Let’s talk: Cross-cultural friendships

Let’s talk: Cross-cultural friendships

There was a time in our country when it was illegal for black, white, coloured and Indian people to be friends with each other. After decades of segregation, and now two decades of democracy, many South Africans struggle to know how to relate to people who look different to them. Some people are afraid of saying or doing something that could be received as offensive, others are just afraid of the unknown. Then there are some who have tried and been burnt or felt rejected. Let’s be honest, whether you’re black, coloured, Indian or white, it is just easier to be friends with people who are like you, who have a similar way of engaging with the world. But just because it’s easier, does it make it right?

What follows below is a series of interviews with a range of people covering topics like: 

  • Why should my life be diverse? 
  • What are the challenges in interracial friendships? 
  • Lessons learnt from people who do have diverse friendship groups. 

It is our hope that as you read these stories you will find something that resonate with you but also that you will find something that challenges you. We also recorded a podcast discussing this topic, and you can listen here.


WHITE FEMALE, IN HER 30s

“My friends of different cultures are not the people I feel most comfortable reaching out to when I need help.”

Tell us about you and your cross-cultural friend-group.

I don’t have many cross-cultural friends. Four women of colour, one that I see regularly.

Why is a diverse friend-group important to you? 

It’s a spiritual discipline for me. I know Jesus valued listening, befriending and spending time with people unlike him. I also want to walk what I talk – if I say this is important to Jesus, then I need to live it too. But because it’s a spiritual matter, it’s highly complex. God doesn’t need me to befriend people unlike me, he wants to do this because it’s going to be good for me. It’s hard for it not to feel like homework.  

Do you find challenges in cross-cultural friendships? 

Yes, it’s hard. It takes more effort for me to be friends with people outside my culture.  My friends of different cultures are not the people I feel most comfortable reaching out to when I need help. But I don’t 100% know why. Maybe I feel my challenges and troubles are trivial compared to what some of my friends of colour are facing. I’m not always sure of how much I can share because of the nuances of our lives – what I’m facing with the reality of what they’re going through. For instance, one of

my black friends just lost a huge client in her business. That’s a lot of her income for the year. When I hear that, I’m less likely to share that my husband and I are nervous and unsure if we’ll be able to travel overseas for a Christmas holiday. I’m sensitive to the fact that they clearly have bigger fish to fry. But if a white friend told me she lost a huge client, I’d still share with her that I’m nervous about our end of year holiday. It’s like my white friend will understand my point of view, but my black friend will think I’m insensitive. I know my friends of colour are sacrificing to just get by, so I hesitate to share financial or material concerns with them.  

Also, the pressure to have cross-cultural friends is weightier because the fruit of it is public. People don’t see your private spiritual disciplines (prayer, Bible reading) but they will definitely see if your friendship-circles are diverse and if you’re making an effort to be friends with those unlike you.  If I believe that our country is in desperate need of transformation, I need to practice what I preach and transform. 

What do you wish people knew about cross cultural friendship?  

They take more effort but it’s valuable. And, if you don’t prioritize them, it’s less likely to happen naturally. You’re crossing boundaries that have been entrenched (especially in Cape Town). Not sure I can say “the effort is worth it” but it’s what God wants. 

Think about it, in Jesus’ time, under Rabbinic Law it was unlawful to be in the home/around the table of people outside of his religion. But he did it, he broke Kosher by sharing a table with people who were ceremonially unclean. We must cross boundaries and be unlike the culture because Jesus modeled it.  It’s a picture of every nation, tribe and tongue together. It’s something God wants me to do. The pressure to do this is heavy but I’m coaching and training myself to do this because it’s opening my eyes to what Jesus wants me to see – to be empathetic to the reality around me. I want cross-cultural friendships to become more ‘normal’ and we must model this for it to become socially norm. 

Getting to know other cultures gives you an opportunity to challenge your own idea of what ‘blackness’ is. When you get to know a person at a friend-level, you find commonalities that bring you together. You rewrite the stereotypes and find beauty in the person. 

What advice do you have for people who would like to engage intentionally to have more cross-cultural friendships? 

Understand why it’s important to God. But don’t let that become the reason for doing it. You’ll learn so much from cross-cultural relationships. This is one step toward personal transformation and becoming more Christ-like. We need to shatter the walls that keep us apart and that might mean breaking a sweat, for me, it’s friendships that seem to require a bit more effort- it’s a small price to pay. 


CAPE COLOURED FEMALE, IN HER 30s

Living a diverse friend-group can enrich your life, but it can also make you wonder if you’re losing touch with your own culture.

Tell us about you and your friend-group.

In this season of my life, my friendship table is diverse. I have friends that are Xhosa, Ndebele, white. My closest friends right now are not Coloured.

