BY DEANNA KALIAN ’20
“Doing better starts with our very foundation, our relationships and community,” said Marcella Runell Hall, vice president for Student Life and dean of students. Hall spoke to the Mount Holyoke community on April 6 about her book, “UnCommon Bonds: Women Reflect on Race and Friendship.” The book, published earlier this month, is a collection of short stories, reflections and letters about interracial friendships between women. Hall co-edited “UnCommon Bonds” with Kersha Smith, assistant professor of psychology at Queensborough Community College.
According to Hall and Smith, their book “contributes to the further conversation about race that continues to be male-centered and lacking in intimacy.” The collection of short stories and letters, written by people from different races, classes and religious backgrounds, were composed by friends and colleagues of the authors. The contributing writers imbued the project with a variety of genuine experiences as they navigated interracial friendships throughout their lives. Hall and Smith emphasized in the anthology’s introduction that they “wanted to honor the uniqueness of each story while uniting them under a common bond that exposes the conflicts, celebrations,and everything in between of cross-racial friendships.”
Imani Romney-Rosa, who is involved with Kolot Chayeinu Synagogue in Brooklyn, New York, read aloud her contribution to “UnCommon Bonds” at the talk. She submitted a series of letters exchanged between her and a friend, Roberta Samet, where the two worked together to address racism in the Jewish community. Samet wrote to Romney-Rosa, claiming that “[looking] at whiteness is an acquired taste,” something Samet had to encounter as the white component of their interracial friendship.
Although many facets of their personalities harmonized perfectly, their bond of friendship could not be labelled “common” because the issue of race superseded every other consideration. As Romney-Rosa replied, “[it] is an uncommon bond because I am taught not to trust you [...] Where is the humanity? I think we find it by acknowledging the context, constantly then not letting it define us.” These letters highlight the panelists’ advice to choose one’s friends carefully. Samet and Romney-Rosa’s friendship worked because it rested on mutual respect and consideration.
Millicent R. Jackson, a fiction writer who writes primarily about social justice issues, also had an essay included in the book. Her piece, “Across the Abyss,” addressed Jackson’s complicated friendship with a white woman named Susan. Problems arose between the two when Susan, a longtime friend of Jackson, called her one day in tears to complain that a mutual friend had called her a racist. Susan explained to Jackson that in order to attend a writing group for women of color, she would appear in blackface.
Jackson recounted her shock and hurt upon the discovery that her friend was capable of saying such a thing. Years later, when Jackson revealed to Susan that she wanted to write about the incident for “UnCommon Bonds,” Susan again sobbed as she begged her not to write about it. Anger quickly flared up in Jackson, and she wrote, “If I hear and witness one more person inflicting another hurt stating that it was ‘unintentional’ I will implode. It will be worse if that person claims to be a friend of mine.”
As Jackson’s essay demonstrated, “UnCommon Bonds” includes anecdotes not only about healthy interracial friendships, but also the difficulty in navigating ending a friendship due to privilege and the refusal to learn and grow. “UnCommon Bonds” features many more essays and stories, exploring topics ranging from cultural differences within Asian communities to friendships between Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Aicha Belabbes ’19, who attended the book release party, commented on Hall’s contribution. “I am very proud of the work Dean Hall has done on this campus and I think the book she wrote in partnership with women of other races can be very helpful to other women, especially of their generation,” said Belabbes. “I loved how someone at the event created the phrase ‘toxic femininity.’ Unfortunately, I have seen too much toxic femininity in organizing and friendship and I am glad it has been called out.”