Why Can’t We Be Friends (on TV)?


My best friend is Black. Her name is Diva, she was born and raised in Brooklyn, and her family is Panamanian. I am White. Not blonde, blue eyes, Blake Lively White—my father is an Arab immigrant, so I have what ineloquent guys at bars call an “exotic look,” but I am still, at the end of the day, White. That’s the box I check on the census form. That’s the color of my skin. Race might be a construct and all that, but my Whiteness and Diva’s Blackness have implications that play out in real-life.

For example, the N-word. I understand that it’s a reclaimed word, that using it is arguably empowering for people of certain races or cultures. I hear it every day, from Diva and our other friends and on the train and on the block and so on. Still, I am not going to use it. I don’t think it’s appropriate for a White person to use it, but I usually don’t flinch when I hear it. It’s as common as “hello”, or something.

Except with the -er. For whatever reason—maybe it’s White guilt, even though I have zero Southern roots; maybe it’s some kind of cultural conditioning; maybe it’s political correctness—but when I hear the N-word with an -er, rather than the more common -a, I flinch. “Nigga,” to me, sounds like “bro” or “bud” or any other friendly colloquialism. “Nigger” sounds pejorative; it’s partly the abrasiveness, the sharpness, of that final -r. Spoken, it sounds like a weapon. Somebody on Urban Dictionary agrees with me because they wrote:

Nigga is a word which evolved from the derogative term “nigger”. Tupac best defined the distinction between the two.

NIGGER- a black man with a slavery chain around his neck.

NIGGA- a black man with a gold chain on his neck.

Diva knows I won’t say “nigga,” and she knows I don’t even like to hear “nigger.” She thinks it’s funny. Sometimes she tries to trick me into saying “nigga”, usually when I am rapping along with Jay Z. Sometimes, when we are out to dinner or on the train and she needs a laugh, she drops “nigger” into her sentence just to watch me cringe a little. This anecdote is not meant to preface some linguistic analysis or argue for or against the use of the N-word; it’s meant to capture the uniqueness of an interracial friendship, to underscore the fact that being a White girl with a Black best friend is not like being a White girl with a White best friend. There are cultural norms, there are social customs, that we contend with. And when we wrestle with them—when Diva makes me confront my race and our country’s ugly history and how far we’ve evolved, all through two seemingly innocuous graphemes—it strengthens us as individuals and as friends.

All this is notable to me because it seems that the reality of our kind of friendship has yet to make it into our media landscape. That’s not to say people of color don’t exist on television. When I run down the laundry list of television shows I regularly watch, there are many main characters of color. They are not always the leads, and they are vastly outnumbered by White characters, but they are there. My issue is less with the lack of color on television than with the lack of context around these characters of color. Think of all of the interracial friendships on TV right now: Bonnie and Elena; Jess and CeCe; Kalinda and Alicia; myriad Glee pairings; Carrie Bradshaw and Jill; Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins; Meredith and Christina; Olivia Pope and Abby. These platonic couples exist, but the realities of what it means to be best friends with someone of another race are rarely acknowledged.

Maybe Diva and I are an exception, but race comes up in some form or another anytime we are together, whether we’re discussing the merits of weave versus wig or she’s arguing that only White people have imaginary friends as children. I am not saying that the minutia of our friendship is interesting enough to be on television, but I know that television writers could mine drama or comedy out of the realities of platonic interracial friendships.

Consider Miley Cyrus, who has been sparking outrage for her blatant appropriation of “ratchet” culture. In response to her infamous VMA performance, some (misogynists) have argued that she’s just “too slutty.” Others have argued that she’s racist for treating Black dancers as props. Miley defended against those allegations in Rolling Stone, saying, “I don’t keep my producers or dancers around ’cause it makes me look cool…Those aren’t my ‘accessories.’ They’re my homies.” I can’t speak to the truth of that, but I do think there’s a connection between Miley Cyrus and, say, that other controversial White Girl, Lena Dunham. On her show Girls, Dunham follows in the footsteps of Sex and the City’s frank quartet of Manhattan mates and draws humor out of the slightly awkward realities of many twenty-something girls’ lives—weird dates, weirder sex, frenemies, text etiquette, body image, and onward. If Dunham were to further widen her scope, to honestly and entertainingly showcase the truths of interracial friendships, perhaps Miley Cyrus’ proclamation that she has Black girlfriends would feel less alien or unlikely to some.

Of course, the onus isn’t only on Dunham, though her show’s tone makes it the perfect vehicle for the discussion I’d love to see onscreen. For too long people have demanded that television be “color-blind.” Kerry Washington said in a recent New York Times interview, “I don’t want to be race blind or gender blind. They matter!” Someone’s race, like their gender or sexual orientation, is often central to who they are; by ignoring that, one is ignoring a part of that individual or deeming that part unworthy of acknowledgment. Television writers and showrunners would do all of us a favor by forgetting about being “race-blind” or “color-blind” and dealing with the beauty and humor in our differences. It’s been done right before; just check out New Girl’s Season 2 episode “Cabin”, wherein Schmidt decides Winston needs more Black friends, to hilarious results. It can be done again. We’ve celebrated Carrie Bradshaw and her gals for openly discussing anal sex; we’ve celebrated Shonda Rhimes for creating a show with a black, female lead; we’ve celebrated Lena Dunham for showcasing a realistic female body. These glass ceilings have been shattered; next, we need a show daring enough to explore the complexities of friendship and race. That would be something to celebrate.