Investigating the role of race in friendships

Investigating+the+role+of+race+in+friendships

Neeva Patel, Staff Writer

In 2020, when Emily Akbar (10) was in middle school and the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction, she observed students become more attentive to surrounding themselves with people of different races and identities, she said.

While some students choose to befriend students of the same race because they might have shared experiences, others gravitate towards their friends based on their personalities alone. Although the majority of students are conscious of the race of their friends, it is not something that all students look actively to change, Dylan Montbach (10) said.

2020 changed the way Anya Mirza (10) thought about race, she said. “During 2020, we saw many racial disparities in police brutality, anti-Asian hate crimes, as well as how COVID-19 disproportionately affected certain groups of people,” Mirza said. “These events broadened the definition of diversity to include not only befriending people from different backgrounds, but also learning about and accepting their struggles due to their identity.”

On the other hand, Montbach does not think these events affected how he approached making friends, he said. “I mainly base my friends based on who I feel most comfortable with or enjoy spending time with, and nothing has really changed that.”

Coco Trentalancia (12) also forms friendships based on who she likes to spend time with, and does not think race matters when it comes to friendships, she said. “There is no template for how one can constitute a friend, especially with race.”

While Trentalancia is subconsciously aware of race when it comes to her friends, it is not something she pays attention to on a daily basis. That being said, she has noticed that friend groups around the school tend to be same-race, with some diversity sprinkled in, she said. “I do feel like I am able to talk about certain topics regarding race and culture more freely with students of the same race as me.”

Students in friend groups with mixed backgrounds might find it hard to discuss topics around race because it is difficult to gauge an individual’s comfort levels, Trentalancia said. She has observed that people adjust their vocabulary for the comfort levels of their friends, but it can get tricky if people forget others’ preferences, she said. “In school-sanctioned environments, there are always instances in which people may not be so aware of commentary, especially when there aren’t parents or as many adults present, so it could just all go downhill,” she said.

While students might not notice race or use it as a guide to friendships, some also consciously make connections with others of the same race.

As a result of shared lived experiences, people of the same race can support each other in ways that students from different backgrounds may not be able to, Bethany Jarrett (11) said. “For students of color in a PWI [predominantly white institution] it can be very comforting and positive to go to students of the same background,” she said.

Jarrett is especially grateful for her friendships with other Black students. Even if she does not know them very well, she looks out for or says ‘hi’ to other Black students on campus, she said. “I’m not necessarily friendlier to them than I am with people of other races, but we have a connection based on race, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.” 

Akbar sees how people can bond over similarities when they occupy the same racial group, she said. “In middle school, a lot of my Asian friends would go to Asian talks together in Mr. Khan’s affinity groups,” she said. “It was nice to have a friend group that shared some of the experiences they were talking about.”

Similarly, Kira Lewis (10) has noticed that a lot of students from minority groups cluster together, she said. “Minorities have some shared experiences, and you could probably be more comfortable in a friendship with someone you relate to more.” However, her friendships are based on whether or not she gets along with another person, she said.

Sometimes, Lewis finds herself unintentionally gravitating towards certain races or groups,, she said. “I would say there is a certain part of me that wants to make friends with people who have similar interests to me, but I also like making friends with people who are really different than me because we can share new things.”

Diversity allows students to gain a better perspective on issues that might revolve around race, Montbach said. “You can ask your friends what they think about a certain social issue and then you can put in your own input and gain a better idea overall on how these things might impact different people.”

For Mirza, a range of diversity is good for friendships because it exposes her to many different perspectives, she said. Because of this, Mirza does not consider race when forming new friendships and is part of a friend group of people with various racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses, she said. 

Moreover, living in New York also helps bring lots of diversity to the student body, Akbar said. “Many of us live in New York, and when you go on the street you see people of all different races and identities, so I don’t think we are that shielded from mixing races even though we attend a PWI.”

