Friendship can bring us together in spite of our differences, but being the only woman of colour in a group of white friends can still be difficult. Georgina Lawton shares her experiences, and talks to two other women who have faced similar challenges.
Friendship is vital to our sense of self, with studies showing that having a close network of people around us can boost our mental health and wellbeing, and that we tend to define ourselves in part by the people we socialise with. But research from YouGov in 2018 found that one in three white Britons (35%) have no friends at all from an ethnic minority background.
This can lead to something called the “confirmation bias”, which is where our attitudes and beliefs become more resistant to change when we surround ourselves with those who hold the same views and opinions as us. And what happens to your identity when you’re the only person of a minority background in your friendship group? That comes with its own set of specific nuances and challenges, as I know all too well…
My friends are the best. I met the majority of them at an all-girls Catholic school in London, where bonding took place in the hushed corners of our school chapel or assembly hall: forbidden whispers and giggles mingled with the sound of high-pitched hymns.
Our friendship group was full of the sort of laugh until-your-belly-hurts experiences that took place at weekend sleepovers and drunken nights out. We didn’t ever really compete with each other either, shunning the catty, girls-school stereotype and creating a solid foundation of female friendship that has lasted well into our 20s. I stood out as the only mixed girl in our group, but because I never spoke about my heritage, my friends didn’t know that often it was something I struggled with.
Halcyon teenhood days were marred by the occasional racist encounter, to which none of us knew how to react. At times it was lonely but I often stayed silent and dealt with it alone.
I remember aged 18, going out to a club with my girl group and being approached by a white guy who started flirting with me. For the most part I was actually enjoying it, until this guy’s friend came over, eyed all the girls I was with and then looked me up and down. Then he gestured to me and asked his friend: “Why are you speaking to her when you could pick any one of those girls?”
Moments like that made me feel as if I was perceived as less attractive purely because of my race, and against the ubiquitous backdrop of whiteness, my appearance often felt magnified.
Living in a white area, with all-white friends often wreaked havoc with my confidence as a young woman, because of course I wanted to fit in with what I knew. Even though I was super-close with my friends, at times I felt that I couldn’t share my anxieties with them because I was scared things would get awkward. How do you tell your amazing best friend that you’re more than a little bit of jealous of how they look? That in a heartbeat you’d swap your dark skin and frizzy hair for their snow-white complexion and bone-straight hair? At 13 that’s exactly what I would have wished for.
Of course every young women struggles with their self-image growing up, but being the only one of a minority background can be particularly tough at times, and it felt like none of has had the right language to differentiate between our particular experiences. Today, we’re much closer because we speak more openly about everything, and I only wish we’d crossed that gulf of understanding years ago.
Here, two more women share their stories of being the only person of colour in their friendship group…
Namata Ssebalijja, 27
My family is from Uganda but I grew up in an all-white neighbourhood in the UK, and nearly all my friends are white. I also went to a white private school, then studied medicine at Newcastle which added another layer of whiteness. I think that dynamic has affected me subconsciously and changed my views on certain things; the types of men I date, my standards of beauty. I had a nose job when I was 19 and even though I’m glad I did it, I do now wonder: if I was surrounded by people of colour, would I have seen my nose as something that was too big, and too ugly? I doubt it.
At school I had a great group of friends and I don’t ever remember encountering blatant, in-your-face racism, but there were subtle encounters that were hard. I remember being in the common room on my break when one male friend basically said something like: “I would never marry a black woman as I want my children to look like me.” He was my friend and we were 17, so I remember being so shocked and gutted that he said that. Was it that he doesn’t really see me as a potential mate? Or was it because he didn’t see me as black? It was very humiliating. Although the girls were outraged on my behalf, it sparked a bit of an intergroup argument as the boys didn’t get why I was even offended.
That incident also led to a five-month period of anorexia where I lost a lot of weight. I never felt like the pretty girl, but to hear that so plainly expressed made me think that every white guy must feel like that. I was around white people all the time, and I thought I was going to be alone forever. School was a place where I would always laugh about my race and make a lot of jokes about being black. I used humour in an attempt to be in control of the narrative and of course it was a complete defence mechanism, but at the time I felt I had to do it.
Sometimes if I try tell my white friends what dating is like for me, they will automatically say that that I’m beautiful, or that all their guy friends think I’m hot. But as many women of colour know, it’s not about that — it’s about whether that guy will be proud enough to take me home or marry me. At times, white men just don’t see me as valuable, and some of my friends don’t understand that.
Growing up, I never spoke to my white female friends about suffering with ‘ugly duck syndrome’ because what are were we going to say? It’s a big topic and I think as a teenager, I wasn’t confident enough to discuss it as I felt like no-one would get it. Today my views have changed though, and my friends are really supportive. For example, when it comes to my natural hair I always wore a wig or weave, but recently, I’ve shaved my head and with it, shed some ideas of Westernised beauty. My friends tell me I look so much better, and it’s amazing to have them appreciate natural, African beauty.
To be an ally and a good friend to a person of colour I think you just need to see them as your friend first — not your black friend. I can always tell when people have a diverse group of mates because there’s just a natural comfortability and they treat you as an individual, not a stereotype. There are so many things for black people to be proud of in our history, but I am me, and my heritage is just one part of who I am.
Sophie Newman Lau, 27
I wasn’t proud of my Chinese-Malay heritage until I was 22, and looking back, that is sad — I feel like I missed out on a large chunk of my life. I went to a primary, boarding school with international students and I remember it being really segregated. Then at my secondary grammar school, I was the only Asian girl in our friendship group.
I suffered with a lot of personal identity issues from 11 to 13. I wanted to be white with blonde hair as that’s what everyone else looked like, and that’s who most of the boys seemed to fancy. I remember feeling left out when it came to hair and makeup trends; when the GHD trend came about, me and my friends used to go over to each others’ houses and dress up, but my hair was already so straight so I couldn’t take part. Then if we experimented with blue eye-shadow or swapped foundations, everything would look rubbish on my skin tone. Of course lots of teenagers struggle with self-image but perhaps I suffered a little bit more. At home, I would have rice every single day, and I remember if I went to a mates house and they would have spaghetti bolognese, or sausage and mash, I just felt like I was hard done by.
In my friendship group at school, I didn’t mind being called “Chinky” - it became a familiar term. I remember my Dad (who moved to the UK from Hong Kong) telling me how offensive he found that word, but back then I didn’t have open relationships with my family and I think I was struggling with some confidence issues on my own. Now, me and my friends are more conscious and mature, and we know that we don’t need to talk like that to be funny. If someone in the street called me a racist term now, I would turn around and say something.
When it came to dating, I found it relatively easy and met my now-husband at school. But I found that being Asian comes with certain reductive stereotypes. I went to Edinburgh University and was the only Asian girl in our group. I realised that guys would tell me if I was their “first Asian”, or if they had “yellow fever” after dating me. I’d go back to my friends and tell them what was said, and it sort of became a joke. Humour became a way for me to defend myself.
Regardless of your background, good friends are loyal and open with each other. I think that the current generation growing up are even more closed-off than we are because of social media, so I think it’s really important to have conversations and encourage people to talk more about their identity and background. I had a period between 18 and 22 where I spoke with my friends about what it’s been like for me growing up, and that marked a shift in me finally accepting who I am as a woman. I’m so proud to be different and I love being the the only person with my heritage in my friendship group.