I cut ties with my racist best friend

‘I need to go to the P*ki shop,’ my friend Claire* told me as we walked down a busy Barcelona street towards our designated brunch spot. 

I was shocked. Did she really just say that?

‘Er, you shouldn’t really say that word,’ I responded, trying to keep my tone light, although I could feel myself shaking. 

As a person of colour, when someone you consider a friend exposes their racist beliefs, it can be utterly devastating. I proceeded to explain that I’ve had the slur used against me before, and told her how much it hurt.

‘Oh, come on!’ she said, with an exasperated expression. ‘Everyone says that in Spain, and anyway, they are all P*kis!’ 

I was bewildered but I started to second guess myself. She was right, everyone probably did say that. It doesn’t mean she’s racist, I told myself. And so I gave her the benefit of the doubt. 

But as our friendship developed, the racist comments, digs and microaggressions continued. 

I discovered she was a fan of Trump’s immigration policy, she frequently used racial slurs in my presence and the way she would stereotype black people and people of colour was painful. 

Although each situation presented an opportunity to call her out, I didn’t. In some warped way, I was worried about offending her. People don’t want to hear that they’re racist; they often see it as an attack on their character. And as a people pleaser by nature, I find confrontation particularly difficult.

Instead, I would quickly change the subject. Afterwards, I would replay the incident in my head and agonise over what I should have said. It was draining.

After a few months, I found myself dreading our meet-ups, and would think of any excuse I could to cancel.

At the time, I think the only reason I stayed friends with her was that I’d moved to a different country and I didn’t yet have a large network around me. I didn’t want to lose friends when I should be making them, despite how toxic this friendship was.

If we did get together, I made sure to keep the conversation on safe ground, sticking to chat about books, TV shows or holidays. Looking back, I was hiding a major part of myself to make her feel comfortable. 

I think part of the reason I kept our friendship going for so long was due to the insidious nature of racism, and how calling it out instantly makes people feel uncomfortable. I was always left second-guessing myself. Was I overreacting? Was I the one in the wrong? Maybe I do need to lighten up. 

But as I learnt more about systemic racism, and the deep levels of prejudice throughout society, I began to seriously question whether our friendship could continue. 

The deciding moment was when I told her I was reading Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. The book shines a light on what it means to be a person of colour in a structurally racist world, exploring issues such as white privilege, whitewashed feminism and the eradication of black history. She looked at me as if I’d slapped her across the face.

‘Next, you’ll be telling me we shouldn’t sing Baa Baa Black Sheep,’ she retorted. ‘I’m not sure if we can be friends if you carry on like this.’

For the very first time, I tried to talk to her about my personal experiences of racism, as well as institutional racism and white privilege but, as you might expect, it didn’t go down well.

She was instantly defensive and once again, my confidence was diminished. I even ended up consoling her and reassuring her that she’s a good person. 

We continued our conversation as if I had never brought up the book but at that point, I knew enough was enough. I no longer had the time, energy or emotional capacity to deal with her problematic behaviour. I was out. 

There was no dramatic, soap opera-style goodbye – it was more of a silent exit. I simply stopped messaging her and stopped feeling guilty about saying no. 

After a few weeks, I realised I didn’t miss her friendship at all. In fact, I felt utterly relieved. It was like a weight had been lifted. 

Fortunately, she moved away a few months later, making the situation less awkward. And as I moved back to the UK last year too, we’re miles apart now.

I do regret not speaking up. Sometimes, I think about reaching out to Claire to tell her how she made me feel but I know that I would be met with hostility, and it would be to the detriment of my mental health. 

The events of this year, with the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, have made me think about my friendship with Claire a lot. If I could go back, I know I wouldn’t tolerate her behaviour. I would have the confidence to call her out if she made an offensive comment and I’d cut ties as soon as she started to make me feel uncomfortable.

I’ve also been reflecting on the quality of all my friendships. Now, I’m at a stage in my life that if a friend says something abhorrent about immigration or people of colour, I won’t just let it slide.

I won’t suppress my opinions to protect white feelings. Equally, I know I’m not obliged to challenge every instance of racism or educate anyone about it. If a friendship is no longer serving me, I can simply walk away. 

Moving forward, I’m only investing in friendships that nourish my soul and bring me joy. At the end of the day, my peace of mind takes priority. 

*Name has been changed

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