I really miss my friends

No one can take the place of a friend. No one. - Maya Angelou

artwork by: grace miceli

It is an irrefutable fact that I am really, really good at making friends. There’s no reason to beat around the bush here – I am an expert at making friends. I am so well versed in making friends that if I died tomorrow, at my Carnivale-themed (virtual) funeral, instead of guests saying May she rest in peace, they’d private message in the zoom chat, Did anyone not get invited to this funeral? Who the hell are all of these people?

Like any true savant, my friend-making skills were crafted and cultivated from an incredibly young age. In my kindergarten “Best Friend” book, a project to highlight one or two important relationships in my five-year lifespan, I included every.single.child in my 25-person class. If you were potty trained and had a pulse, you were a friend of mine.

My friendship journey can really be divided into two parts: public school daze and private school days. Until the 4th grade, I attended John Eaton, a public elementary school in northwest DC. Situated in the extremely White, affluent neighborhood of Cleveland Park (where I also grew up), John Eaton was an anomaly. There was no tokenizing of one student of color to model for the school brochure. There was no point system in place for admissions officers to collect students of color and then abandon them like old pokemon cards. John Eaton was just an example of real deal diversity – economic, cultural, ethnic and racial — diversity.

In the 4th grade, I transferred from John Eaton to Georgetown Day School (GDS) – the private, independent school in DC that I attended through the 12th grade. Just to give you a sense of the vibe at GDS, our mascot was the mighty grasshoppers and our “fight” song’s opening line was, “We sing of Georgetown Day School, where each of us is free, to be different from each other and to celebrate our rich diversity!”

I really believe I’d be 10x cooler if I just hated GDS and was a rebel without a cause, but truthfully, I loved it and I did really well there. While far from perfect, I was fulllllly drinking the *we were the first integrated private school in DC* kool-aid that cascaded out of every water fountain. And for a mixt kid like me, there was a lot to love about GDS. Intolerance – at least, in your face this will be a PR nightmare if we don’t do anything intolerance, was addressed head on, and faculty and students rarely missed an opportunity to share about their personal feelings on subjects like race, gender, sexuality and illegal drug use.

That being said, GDS was still a private school, and catered to a highly educated, elitist, entitled, group of students, the majority of whom came from extremely wealthy families. They might’ve claimed liberalism, but GDS was very culturally, religiously, spiritually, racially, energetically whiiiiiiiiite. Like… white-out white. Milk white. House pets fed gourmet food white. Au pairs for each child in a family, white. Black tie bat mitzvahs white. We teach our kids that it’s rude to talk about our family wealth because it will just make other people hate us white.

I recently listened to a Code Switch podcast episode that focused on the topic of race and friendship. From interviews with various social scientists and cross-racial friendship experts, the consensus was that friendship is largely determined by proximity. It’s the idea that we get to know the people who we are nearby. So for a black person who grows up in a largely black environment, typically their social network and how they spend their time, is with other black people. The same is true for a white person who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood – they will likely have a very white social network. When you’re growing up, school is where you make most of your friends. That's where you're spending so much of your time.

At one point during the episode, the hosts of Codeswitch spoke with Cinzia Pica-Smith, an expert on cross-racial friendships. As Pica-Smith noted:

Children will find each other across racial lines when they enjoy equal status, when they collaborate with one another on common goals and when they are supported by authority. And that is not happening in schools today. First of all, schools are segregated across the nation. So they’re absolutely set up inequitably. Secondly, even in schools that are demographically racially diverse – for those rare occasions when they are – tracking happens in those schools so that students of color are over-represented in lower academic tracks. And then in those schools, students of color are more likely to be taught by less experienced, white, middle-class, monolingual teachers. And those teachers often lack professional development on implicit racial bias.”

Further, when educators, especially white educators, see that children of color are coming together in same-race friendships, white educators will typically panic and say, “well, they're self-segregating, and they're expressing prejudice, they don't want to be with the white children.” What Pica-Smith found is that in spaces where there is racial inequity, gravitating towards other children of color is a protective response. It is not about out-group prejudice; it's about preservation.

In middle school I had three close Black friends, and between the four of us, we made up ¾ of the Black population in our grade. There was one other Mixed girl, who, of course, I was always mistaken for and while we really didn’t have much in common aside from our complexions, that didn’t stop everyone from assuming we were best friends. As we got closer to high school age, the racial divide among Black and white students increased substantially. And the Black friend groups were outrageously outnumbered by white social groups. Many (again… of the small percentage) of the Black students actually left GDS after middle school for schools that were more Afrocentric. For those who stayed, and for me, a Mixed girl who thought she could be best friends with everyone, things got messy.  

I’m ashamed to admit this but we’re not getting anywhere without coming to terms with some hard truths so here goes: as a socially astute person, in a predominantly white school environment, figured out real quick that acceptance and popularity were 150% associated with one’s proximity to Whiteness. As I’ve started to forgive myself and sooth my tragic mulatto guilty conscience for decisions I made when I was eleven, I’m finding more language to describe what I was experiencing. My observations and feelings about race were not just ideas that magically appeared in my head one day. They were internalized racism -- systemic inequalities that were being fed to me and my classmates through media, pop culture, coaches, teachers, caregivers and we were forced to swallow those racist messages.

By 6th grade at GDS, the most popular girls were the wealthy White ones who wore Juicy velour pants and Tiffany’s bean necklaces. When I look back on my early adolescence – at 5’10 with bushy eyebrows, big dry curly hair with split ends and candy corn breast buds, it is a goddamn miracle that the residual effects of my identity crisis are mostly manageable with therapy and medication.

