Explainer A data-driven story that provides background, definition and detail on a specific topic.
When my husband and I moved to our new neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, a few years ago, we rejoiced over our local public elementary school. Unlike many in the United States, it’s diverse, with White, Black and Latinx students each comprising roughly a third of the student body. We’re White people living in a mostly White neighborhood and were hoping that our son being enrolled in a mostly diverse school would result in his being open-minded and comfortable with people from various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Without thinking about it too much, we also assumed we’d become friends with parents from different backgrounds.
And indeed, my son, who’s now a second-grader, plays easily with his multiethnic, multiracial classmates. But at school he’s a “walker,” which means that when school is out, his parents pick him up on foot or by bike, rather than his taking the bus or getting in a car. Instead of heading home immediately, we hang out for him to play with the other walker kids in the schoolyard while we chat with their parents. By default, that has become our community.
But because of real estate values and the privilege of flexible work schedules, the walkers are almost wholly White. So what we’ve succeeded in doing is essentially resegregating our son’s school experience. Instead of the school’s racial mix changing our lives, we’ve changed it to fit our comfort zones.
It shocked me to recognize what we’d done, but that’s American life in a nutshell. The population is all over the map when it comes to race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual identity, and political affiliation, and yet, somehow, we consistently wind up spending time with people who look, act, and think much like we do.
A 2016 study showed that White Americans’ social networks are 91% White.
Research bears that out.
An analysis of more than 1,000 wedding photos demonstrated that Whites, in particular, are unlikely to have Black friends who are close enough to serve as their bridesmaids and groomsmen. A 2016 study showed that White Americans’ social networks are 91% White; Black Americans’ friends and acquaintances are 83% Black. Americans also tend to spend time mostly with people of similar religious persuasions and political orientations. And our neighborhoods are increasingly homogenous.
That push to self-segregate is clearly powerful and can be difficult to resist. Good intentions, by themselves, are not enough to change those patterns. To build a life populated by a genuinely diverse circle of friends and acquaintances requires a conscious effort approached with patience and creativity.
The benefits, though, are huge—not just for us individually, but for the U.S. as a whole. In fact, getting to know people who are different from ourselves is perhaps the biggest thing we can do to reduce some of the prejudice, discrimination, and hate that’s become so common around the country, both in person and on social media.
That’s not hyperbole.
In 2016, Gallup researchers found that support for President Trump (then candidate Trump) was clearly associated with living in White, segregated neighborhoods. “The racial and ethnic isolation of Whites at the ZIP code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support,” their report read. The people most likely to agree with Trump’s statements calling undocumented immigrants “animals” and Black Lives Matter protesters “looters,” “thugs,” and “other forms of lowlife and scum” are the ones with the least exposure to racial and ethnic minorities.
Logically, the converse would seem to be true as well: that more mixing between different types of people is the key to reducing bigotry and bias. That we can chip away at the racism and other prejudices that lie in our own hearts, whether or not we’re aware of them, by engaging with people who are different from us. And that we can rally around policies that might not affect us personally if we know people who might benefit.
And it is. In 1954, sociologist Gordon Allport first presented the “contact hypothesis,” which posits that interactions between people from different groups promotes greater understanding and better relations between them. That finding has remained constant over time.
“The people we see in the media—once we get to know them, they become real, fully human, and intertwined with our lives in some way. We start to care more. And that has great capacity to change how we think about them and think they should be treated,” explains Linda Tropp, a psychology professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst who has researched the topic extensively. It’s not a cognitive process; the shift happens emotionally, reducing our anxiety and increasing our empathy, often without us even realizing it.
Commitment is key.
And the effect increases with intimacy. “What we see is that deep, close contact across group lines, like friendships or meaningful relationships, tends to be stronger in changing how we feel toward other groups,” says Tropp.
So simply mixing with different kinds of people—passing one another in the aisles at Target, for example, or sitting near each other on public transit—is good; interacting with them, like at a meeting or across the counter of a business establishment, is better. Best of all, of course, is a close friendship, the kind where you socialize in one another’s homes, call each other when you’re down, or borrow money when you’re broke.
