‘I Prefer My Women Of Colour Friends’

Salma Haidrani explains why an increasingly strange political landscape has seen her seek solace with friends of colour.


by Salma Haidrani |
Published on

I used to have a lot of white friends, but recently things have changed. Last Saturday, as I hit the dance floor in an East London bar with four of my closest girlfriends, I looked around and realised none of them were white. I also realised this wasn’t exactly unintentional...

It wasn’t always like this – my mates’ racial heritage hasn’t always been an issue. At sixth form and then university, I cared more about whether I could borrow their clothes or where we were going that night. But lately, I’ve found myself growing distant from my white friends, preferring to spend time with women of colour (WoC) – partly as a result, I believe, of Britain backing Brexit and Donald Trump being elected US President.

Instead of topics such as race or immigration being discussed at home with partners or families, extreme opinions were suddenly loudly bandied about in pubs and bars. The world seemed to have changed. For the first time, I felt forced to cast a critical eye over the white friends closest to me.

I know this is a provocative opinion, but hear me out I was shocked when Ros*, my mate of seven years confessed she'd voted for Brexit because of 'immigration'. As the daughter of immigrants (I'm half-Lebanese, half-Pakistani), I spent the remainder of our coffee date speechless. I know voting for Brexit doesn't mean you're racist, but i'm not alone in believing the campaign got hijacked with the idea of 'taking our country back'- an opinion my friend was now parroting back to me over a slice of cake.

Another time, a friend joked that she’d have voted for Trump if she lived in the US, as he’d make ‘jobs for Americans first’. I knew she was struggling with landing a role, but telling me she’d vote for a man who vowed to ban Muslims? I was left reeling. What else would my friend agree with Trump on?

For the first time, I wondered whether my friendships with these women would survive. Memories of times when I’d had to educate them during casual conversations came back to haunt me. Should I really have to keep justifying the need for safe spaces for people of colour? Or why Black Lives Matter isn’t ‘reverse racism’? Did I really have to explain why a Muslim headscarf ban in Europe is so hurtful, when Muslim women are the least likely to be employed in the UK anyway? I know that their thoughtless comments stemmed from a place of ignorance and not malice, and I don't believe they are racist, but it didn't make me feel any less hurt- or exhausted.

Is it any wonder that, against this background, I started seeking out friendships with women who share my history and heritage? I reached out to friends of friends I’d never really dedicated time to before. Now I can count at least fie close WoC friends that I can turn to – and not once have I felt I had to explain myself to them.

Salma and friends
©Salma Haidrani

I’ve never felt lighter or brighter than when I’m around women who look like me. Why? Because they ‘get it’. WoC know what it’s like to let an argument slide in the workplace so they’re not labelled ‘aggressive’. The paralysing fear of not knowing if that new person at work is staunchly anti-immigration. Having to brace yourself as someone launches into an ‘I’m not racist but...’ tirade in the pub.

When I’m with them, I feel like my ‘whole’ self. Ironically, it’s the one place where my race disappears and I stop trying to uphold a picture-perfect image of my race or religion in a bid to prove I’m ‘one of the good ones’.

They tell me they feel the same. My friend Jen, 29, who’s of Anglo-Indian heritage, said she’s found she can bond with WoC friends over shared experiences, ‘Like people trying to suss out where you’re from,’ she told me – adding that she feels their friendships are ‘healing’.

Humaira, 23, who identifies as a Muslim WoC, agrees, ‘Navigating the world is very difficult. At least one facet of my identity is always putting me at risk. When you have so many problems keeping yourself safe, it’s absolutely imperative your support network reinforces your self-worth.

The sad truth is my white friends haven’t always provided me with that support network. I won a journalism award last November – and while the phone filled with emoji-packed messages of congratulations from my WoC friends, I didn't get the same enthusiasm from others. And it's a pattern I've begun to notice- for instance, when I recently landed my dream job. It might be an observation that seems tenuous, but believe me, it's the truth. I think my white friends don't quite understand the barriers I was up against to reach these achievements.

My other friends understand the need for us, as women of colour, to build each other up when the odds are stacked against us– that recent research found a third of us are likely to be in insecure jobs or not be considered for senior positions. Now, I tend to share my good news with my WoC mates on WhatsApp, where we’ve bonded over our struggles to prove ourselves

I still count my white university friends as my inner circle. But, sadly, I’ve learned which conversations to have, and which to avoid. As for new friends that I’ve made who happen to be white, I check whether they’re allies beforehand, so I never again have to erupt in anger as we tuck into tea and carrot cake. Yes, I understand the importance of ‘bursting your bubble’ – but do our closest friends have to do that?

Just like in any other friendship group, different mates bring out different sides to me and we bond in different ways. But I still can’t believe it took me until I was in my mid-twenties to realise how magical friendships with WoC could be. And while I can’t help but feel despondent to have missed out on so many years of memories, I’m excited for what the future holds. Long may it be full of like-minded women who look like me.

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