Middle school is rough for most people – everything is painfully awkward, you’re always angrily flailing, and you’re no longer cute so it’s harder for adults to feel sorry for you. One way I learned to survive all of those years was to befriend everyone and anyone who could protect me from social exile. A natural born people pleaser and friend finder, I figured out really quickly how to be whatever my White peers wanted me to be. Like in the sixth grade, when I was invited to spend the afternoon with a group of white girls to practice a choreographed dance to Len’s Steal My Sunshine (everything about this statement – wowwww) I stood in the back (naturally, a foot taller than everyone) my brown body acting as a shadow for their glossy white belly rolls. Or, when in the 7th grade I was invited to go tankini shopping with a new white girlfriend, and I sat patiently as she modeled all 75 of them, eagerly providing positive feedback and retrieving the ones she couldn’t reach on the high clothes hangers.

I want to be clear that while I now recognize how problematic and sad this all was, at the time, I was blissfully ignorant. At the time, my blissful ignorance was my social shield. That is really important for me to make clear. From a young age, we all develop coping styles to keep us alive. One of the gifts of being in therapy as an adult is that I have the opportunity to reflect back on those times and the coping mechanisms I learned in middle school, and I now get to decide which ones I’m saying BYE BYE BYE (bye bye) to.

And by the way, I am still close friends with a lot of those same white girls that I watched tankini model (tankini modeling is really a metaphor for all white girl activities I took part in throughout adolescence). In fact, many of those friends are in their own therapy and have actually been the ones to recognize and help me understand how fucked up our racial dynamics were during those formative years. So I’m not partaking in the white girl blame game (although, I am a pro at it) because that too is a middle school activity I’m ready to let gooooo.

What I will say is, being anyone who feels different from their group of friends – whether at ten or thirty years old – is really tough. While I wasn’t as consciously aware of all the ways my differences were at play, I knew those differences were majorly damaging my self-esteem. And while any difference is tough when you’re young, I’d argue that in a society where we are so wired to make split second judgments about other people, race is a huge social indicator.

As a mixed person who tried desperately to fit in and make friends, for a really long time I saw my mixed race as a point of disconnection from others. For me, being mixed was a constant longing for belonging embedded deeply within. Not ever feeling black enough, nor white enough, and without biological siblings (more on this later) to mirror some of my experiences back to me, I’ve spent a huge portion of my life feeling like a rainbow fish out of water.

Today, with Covid-19 + racial tension increasing by the day, for many of us, the feeling of disconnection is amplified even more. And while I can only speak for myself, I will say, that I’m not just experiencing this feeling of disconnection with my White friends. I’m feeling it with my Black friends, my Mixed friends, my LatinX friends, my Asian friends. I’m feeling it allll over the place. And while I’m really isolated and in my head, I know I am not alone in feeling this way, as so many of us grapple with fear, uncertainty and sadness. So while I am all for creative virtual coffee dates and book clubs and check-ins, these are not the same and will never be the same as being in-person, up close and personal with others.

It’s about not being able to sit together, bare feet dangling off the side of the couch, finding space in another’s shoulder nook, arm squeezes as forms of connection. It’s about not being on the receiving end of someone’s spit after they start laughing uncontrollably, or their body heat when we hug goodbye. It’s about not being able to smell a friend’s signature scent: sweat mixed with sandalwood mixed with coconut.

I used to think that my love language was acts of kindness, but over these past few months, isolated from others, I’ve learned that it is 1000% quality time. I miss sitting in a room, with the people I love, sharing space, exchanging stories, time, and energy. And there is little to no guidance out there on how to navigate the new terrain of friendship during this time.

How do you stay connected when you may not see each other for the next year? How do you talk to your friends about race if it has never come up in conversation before? For all of the glorification of interracial friendships in the mainstream, where’s the information on how to have tough conversations cross-racially? Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, the hosts of Call Your Girlfriend podcast have a new book, Big Friendship, coming out later this month that tackles many of these friendship woes. On last week’s episode, they reflected on their experiences being in an interracial, long-distance relationship and gave us all a behind-the-scenes look at how much WORK goes into maintaining a close friendship these days.

A close friendship is one of the most influential and important relationships a human can experience. But for all of the beautiful poetry written about friendship, most people don’t talk about what it really takes to stay close for the long haul.

It is wild to me how much time and money we spend working on our romantic relationships, and how often our friendships – some of the most meaningful relationships in our life – get pushed to the wayside. When tension in a romantic relationship arises, we have about seventy billion reference points for how to get things back on track. Why isn’t this the case for friendship? Why is there no option for “friend therapy” on psychology today for a friendship that is struggling? I used to think that when people told me “when I’m in a romantic relationship, I put all of my attention into it” just had a stronger work ethic than me, but I now see that as a recipe for loneliness.

No one person can fulfill all of our needs (not only is it literally impossible but wowwww that is SO much pressure to put on person). I know that our schedules fill up fast but I also know that we manage to find time to worry about the most miniscule things our romantic partners do, so I think there’s plenty of time and energy to go around.

Just like conversations about race, it is embedded in our culture to avoid conversations about friendship. I’m still figuring out why this is (like most other fucked up norms, my $$ is on the patriarchy, but stay tuned…) Regardless, I’m ready to challenge this notion. WHO’S WITH ME? I want to have difficult conversations with my friends ABOUT race! I want to spend time not only fantasizing about my future with my husband, but fantasizing about my future with my close friends! I want to surround myself with people who don’t just value friendship when it’s convenient or when their partner’s busy/being rude. I want to be all in for my friends so one day my tombstone reads:

Jesse Walker, biiiiiiig fan of friendship.

I love you, friend!

xx Jesse

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