While each division has a diverse student body, many students have noticed an increase in diversity as they enter the UD.

Mirza saw a shift in her friendships as she entered the UD, she said. “When I first came to the school [in the Middle Division] I became friends with the few Indians I knew because we had things in common, and I guess I was less open,” Mirza said. “But now, it’s definitely changed a lot and I have a very ethnically diverse friend group.”

Jack Beard (9) also thinks the school is more diverse in high school because students join many more clubs or teams that feature people of all different identities, he said. “I’ve made many friends on the football team and I think it’s definitely a diverse team, but the friendships I made there were formed around a shared interest, not race.”

In high school, Akbar interacts with a lot more students that look like her than in the MD. “I came to Horace Mann in sixth grade, and as a new kid at Dorr, I noticed a lot of white students and only one other hijabi like me, so it was a little disappointing,” she said. At first, Akbar was nervous to step into an environment where only one other person looked like her, but over time, she saw more hijabis around school and felt more comfortable, she said.

After Akbar entered high school, students seemed to have matured, and learning about events in middle school where racial profiling was at an all-time high helped further that openness around diverse friendships, she said. “In classrooms, we had discussions where a lot of other students of color would speak and I learned from them and became friends with them through that experience,” she said.

To a certain extent, Allyson Wright (12) considers the school more diverse than when she entered in the Lower Division (LD), but only because her grade started with very little diversity to begin with, she said. “When I came to the school, we had only around four to five Black kids in my grade,” she said. “Although there has been a very small increase in people of color coming to the school, the unequal proportion to the number of white students is the same.”

 

The longer Megumi Iwai-Louie (12)  has been at HM, the more people from different backgrounds she’s met, but students still tend to form friend groups around shared experiences, she said. “If you look at HM’s friend groups, certain groups of kids from very similar backgrounds don’t often interact with other groups who might have different experiences.”

Iwai-Louie thinks that students at the school are still working towards diversity, if diversity is defined as people from all walks of life coming together and sharing their differences, instead of hiding them or only showing them to a select few. “People tend to gravitate towards people they feel most comfortable and familiar with, and that is normally people who look like them or who look like the people they grew up with,” she said.

Regardless, Iwai-Louie is appreciative of the friendships she has made. “Through HM, I’ve been able to build incredibly valuable friendships with people from many different backgrounds, who all contribute something different to the conversation.”

Because friendships in high school are sometimes just based on who students have classes or free periods with, diversity automatically increases in high school, Eva Onur (9) said. “The group you share frees with in high school is very random so you are almost forced to make friends with people of different identities, which is great.”

As people grow up, friendships become more defined by similarities and what people share as interests outside of race, Montbach said. While children might make friends based on who looks the most like them, teenagers learn that looks are not important and find friends they share common interests and hobbies with, he said.

Lewis, on the other hand, does not see any students at the school diversifying their friendships, she said. In fact, students at the school sometimes consider white the default because it is a PWI, and therefore are less conscious of other races existing in the school environment, she said. Because she has the same friends in the UD as she did in MD, Lewis has also not noticed an increase in diversity within her friend group.

Jarrett hopes students at the school will stray away from the ‘I don’t see color’ concept, in which people don’t pay attention to someone’s race and, as a result, do not consider how that person is treated by society, she said. “It is very natural and important to see color because that is how we form supportive friend groups,” she said. “There is no reason to shy away from honestly talking about race since that is how we see each other in the most authentic light.”

That being said, students should not befriend people solely because they are people of color, Jarrett said. “It’s important to make natural friendships across race lines, and it becomes inauthentic if someone were to purposefully say ‘let’s make friends with her just because we need a Black person in our group,’ for example.”

Meeting a diverse group of people is very important to Lewis and she hopes more students at the school will embrace the idea of befriending people of all races, she said. “If something is happening to a group you are not a part of, it is important to be aware of that and be able to share experiences across racial boundaries.”