But getting there is the tricky part.
According to author and psychologist Deborah Plummer, Americans have become increasingly siloed in the 15 years between her 2004 book about cross-racial friendships and her most recent one, Some of My Friends Are…
She believes much of that is the product of technology and our ability to customize what we consume, from shopping and entertainment to news and ideas. And because our environments have become even more limited during this pandemic, the effect has likely deepened over the past year. “So our worlds, even though they become much larger in some ways, are smaller in the sense that I can create my own bubble,” says Plummer.
As a result, we may simply have fewer places where we intersect with people unlike ourselves. Even the internet, in all its vastness, further constricts that bubble in that we seek out others who look, act, and believe like we do, and information that supports and affirms our ideologies. So no matter how open we are to other perspectives, no matter how much self-examination we’ve done to examine our own biases or “check our privilege,” if we’re still putting ourselves in group think spaces, we’re missing one of the biggest vehicles for transformation.
So how do you change that?
“It’s about intentionality,” says Hope Kelaher, author of Here to Make Friends: How to Make Friends as an Adult. “You can start with things that you’re interested in, but also things you’re curious about. You want to have a diverse realm of interests: The more diverse they are, the more likely you are to accumulate diverse people as friends.”
That means broadening where you go and what you do. If you have a hobby in which most of the participants are the same age or economic status, could you expand your interests slightly? For example, if you love modern dance but the community is homogenous, consider trying other forms of dance, such as tap or hip-hop, that tend to attract a wider variety of people.
Or frequent minority-owned businesses or institutions, like libraries or locally owned bookstores, in other parts of town; aside from meeting people there, you may see advertisements for lectures, meetings or other events at which the public is welcome. Charities, nonprofits, and social justice groups are often looking for assistance and tend to attract volunteers from a range of backgrounds. Or if you’re religious, seek out a spiritual community that makes diversity a priority.
Commitment is key.
“If you show up once, you might meet some people, but it won’t be a relationship that will grow over time,” says Beverly Daniel Tatum, who wrote Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? “But working on a project with someone, you’ll meet people.” Indeed, pursuing common goals and cooperating with others—that is, depending on one another—was mentioned by Allport as an ideal condition for change when he first developed the contact hypothesis. That could mean working with residents from another neighborhood on a community garden, mural painting, or beautification project.
Obviously, these options are now more limited because of the coronavirus. But the pandemic, affiliated economic crisis, and upcoming election have all resulted in a mushrooming of volunteer opportunities. Some are socially distanced; others—like many other civic activities—have moved online. And while connecting over the internet isn’t much of a substitute for meeting in person, it’s still a way to connect and to lay the groundwork for a time when we can all socialize again.
The goal, of course, isn’t to select potential friends simply because of their demographic characteristics. But too often, we unconsciously close ourselves off to those who feel “other” because a certain level of ease is lacking. While doing any of these new activities, try to remain accessible to people and open to talking if the opportunity arises.
None of this is easy. Moving out of your comfort zone and spending time around strangers who feel unfamiliar is awkward at best. In particular, White people moving into Black and other majority non-White spaces can feel very uncomfortable, wondering if they’re doing the right thing. But persist, says Tatum. “In my experience, when White people enter Black spaces respectfully, they’re usually welcomed—especially if they keep coming back.”
Tropp agrees. “It’s like a muscle you have to work,” she says. That sense of being a fish out of water—whether in terms of race, political affiliation, age, or something else—can be anxiety-producing. But it doesn’t last forever.
“Think of it as like learning a new language or a new skill: We won’t do everything perfectly from the get-go,” Tropp explains. It’s a process, one that becomes less daunting over time.
Amanda Abrams is a journalist living in Durham, NC. She's been freelancing for over 12 years and has contributed to The New York Times, Washington Post, the New Republic, Glamour, and many other publications. Before working as a journalist, Amanda was a policy wonk.