When You Say the Wrong Thing: How to Repair Friendships After a Racial Microaggression
Racial microaggressions are verbal or nonverbal indignities that demean those from marginalized groups. Committed by white people, racial microaggressions are like tiny cuts that reinforce a racial hierarchy. The cumulative effect of these tiny cuts – which include things like, “but you don’t sound Black,” “is that your real hair?,” “is your neighborhood scary?,” or, my personal favorite, “you’re so articulate” – can have an extremely negative impact when on the receiving end of them. Microaggressions are an unfortunate reality within many friendships, and even when unintentional, can affect one’s mental health, extending far beyond the awkward silence that sometimes follows.
Strong friendships are based on love and trust; however, when white friends commit racial microaggressions, it feels like a violation of that trust. Racism produces hostile environments that are often emotionally unsafe to navigate, and it’s important to me that my friendships with white people do not contribute to the devaluing or tokenization of my experiences as a Black woman. The care and concern my white friends demonstrate is an expression of how they value our friendship. If that respect and understanding isn’t there then we cannot be friends. Below are three steps to repair a friendship after a racial microaggression has occurred.
1. Acknowledge and Accept Feedback
If you’ve committed a microaggression, the first thing to do is to accept the feedback given by the person you insulted. If someone cares enough to explain that your words have been offensive and hurtful, it means they care about you, and they want you to do better. Take the feedback and listen to understand, instead of listening to respond. It’s no one’s responsibility to explain their experience nor their hurt to you, so thank your friend for being vulnerable, opening up to you, and helping you grow. Part of repairing a relationship is owning up to your mistakes from the past and committing to doing better in the future.
Instead of making excuses for the racist comment or attributing it to a joke gone bad, own up to it, say you’re sorry, and work to change your behavior. When a friend commits a racial microaggression, it erodes the foundation of that friendship. If you’ve committed a racial microaggression (past or present) and your friend calls you out on it, do not get defensive. I repeat: do not get defensive. This isn’t about you. You have to genuinely apologize for it and commit to doing better going forward. If not, you run the risk of losing your friend for good because your apology wasn’t sincere. Being afraid to make a mistake is paralyzing, and doesn’t contribute to racial justice and healing. If you make a mistake, own it and move forward.
3. Take Action and Accountability
Repairing a friendship means taking accountability to do better. Part of the work in being a better friend is educating yourself on why your actions are racist, harmful, and offensive, and taking responsibility to do better in the future. There can be no reconciliation without accountability, and that accountability has to be a consistent commitment in wanting to do better – not for yourself, but for your friend. How we show up and support our friends from marginalized racial groups is essential to how we nurture and sustain those relationships. Showing up for your Black friends means challenging yourself to be anti-racist and actively working to confront your biases and how they show up in your everyday words and actions. This means not centering yourself, but working to improve your friendship by how you choose to show up for your friends.
Having a Black friend does not make someone an anti-racist. Working to become anti-racist is a journey of self-reflection and critique. Your Black friends have to be at the center of that journey, where you constantly ask yourself, “how can I be a better friend and rid myself of the racism that lives inside of me?” Anti-racism work is not about blame or shame, rather it’s about seizing the opportunity to do better. After all, our friendships should support our growth and transformation into becoming better people. Learning how to do that never stops.