When we form social groups, regardless of how individualistically we are all raised and uphold different belief systems, we most likely manage to form a collective behavior and set of rules and conform. But what happens when slurs begin to be thrown around or microaggressions get laughs all around the table?
During the 3rd year of my university degree, I began to notice things within my friend group that I hadn’t before or might have ignored. I had experienced multiple accounts of microaggressions and sometimes white boys in the group calling my friends straight-up racial slurs. I eventually started to call out the bigoted behavior, but it would fall on deaf ears as I was painted out to be the angry social justice warrior. The behavior continued, and my other friends turned a blind eye as I was ridiculed for “always making things about race” and being that friend that could not take a “joke.” Their compliant silence othered me and eventually singled me out.
The moment of realization that these people may not be my actual friends yet still being bound to them by the burdensome fear of being alone was hard to navigate. To some extent, I still belonged with them in memory. I laughed with them. I cried with them. I opened up to them. I went to my first university parties with them. I shared a significant part of my life with them. These moments I shared with them made the detachment even more difficult. When it could feel very personal to the individuals who are being “left behind”, there’s this guilt for the one growing out that is, to be put mildly, debilitating.
I was not the only person of color in the friend group. However, I was the only person who called out this behavior. When I approached and discussed it with my BIPOC friends, they agreed with me but ended up tolerating the same behavior anyway. It was incredibly hurtful as I witnessed my friends stay silent about racism, as it came with a need for me to reevaluate who I surrounded myself with. That being said, I did not think my friends who remained silent were bad people; I believe that, as I once was, they were scared to be sidelined—bringing the point back to that push of conformity and an added level of insecurity. If you are not sure who you are or where you belong in a world that tells you every day that you don’t belong, you tend to follow the crowd as a safety net, and at times, that can take away your power and authenticity.
Humans are social beings, so we instinctively crave belonging and connection with others. Generally speaking, it also means we build relationships naturally and easily. In social psychology, belonging is defined as a particular, individualized, and subjective feeling connected to a craving for interpersonal connection, respect, and a connection with groups (Rogers, 1951). Along with this drive for belonging comes conformity, which comes into play when the need to belong to a group leads to behavioral, intellectual, and emotional changes as individuals try to adhere to the standards and expectations of the group.
While conformity is human nature, it can sometimes do more harm than good when you apply it to experiences of racism. Since the beginning of the colonial age, people of color have been taught through assimilation how to act, dress, eat, talk, look, etc., just to be accepted into a whitewashed society. Racial assimilation has planted a seed of insecurity within our identity. This insecurity has dug its roots into generations and is now observed in almost every aspect of our lives.
I notice this, especially in youth culture, when having many friends is considered mandatory and impressive to outsiders; it teaches us to place importance on how others perceive us. Consequently, you have to be careful who you choose to belong to because, a lot of the time, we unconsciously end up sacrificing crucial parts of our identity to hold onto some warped sense of belonging. That may be laughing off microaggressions to seem “cool” or feeling like you need to look and act “white” to impress them. I believe this topic rings more true for many young women of color specifically.
In brief, as we find a sense of who we are, we naturally shed friendships that no longer serve us as they used to. Outgrowing friends does not mean you never once belonged with them because, at some stage in your life, you shared that feeling with them. In hindsight, after removing myself from those harmful social circles, I understood that everyone is figuring out life at the same time as you, but some are just at different learning stages than you, and that’s okay. When you need to grow, you are allowed to let them go and leave with new lessons and an understanding of yourself. You might feel physically alone for some time, but true belonging begins within the self. Finding who you truly want to be and taking action towards it (in my case, letting go of toxic friend groups) allows you to become significantly freer to surround yourself with people who uplift you and respect your existence. That is true belonging.
References Harris, Michelle A., and Ulrich Orth. “The Link between Self-Esteem and Social Relationships: A Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Studies.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 119, no. 6, 26 Sept. 2019, https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000265. Rogers, Carl. “APA PsycNet.” Psycnet.apa.org, 1951, psycnet.apa.org/record/1952-01516-000. Thai, Michael, et al. “Friends with Moral Credentials.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 7, no. 3, 2 Feb. 2016, pp. 272–280, https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550615624140. Accessed 11 May 2021.