Why is a diverse friend-group important to you? 

Growing up in Ocean View (a prodominantly Coloured community), my whole life was surrounded by only Coloured people – church, school, family. But when I got out of school and started working, I was exposed to lots of different people through community development work – I felt invaded by the other – and was forced to get to know people unlike me. My friendship group expanded and I found great value in that. My dad modeled how to interact with people – he can talk to anyone – and that was norm in our household. His closest friends weren’t diverse but his lifestyle was welcoming. 

If your work environment hadn’t forced you to integrate, do you think you would have sought out diversity in your friendships?  

I’d like to think I would have but I’m not sure. My first job out of school was at the mall, just a taxi-drive away, and I never thought about moving out of Ocean View. If I hadn’t gone in the NGO world I might not have intentional friendships of other races. I remember primary school being only Coloured kids in my class but when I went to high school, there were Xhosa students from Masi that merged into Ocean View. But I don’t remember having close Xhosa speaking friends – it was really an ‘us and them’ vibe – no hatred but no close relationships mixing. 

What about white culture? Did you have trouble merging with the white world? 

Yes, I vividly remember going to Kirstenbosch Carols one Dec with a white friend. As I walked into the crowd of predominantly white people, I felt uncomfortable and as if people were staring at me. I’d never been around so many white people and been in such a minority. I felt inferior – no one treated me that way – but that was what was going on in my head. I was then aware of how I’d not integrated in that space often.  

But this has changed, right? Are you able to be in spaces as a minority and feel comfortable now? 

Yes, definitely. It took repetition. I got to be close friends with a white gal that I worked with and we crossed spaces and places often.  Even going to Common Ground Church, traveling to America and visiting a whole lot of white people – I saw more than my assumptions. The more I ventured out, got to know people as people, the more I overcame my insecurity and saw similarities, not differences. 

What do you wish people knew about cross cultural friendship?  

It’s something that can enrich one’s life. It adds value. There’s so much one can learn from others. It’s helped me become intentional about seeing people before seeing their colour and class. My views have changed, my taste buds have widened, and my knowledge of other cultures has blessed my life.  I will add that because my life is so diverse in friendships now, when I return to my hometown, I often don’t recognize who I was. So much has changed in me and my life is wider than just my small town. And to be honest, I sometimes have trouble relating to Coloured people from my home-town now – like I don’t fit in anymore. My views and experiences have grown me and helped me integrate my life with all races and I can feel those differences when I step back into that world. This has made me question ‘what does it mean to be Coloured? And who determines that?’ and ‘do I need more coloured friends to remind me of my own culture?’

What advice do you have for people who would like to engage intentionally to have more cross-cultural friendships? 

Don’t try to force a friendship. Show interest in people, spend time, ask questions, and let friendships happen naturally.


WHITE FEMALE, IN HER TEENS

“Oftentimes, I don’t even think about the fact that my friend group is diverse, we’re just friends having fun.”

My name is Eliza Stewart, I am a white 17 year old high school student. I live and attend school in the Southern suburbs. My school is quite diverse, being mostly Coloured Muslim students, but my neighborhood is mostly white.

Tell me about your friends. Who do you hang out with? 

My friend-group is quite racially diverse, including some friends speaking other languages like Spanish and Korean. My friend-group is also filled with people of different sexual orientations. However, my friend-group is not very economically diverse, with pretty much all of us being in the same income bracket. In that way, I would say my friend group is not diverse. 

Why is a diverse friendship group important to you? 

A lot of the perspectives and opinions I have are formed because of what my friends think, and so having a diverse friend group helps me to expand and grow my view of smaller personal relations and my opinions about the world. If all my friends were like me then I might as well just get advice from myself.

Have you experienced any challenges being friends with people across different cultures? 

I do not feel particularly able to speak about this, because even though I have a diverse friend-group, often times my culture is the dominant culture. My main experience is other people having to change for my culture, which is something I need to always be aware of. The biggest challenge I’ve had was when I wanted to cook lunch for my friends, but I could not make the food with anything that had also been used to prepare haram food because of my Muslim friend. This was very easily overcome with just a different recipe and some thought.  

What do you wish people knew about cross-cultural friendships: 

Oftentimes, I don’t even think about the fact that my friend group is diverse, we’re just friends having fun, and even when we talk about heavier stuff, we are very open with each other. I think it is important to remember to see the person, while also being open to learning from them. 

What advice would you have for people who want to intentionally engage in cross-cultural friendships? 

Pay attention to the people in your spaces that are on the edges or excluded in some ways, and try to notice the ways you accidentally exclude people from you spaces. One way I’ve noticed that the way I live excludes people is that my house is not wheelchair-friendly. 

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