with different sexual orientations. Miley Cyrus should probably learn a thing or two if she wants to make amends with Nicki Minaj. Here are 10 points to start with…

1. Never dismiss a friend’s feelings or perceptions as “being too sensitive.” One of the most defining characteristics of “whiteness” (and cis-ness) is the ability to remain ignorant to the reality of race or the privileges garnered by being straight. Despite the fact that white men are responsible for the racial classifications and the social hierarchies that have been shaped by such divisions through economics/policy/social norms, “whiteness” and/or straightness allows an individual to dismiss the premises of race and heteronormativity all together as if they do not exist. The ramifications of this dismissal are a whole lot of people who are seriously insensitive about that which they have not experienced. This insensitivity creates a lens through which white and heterosexual people view any acknowledgement of race/ racism or heteronormativity as “being too sensitive.”

2. Acknowledge that you are White and/or cis. The reasons why white and/or straight people can be utterly ignorant about race and heteronormativity are simple: white, straight people are the majority and serve as the standard by which all other minorities are measured, but they often have no clue of that fact. Acknowledging your whiteness and or cis-ness is really the first step towards becoming more tolerant and aware — and thus, by extension, a better friend and ally.

3. Be ready, willing and open to learn. So much of the minority experience lays on the fringe of whiteness and/or straightness, so it is easy for white, straight women to not really know very much about other groups. It’s important that you’re open to learning and ready to shut down your ego’s defensiveness when developing friendships beyond the bounds of your own race or sexual orientation.

4. Educate yourself to the historical and current struggles of varying groups. Holding the belief that “racism is a thing of the past,” remedied by the Civil Rights Movement, is incompatible with a relationship across racial lines. What people of color — including your friends — are struggling against on a daily basis has historical roots, but inequality has been perpetuated intergenerationally and still exists today. Here are two previous pieces to read to kickstart a rudimentary education on the struggles of Black people, but don’t stop there. Read about poverty, inequality and mobility among Hispanics and about the “bamboo ceiling” that impedes the career progress of Asian-Americans, the ridiculously high rate of suicide and homicide among transgendered people, and so much more. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there just waiting to be yours!

5. Educate yourself to the historical triumphs of varying groups. History did not begin in Europe or America. Nor did civilization, writing, art or music. Eurocentrism paints the rest of the world and the histories of non-whites as savage or barbaric, but that is far from the case. People of color come from rich cultural backgrounds, many of which continue to have major influence on modern America. Did you know most of the world’s instruments — like the piano, banjo, horn, harp and drums– all originated in Africa? That paper and fireworks (and of course so much more) originated in China? Do some research about other cultural groups — especially those which your girlfriend(s) belong to! You will be surprised about all of the cool stuff you may learn.

6. Don’t be politically correct, be socially sensitive. The only people complaining about political correctness these days are white or cis-gendered. It is so easy to believe the world is demanding too much sensitivity of you as it constantly changes and evolves to include other people who have been marginalized. We have to make room for everyone in society. If that means we just have to be a bit more sensitive and aware, well, so be it. It’s a small price to pay for friendship and equality.

7. Your opinions aren’t always warranted — know when they aren’t. Sometimes a girl may just want to vent or have a shoulder to cry on when expressing the pain of living in a racist, homophobic society. It is not always necessary for you to comment or offer answers, especially if they come from a place of ignorance. Offer an attentive, non-judgmental ear, not your opinions.

8. Know when to speak up and take a stand. Imagine life is still pretty much like the elementary school playground where the bully picks on the kid he or she believes has the least power and is the most vulnerable; society is still pretty much that way. Groups lower on the social/political/economic hierarchy are always bullied by those with higher social standing. This can look like nasty Facebook posts, disrespectful politicians (Trump calling illegal immigrants rapists?) and blatant insensitivity in everything from music to television to daily conversations. A good friend will always stand up for a pal in need. Sometimes that means taking a stand against inequality.

9. Things may feel a bit one-sided at first, but that’s not your fault. We live in a white-, straight-dominated society, chicas. It is practically impossible to have the same awareness of other groups as minority people have of white, straight culture, because society demands varying degrees of assimilation from everyone but white, straight people. For example, your girlfriend from the Middle East (or of Middle Eastern descent) would have to learn the language and customs of white culture to live in American society, but you are not forced to reciprocate that by learning about her customs. That’s something you have to do for yourself, if you care to be a good friend.

10. Your feelings aren’t the most important feelings in a friendship. Many white, straight women feel hurt by the reality of inequality. Sadly, that hurt often translates into deflection or even dismissal of the issues causing discomfort all together. It looks like the “White Lives Matter” response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the constant claim that acknowledging racism in feminism is “divisive,” or telling your Black girlfriend, when she complains about employment discrimination, that you can’t find a job either.