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How to Diversify, Not Tokenize, Your Friend Group

A recent ARD Study Hall featured the white parent of a preschooler who repeatedly misidentified adults of color. In our response, we talked about the responsibility of adults in creating a diverse and representative environment for young people, like making sure they’re exposed to television, movies, toys, and games with diverse characters. It seemed like the questioner didn’t have close relationships with people of color, so their kid wasn’t exposed to diverse faces in real life, either. 

This isn’t an isolated incident. 75% of white people in the United States have all-white friend groups, with the average white person having 91% white friends. That’s despite 42% of white people still supporting Black Lives Matter (PewWashington Post). That means hundreds of millions of white Americans support racial justice on paper but aren’t close to a single person of color (of any race). 

White people aren’t the only ones who might want to increase their group of friends’ diversity. We all have the tendency to get closer to those with whom we share similarities, whether age, race, class, or sexual orientation. Here are some tips for diversifying your friend group to make sure that stereotypes, biases, and assumptions don’t harm your ability to connect with others. 


• Consider: Think of the people you’re closest to: the people you could call on in an emergency, who trust you with details of their personal lives, or who would answer your late-night call. In what ways are they similar to you demographically? How would you assess your social circle’s diversity? What choices and decisions did you make to foster the friendships you have now? How might you foster relationships with other people?

• Consult these resources when broadening your social circle and decide on changes you can make to your lifestyle, routine, latent assumptions, and approach to others. 

Assess your situation

Before addressing your social circle’s lack of diversity, you need to acknowledge it. (If you’re a white person in the U.S., there’s a 75% chance I’m talking about you!) This also means taking responsibility. You might think that the lack of diversity in your friend group is the product of chance or circumstance. 81% of U.S. cities were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990 (Othering & Belonging Institute). But there are very few entirely homogeneous areas of the country. Whether at work, in your neighborhood, in online spaces, or in civil organizations like a congregation or club, it’s simply not true that everyone shares your same background. If you want to proactively address your group of friends’ diversity, you need to acknowledge your agency in making and keeping friends. 

Consider your motivations 

Nobody wants friends interested in them only because of their identities or friendships where the only conversation topic is a demographic difference. That’s the definition of tokenization. It’s not like people with different identities are suffering waiting for you to introduce yourself, so don’t try to get close to people to fill an imaginary diversity quota. If you’re trying to increase your group of friends’ diversity in order to prove you’re a Good Anti-Racist or as an act of charity towards your potential friends, something has gone very wrong. 

Working to diversify your friend group isn’t about performative allyship or saving those denied the gift of your friendship. It’s about transforming the way you interact with others to improve how you relate to the world. For example, if you’re a white person with a largely all-white friend group, it doesn’t mean that you’re subconsciously a vicious racist. It does mean that out of all the people you’ve encountered in your life, you’ve only really chosen to get close to other white people, and that it’s only really been other white people who have chosen to get close to you. Ask yourself: why might that be?

Again, this isn’t about creating arbitrary diversity quotas in your mind. It’s about recognizing that your social instincts, lifestyle, learned behavior, and preconceived ideas are actively preventing you from forming real human connections with people who don’t share certain characteristics with you. 

Push yourself

We recreate similar social circles over time through behavioral patterns. That’s why “if you are someone who values meeting and connecting with others different from you, you need to intentionally disrupt these patterns.” That might include gravitating to coworkers with the same identity as you while keeping others at arm’s length, assuming that you lack common interests with people with different identities, or reducing people from different backgrounds to nothing more than those identities. You might start doing an activity you enjoy at a location in a different neighborhood, take the effort to reach out to a coworker who isn’t your “friend type,” or work to catch your assumptions about different people being “other” than you in insurmountable ways. When you’re interacting with someone from a less familiar background, you’ll have to actively reflect and “notice the stereotypes and biases popping in without acting on them” (Psychology Today). If your social circle is exclusionary and you keep doing only what feels comfortable and safe, it’s going to stay that way forever. 

As friendship coach Danielle Bayard Jackson reminds us: 

“Whether it’s their age, race, or personality, you must remind yourself that you all might share more than you know. Then, remember to bring your full self to the table. You don’t have to change the way you talk or behave to adapt to what you think this other person might appreciate. It’s all about finding and nurturing strong bonds with othersand that just might happen in the unlikeliest of places” (HuffPost).


• Many people want to diversify their friend groups. Most white people only have white friends.

• A non-diverse friend group means that you and people from certain identities have as of yet never mutually invested in a social relationship. 

• Breaking down the biases and assumptions that prevent us from forming friendships with different kinds of people is different from tokenization, the offensive reduction of others to their identity categories.

1200 800 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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