Friendships across social boundaries are difficult but essential


I began to think critically about the role of race in friendship during my firstyear seminar, The Meaning of Friendship. Our Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students, Marcella Runell Hall, is the professor for this class. We learned about social identities, which are the groups a person identifies with that shape their daily experiences. In Hall’s book, “UnCommon Bonds,” women of various social identities tell stories about friendships that bridge various social divides. Professor Sonia Nieto from UMass Amherst wrote that it is “not easy” to be friends with people different than you.

Despite this difficulty, people have such a wide range of social identities at Mount Holyoke that it’s difficult to avoid encountering difference. When I become friends with someone of a different race than mine, there are some obstacles to the friendship that are not usually present when someone is the same race as me. I have to learn about the differences between us in order to understand the person fully.

If I come to understand them better, race may no longer be the most obvious barrier between us, but the barrier is still there. I asked “UnCommon Bonds” contributor and visiting lecturer in psychology and education at Mount Holyoke Jennifer Matos about this, and she said “If you can’t see my race, you can’t see me.” Because her race is something that affects so many aspects of her life, it would be difficult for her to be friends with someone who did not acknowledge it. Another contributor, Millicent Jackson, said that if someone sees your race, they are saying “I see you, all of you.” They are showing that they care about you, and that is essential for a friendship.

Race is only one of the many social boundaries to overcome in a friendship. There are other social categories to consider: socioeconomic status, age and gender. No matter which part of someone’s social identity differs from yours, being friends with people across social boundaries can help both parties become more empathetic, knowledgeable and aware of the experiences different people go through.

Through my life, I have learned many methods for making and maintaining friendships across social boundaries. I have learned to not downplay the relevance of my social identities simply because someone else may not understand them, but rather to take time to explain how they shape my life. For example, I have felt uncomfortable when I have held in my opinions on the experiences that I have as a cisgender female around those with a different gender identity than mine. Those people did not get to really know me, because I was hiding a part of myself.

Another method I’ve learned is to ask questions, and lots of them. Asking people about the significance of certain holidays, traditions and foods can create a stimulating dialogue with someone about our differences and similarities. I remember talking to a male friend about gender and hearing him describe feeling emasculated and belittled, and realizing that people with every social identity face their own set of obstacles. I would not have thought about this if I had not had that conversation.

My favorite way to understand a friend’s culture is to directly experience something that is part of it. The Bhangra dance team that I’m a part of, Raunak, is a diverse group of people. We decided to attend a Garba event, which is a traditional Indian dance form that is done leading up to Diwali. Our captain, Juhi Shah ’20, decided to teach everyone how to Garba so that we all felt prepared when we got to the event. This fun and new experience brought us all closer together.

Being friends with people of different social identities than mine has truly been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. Learning about their identities is not only fascinating, but it also prompts me to pay more attention to the people around me. It can be easy to stay within your bubble, but extending yourself to others is unbelievably rewarding. As Hall put it, “The vulnerability in being visible, flaws and all, can be healing and restorative.” Seeing others and letting yourself be seen is so freeing. We all deserve to feel that love and freedom.