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Female Friendship

Are Intersectional Friendships Between Women a Myth?

Our relationships with women are sources of strength, our way to learn about one another and ourselves. But how much difference should test our bonds?

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Several years ago, I ran into a woman at an art-supply shop who looked like someone I had met before in my past New York life. As a ten-year transplant in Georgia, I was far removed from the familiarity of home. The probability of casually running into someone from my native city was like matching two teardrops in a bucket of water. After lightly stalking her, I mustered the courage to ask if she was from Queens. “I am,” she answered. As it turned out, she was the older cousin of a former acquaintance. We struck up a conversation about people and places we had in common, our journeys from the Empire State, and the perfect frame for my painting and how she might display a Batik cloth she had purchased in her travels. She would quickly become one of my dearest friends, as we spent our leisure time visiting art museums, perusing antique markets for African artifacts, discussing books, namely Mother Morrison’s writerly prowess. There wasn’t much we did not talk about. She shared her experiences of old loves, and I confided in her about recent love that was no more. She treated herself like royalty and it was noticeable even in the simple choices she made; what she ate (a meatless, gluten-free diet), how she smelled (like Egyptian musk and fresh patchouli); and what she believed (the world is your oyster—anything is possible). My life was quite the antithesis and it showed in the choices I made. Though she is 30 years older than me, Marcia became my person, and as we grew in fellowship, so too did our excursions.

However, on a girls trip to Cuba, our differences revealed themselves. I, who was not as well traveled, had skewed expectations of visiting the underprivileged island. I perceived every shortcoming that presented itself as an inconvenience. Power outages—I was annoyed. Unsavory food—irritated. Cancelled hotel accommodations—instant attitude. Relocated to subpar lodging, where must was lamped in the bedding, the toilet did not flush, the water was cold, and the shower head was a thousand trickles shy of proper bathing made me fucking livid, so much so that I had a full-on tantrum in our quarters. I threw myself onto the bed and buried my face in an elbow of tears while Marcia stood by watching sympathetically, yet dumbfounded. Her response showed a mature woman who was disappointed by my childish antics—behavior that may have very well threatened a truly valuable friendship. But instead of being dismissive, Marcia sympathized with my naïveté. We discussed ways to consider the challenges of people who were less fortunate than I, and what they went through just to survive in relation to my discomfort. Which is to say, Marcia challenged me to be better.

My most important friendships are ride-or-die women who push me to be the best version of myself. Not only do they lift me up and hold me accountable, they hold me down through hell and high water, keeping me grounded. And I’d certainly do the same for them. That gravity alone speaks to the power of female friendships and how integral they are to women’s lives. They’re also, according to he UCLA School of Medicine, biologically essential. In 2000, they conducted a study that revealed the positive, even necessary impact female friendships have on our health, due to a link between the amount of oxytocin released when we engage with our friends, which alleviates stress. The effects of the hormone is “maternal behavior and affiliation”—both functions of woman companions, according to Nadine Josephs, a licensed professional counselor.

“Women friendships operate like a village,” Josephs says. “There has to be trust and respect. We have to have friends whom we trust will not violate the most sensitive parts of our lives and feelings. We have to trust that if someone is falling, the village is there to help care for and nurture the fallen.”

But, Josephs stresses, boundaries are crucial. “And part of setting parameters is allowing one another to have a moment of silence and a moment to retreat within themselves. This not only allows each friend to rejuvenate for themselves, but it also keeps friendships healthily.”

Josephs has a point. For me, the recipe for a thriving friendship revolves around the 4Cs: care, concern, commonality, and a special kind of commitment. But how do friends negotiate stark differences, such as age, class, and race? Can we maintain intersectional friendships?

My outburst in Cuba was a reckoning moment for me. Not only was it necessary to check my privilege, but my immaturity, too. The incident was truly the catalyst for getting grown in necessary areas of my life—not least of all because I didn’t want my friendship with Marcia to dissolve. I had an epiphany: It wasn’t enough to improve on myself, but to also meet her where she was at. I was not her child, but rather her friend.

Through my connection with Marcia, I began to look at glasses half full, because of the grace and wisdom only an older friend can impart. I’m not saying that unlearning my old ways was an easy adjustment. There were many times I was frustrated by my elder friend’s perpetual positive point of view and “get grown” lessons, but what I discovered along the way was her commitment to people she loved and helping them actualize their higher self was of great importance to her. She did so with a ginger touch. Even at points of contention, her willingness to address conflict in a non-confrontational manner helped me obliterate my dismissive ways. It was certainly worth doing the work.

