What You Should Know About Interracial Friendship

Friendships across racial lines aren't as common as they seem

Friends Embrace
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Interracial friendships have been the subject of television shows such as “Any Day Now” or films such as “The Lethal Weapon” franchise. To boot whenever prominent people make a racial misstep, they are so quick to declare that some of their “best friends are black” that the expression has become a cliché. The idea that hipsters desperately want black friends has also become pervasive in recent years.

In reality, interracial friendships remain relatively uncommon. Racially segregated schools, neighborhoods and workplaces contribute to this trend. But even in diverse settings, interracial friendships tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Racial stereotypes and prejudice inevitably color how different racial groups perceive each other, resulting in divisions that pose challenges to potential cross-cultural friendships.

How Rare Are Interracial Friendships?

While government agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau collect data on interracial marriage, there’s no definitive way to determine how common interracial friendships are. Simply asking people if they have a friend of a different race has also proven to be ineffective given that the public is likely to include mere acquaintances as friends in an effort to appear well-rounded and open-minded. Accordingly in 2006, demographer Brent Berry set out to discover how common interracial friendships are by examining more than 1,000 photographs of wedding parties.

Berry reasoned that people typically include their closest friends in wedding parties, leaving little doubt that the members of such parties would be true friends of the bride and groom.

Those featured in the wedding party photos were of black, white and Asian origin or what Berry classified as “other” race.

To say that Berry’s results were eye-opening would be an understatement. The demographer found that just 3.7 percent of whites were close enough to their black friends to include them in their wedding parties. Meanwhile, 22.2 percent of African Americans included white groomsmen and bridesmaids in their wedding parties. That’s six times the amount of whites who included blacks in theirs.

On the other hand, whites and Asians included each other in wedding parties at roughly the same rate. Asians, though, include blacks in their wedding parties at just one-fifth the rate that blacks include them. Berry’s research leads one to conclude that African Americans are much more open to cross-cultural relationships than other groups. It also reveals that whites and Asians are far less inclined to invite blacks to join their wedding parties—presumably because African Americans remain so marginalized in the U.S. that a friendship with a black person lacks the social currency that a friendship with a white person or Asian carries.

Other Barriers to Interracial Friendships

Racism isn’t the only barrier to interracial friendships. Reports that Americans have become increasingly socially isolated in the 21st also play a role.

According to a 2006 study called “Social Isolation in America” the number of people Americans say they can discuss important matters with dwindled by almost one-third from 1985 to 2004. The study not only found that people have fewer confidants but that Americans increasingly confide in their family members rather than in friends. Moreover, 25 percent of Americans say they have no one at all to confide in, more than double the amount of people who said the same in 1985.

The impact of this trend affects people of color more than whites. Minorities and people with less education have smaller social networks than whites do. If people of color are more likely to depend on their family members for companionship than non-relatives it makes it unlikely that they will have many same-race friendships, let alone interracial ones.

Hope For The Future

While the public’s social networks may be shrinking, the amount of Americans in the 21st century who report having interracial friendships is up from 1985. The percentage of Americans who say they have at least one close friend of another race has risen from 9 percent to 15 percent, according to the General Social Survey, which the researchers behind “Social Isolation in America” used for their study. Nearly 1,500 people were questioned about the individuals with whom they’d recently discussed serious concerns. Researchers then asked participants to describe the race, gender, educational background and other characteristics of their confidants. Twenty years from now the amount of Americans involved in interracial friendships will surely increase.