STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Think about your closest friends for a moment, and ask yourself what they have in common. For most Americans, most of their friends are of the same race as they are. White Americans are the most racially isolated in this way, but other groups are nearly as isolated. So why does that happen? NPR's Code Switch podcast teamed up with WNYC's Death, Sex & Money podcast to find out. Anna Sale from Death, Sex & Money and Shereen Marisol Meraji from Code Switch joined our own Noel King for this conversation. And Anna Sale asked listeners to tell her about a time when race became a factor in friendships.
ANNA SALE, BYLINE: First of all, I want to say there were a lot of stories about misunderstandings and conflicts that just festered - that something had happened. There was a feeling of closeness between friends, and then something happened that, like, was a flashpoint of difference.
But one friendship in particular really stuck out to me because it's two friends who did stick with it. It's two women - Chrishana White and Sarah Lorr. They met while working together in Brooklyn as attorneys. Chrishana is black; Sarah is white. And before Sarah, Chrishana told me, she really hadn't had any close white friends. Most of her friends were black. And she's planning her bachelorette party years into her friendship with Sarah, and she realizes - uh, I don't think I'm going to invite Sarah. I'm not sure my black friends will be comfortable; I'm not sure Sarah will be comfortable. So that was the choice she made. And then she felt like, uh, I probably should explain this to Sarah - we're so close - why I'm not inviting her.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
CHRISHANA WHITE: Like, she made a joke, and she said that I segregate my friends. And I think for me, like - I think I became a little defensive. And I said, well, I haven't met any of your white friends either. And so (laughter) I'd been thinking about it for a long time - for months now.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: God, that tape hurts my heart a little bit.
SALE: I know. I haven't met any of your white friends either - I just love that. (Laughter).
KING: Yeah, no, it's such a friend thing to say. Like, OK, well, I might be doing it, but you're doing it, too. So Shereen, you're talking to experts - right? - people who are deeply informed about what you do in a situation like this, why these situations happen. When you presented experts with Chrishana's situation, what did they say?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Well, first - and this is huge - they told me that Chrishana and Sarah have beat the odds.
MERAJI: Both white and black Americans have the most homogenous social networks. And you know, this is largely due to segregation. White Americans live in the most racially segregated neighborhoods in this country, followed by black Americans. And if neighborhoods are segregated, schools are segregated. And school is really where we learn how to make and maintain friendships. And what social scientists have found is that if you don't make cross-race friendships young, it's a lot harder to do when you get older.
So what Chrishana and Sarah have accomplished is something that so many people in this country haven't. They've made this deep and lasting friendship across racial lines. But the effects of racism - and we're talking housing segregation; we're talking school segregation - they're still having an impact, obviously, on this friendship.
KING: OK. So this is really interesting because they're friends, but they have challenges. A lot of the root of friendship is fun, right? The people that you just kind of have ease - you are at ease with, things don't get hard that often. So Shereen, is there anything that friends like Chrishana and Sarah can do to overcome the fact that they're just, in some ways, coming from very different places?
MERAJI: Well, I spoke for a long time with psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, who wrote "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?". Tatum told me that social scientists who research cross-race friendships found that, yeah, white Americans, they do want to have fun. Like, they want to have a chill friendship. And obviously, we all do. But what's, like, the opposite of fun for white Americans? Well, talking about race and racism. And you know, studies show that black Americans actually do want to talk about race and social justice, especially with their friends.
BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Because of the racial context in which we're all living, if we want to have cross-racial relationships, part of what makes them successful is our willingness and ability to learn how to talk about racism, even in the context of the friendship.
MERAJI: And what happens is the burden of doing all the talking and the teaching (laughter) usually falls on the person of color in the friendship. So in this case, that's Chrishana. And you know, that's on top of all of the other stress Chrishana has to deal with of living in an unequal society. So these hard conversations, they get put off. Like Anna said, things fester, and friendships suffer.
KING: Anna, one of the things that you do really well on Death, Sex & Money is you just sit down and have the really awkward conversation. Did Chrishana and Sarah ever get together and just, like, try to talk through this?
SALE: Yeah, yeah. I had them in studio together, and I talked with them both. And what was so interesting to me was that we talked about the bachelorette party. And for the most part, it was - you know, Sarah understood. I get it. Like, I get the group dynamic thing; our friendship is going to be fine. But something else that came up while we were talking was another instance in which Chrishana felt kind of let down by their friendship, and it was actually in the workplace that they shared. Chrishana felt like she and Sarah would talk about some of the racial issues in the workplace. But when it came to speaking up, Chrishana felt like Sarah kind of left her alone to do that on her own. Here's a moment of that conversation from the podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
WHITE: I was the one who, like, took the steps to, like, address the issue.
SARAH LORR: I mean, it makes - it certainly doesn't surprise me that - not in a way that excuses it but just in a way that acknowledges my failings - that there are things I wouldn't have done or wouldn't know how to do or kind of wouldn't feel comfortable doing that you shouldn't have to do alone.
SALE: Is there more you want to say, Sarah?
LORR: I mean, it's very tough. It's the kind of conversation I wish we could have had in real time.
SALE: And what I actually love about that tape is you hear Sarah listening. You hear Sarah saying, like, I hear you. And so often what we heard in stories from people who sent in stories from white people was - oh, my gosh - I want to avoid issues of race 'cause I don't want to say the wrong thing. And when I do - when someone does criticize me for something I did, there's this impulse to be defensive and say - hey - no, no, no. But I'm not racist. I'm not racist. What you hear Sarah doing there is listening to Chrishana, hearing her, sticking with it and being a real friend.
KING: It sounds like what you both found is that, on some level, some of this - if you're going to have cross-racial friendships, some of it is just going to be uncomfortable some of the time.
KING: There you go.
MERAJI: You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
KING: With being uncomfortable.
KING: Shereen Marisol Meraji is co-host of our Code Switch podcast, and Anna Sale hosts the podcast Death, Sex & Money.
Thank you guys both so much for being here. We really appreciate it.
MERAJI: Thank you, Noel.
SALE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEEM THE CIPHER'S "TRANSCEND.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.