We have to consider that not all friends can be everything to everyone, and you have to manage your expectations. Joyce Davis, director of marketing and communications at Spelman College, learned this long before her days as a Howard University student. Raised in a two-parent, middle-class household, Davis appreciated  that she and her brother were afforded opportunities and stability that her peers were not. It became especially evident when she got close with her college roommate who struggled financially throughout college: “She was raised by her grandmother,” Davis tells me. “Her mother was around, but did not raise her and that really had some implications on her life. She had to work to get the money to pay for the semester. I remember buying her bread. If we were going out I paid for extra things because I had more. We were best friends.”

Davis’s roommate expressed some embarrassment over her predicament, but Davis assured her that she would be there for in times of need. Davis’s philosophy to support and share everything with her friend was a manifestation of how she was raised. The women remained close throughout college, but a distance between them grew over the years after Davis graduated and chased her career; her former roommate’s circumstances affected the time it took her to finish her degree, while juggling work to pay for it. Though class had never been a dominant factor in their friendship, Davis concedes that their relationship eventually dissipated because they had diverging lifestyles as adults.

“We tried to keep up with one another,” says Davis. “Our lives just pulled us in totally different directions. We had a great connection.”

Growing up, Kandiss Edwards never had to look outside her household for female friendship because she had three sisters she could rely on for camaraderie. But as a young adult, she moved to Loganville, Georgia, a small suburban town, which could hardly be described as diverse: It’s 69 percent white; 22 percent Black; 6 percent Latino; and 2 percent each for Asian, mixed, and other races. Living three states away from her close-knit band of sisters, Edwards, who is Black, soon befriended her all-white co-workers. That is, except for Jinnafer, her manager, whose conservative Republican political views went against her own.

But soon, much to her surprise, Edwards found herself spending more and more time with her, often at events hosted by mutual work friends. The two women were grabbing drinks at happy hour and hanging out at their colleagues’ home. Edwards realized she had more in common with her manager than she did with her other female workmates. They were coffee connoisseurs who enjoyed rock music, old-school R&B, and hip-hop, particularly OutKast. Their meetings were no longer by default, but by choice.

“We just started getting closer, meeting up at coffee shops, and going to concerts,” Edwards says. “Her stance on certain topics were still concerning, but once the friendship evolved, it was clear that she was young and green and understood and spoke about things like politics and race only topically. But Jinnafer was genuinely open to perspectives other than her own. That’s how we were able to remain friends.” The two eventually became thick as thieves. Edwards made space for Jinnafer to be her authentic self, which meant embracing all parts of her. She also allowed her friend to express her limited takes on touchy issues like Jinnafer’s blanketed perception of Black people, that they were at times ratchet, and that she chose not to venture into areas like Candler Road (an impoverished Black neighborhood in Atlanta) because it was, in her words, “too ghetto, dangerous and trashy.” Though Edwards did not frequent those areas herself, she’d play devil’s advocate, pointing out that she herself did not visit places in Monroe, Georgia (an impoverished white area), because it, too, was a seedy place where she did not feel safe around what she called “white trash.”

At some point those conversations became teaching moments.

“Jinn once told me, ‘You’re different. You’re not like other Black people,’” Edwards says. “This wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone say this, because Loganville”—which is to say, white people there have had little exposure to Black people, and they say it not infrequently. “But this time, I refused to hear it from a friend. I told her those words and that idea upsets me because I am a Black person, and saying ‘I’m not like a regular Black person’ is like saying ‘I’m not like my mother, or my sisters, or my brothers.’ I am very much like them. Black people are not the same and that doesn’t make us or me any more or less or a better or worse Black person.” When I asked Edwards how she felt about that discussion, she says, “It wasn’t a moment of rage, but one of frustration and then clarity. She took it how I meant it, and never said some shit like that again.” Edwards says those honest conversations between them continued and grew them as friends and as individuals. They have remained close friends for almost ten years, and have been supportive of one another through marriages, births, and family deaths.

Lately, I’ve been seeking out new terms to substitute the word “friend.” This is not because I want to reinvent the wheel, or be different, but because I have found the word and its meaning don’t fit my concept of my core friendships, which are so incredible. My day ones, my heartbeats, my homies, my puds, have evolved into a sphere that is so outstanding there really isn’t a perfect word to describe them.

More often than not, the perfect friendship does not arrive in the form we expect. While most things we contribute to friendships are dynamic and nurturing, the intersectionality we bring into our friendships presents real challenges to consider. They test what we think we know: our beliefs, patience, pride, virtue, and in the case with Marcia, our very selves.

Intersectional friendships, at times, can introduce some pretty uncomfortable and vulnerable moment, as we address cultural, racial, generational, and class differences through lived experiences, but pushing through difficult situations is conducive to growth and development. It is in these moments deeper connections are reinforced, creating the tightest bonds.

As it is written in Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another,” and I believe intersectional women friendships are predicated on just that. The power is evident in the praxis, and not solely the existence. Like all other relationships they come with consequences, they take work—but they also bear finest fruit.

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