It was a few seasons ago on The Real Housewives of Atlanta when Cynthia Bailey created the infamous friendship contract between her and Linnethia “NeNe” Leakes. I remember the world — well, Black Twitter and Facebook land — collectively gasping at such a gesture.
Really, who makes a friendship contract? It was a little high school and Disneyesque, but perhaps Ms. Bailey was on to something.
How do we love each other fully, while planning for mistakes and imperfection? What are our agreed upon expectations as we are in relationship? And what does accountability look like? And at the most basic level, how do we define friendship?
Friends of mine, here is my working definition:
Friendship is a process that fosters an intimate and trusting relationship between two or more allied people – further defined by the individuals that choose to be in community with one another. All authentic selves must be present, valued, and prioritized for true intimacy to exist, which is the foundation of friendship.
Unapologetic challenge, growth, and grace must be present in the process of friendship. When effective, this process is the instrument that shows another individual that you love them in their fullness.
If I use the above definition, I might have a total of five friends. This means that either my definition is demanding too much or words like trust, authenticity, and love aren’t valued or understood in the way that I value and understand them.
All my life I have been desperate for connection and acceptance. However, I never thought being cared for in my fullness was a possibility, so I settled for the celebration of a few of my identities – and this has left me lonely.
I have allowed Black people (specifically Black cis-hetero men) to demand erasure of my queerness to be in community with Blackness. I have allowed white queers to shape my Blackness into something a bit more palatable. I have consented to the prayers of well-intentioned Christians that are so concerned with my salvation after this life, but absolutely no concern for my life on this earth.
I have been physically assaulted for living freer than safety would approve of. I have to be the teacher, never the learner. I have to be the laborer, never the consumer. I have to be the risk-taker, never sitting comfortably in safety. I have to be the pusher and the poker of tradition, never getting to go with the flow.
I have to be the nagger. I have to be the ideas person and the creative person, watching more palatable friends gain recognition and reward from my labor. I’m not the one liked or promoted. I’m not given the benefit of the doubt. I’m allowed no mistakes.
I spend my time teaching you how to love me. Being the conscious one and the risk taker of the group is beyond violent – so yes, it’s lonely. Very lonely.
This need to jot down my thoughts on friendship happened around the time Michael Brown was murdered, August 9th, 2014.
I had no one to be intimate with – no one to talk to, no one to whisper comfortable and admittedly false affirmations in my ears, and no one to hold me or the festering pain building within. It was the loneliness, not the silence, that drove me into anxiety-filled rabbit holes. My mind continued to wonder, in search of solace, but instead I plummeted deeper into sadness, anger, and pain.
I had folks here and there to reach out to, but it was the same two or three people that were unpacking their own pain. How could I add additional tax to them at this time?
I remember looking through the contacts in my phone, searching hopelessly for someone I could text or watch a Scandal marathon with, but I could not find anyone, no place of comfort existed. I could not find someone that had the capacity to empathize with my pain.
I would have to do lots and lots of explaining and educating to move them from a place of sympathy. I would have to risk seeing the doubt in their eyes. The doubt that screams, “I understand that you’re hurting, but I don’t agree with where the blame is being placed.” The doubt that allowed their tears to swallow mines.
Why didn’t my friends call me? Why didn’t they text? Was I not a good friend to them?
I’ve written hundreds of letters of recommendations, given countless formal and informal references, provided education on social justice topics via my unpaid and severely undervalued labor. I have often played life coach to people with oozing amounts of privilege, subjecting myself to well-intentioned yet willful violence.
Did all of this not count for something? Is this what friendship is? A relationship of faux empathy, niceties, and unchecked violence through unacknowledged privilege. Is that what it’s always been?
As of late, I have tracked the deaths of quite a number of friendships. Specifically, as I embrace a critiquing power and privilege framework in everything I do, including developing and sustaining relationships, I suppose I have left folks behind. Upholding status quo has dynamic impact on what love looks like, how support shows up, and in what ways violence is committed.
For example, if I’m not able to hold the issues facing trans people and non-binary people, how can I possibly fight against the systemic violence they face (murder/poverty/inadequate healthcare, misgendering, and safe restroom options)? And how can I truly say I love them if I’m not willing to creatively and unapologetically find solutions to the aforementioned violence?
Folks feel betrayed by my growth and exertion of self, as they feel betrayed by my evolution. How dare I demand their unnecessary evolution as well? I can feel the tension in current relationships, as folk creatively tell me that they don’t want to learn about the plight of undocumented peoples, challenge the ableist language they use, or think critically on how they engage fat people from a place of deficit.
Apparently, it becomes too exhausting to hang out with me. Which is to say, I have to be better in your presence or I have to deal with guilt when you’re around. Why can’t things go back to normal? Which is to say, let’s thrive in the violence of status quo together – we’ve got each other, even if my heel is at your neck.
Well, the aftermath of those endless nights evolved a new “Cody.” One that claims himself fully, takes up more space when appropriate, and unapologetically loves himself. As I embrace this new and in many ways unrecognizable being, I am motivated to explore the meaning of a healthy and loving friendship.
Can you imagine fighting for liberation with a squad – the folks that love you in your fullness, and you love them in theirs? What does that feel like? Look like?
And in what ways is this achievable relationship necessary in sustaining us in this work, and challenge the work itself to be better? Because I crave this relationship, and was inspired by Cynthia Bailey, I decided to make a friendship contract of my own.
I want this list of expectations to speak to the well-intentioned people in my life — the folk that mean well but often render themselves unhelpful. The price of friendship has gone up and the only acceptable payment is risk taking and radical love.
Here is my working Friendship Contract:
Do you want to be my friend?
(YES) (NO) (*MAYBE)
Please circle one.
*Maybe will be coded as a “No.” I’m hot stuff. This should not be difficult.
If the answer is yes, there are just ten expectations.
Expectation #1: We Must Toughen Our Skin
We must be able to use language such as: white supremacy, anti-blackness, transphobia, and marginalization in our day-to-day vocabulary without someone getting into their feelings. Heck, I just used three of the four words in a conversation with my bank teller.
Our language should not be deemed taboo or provocative in nature. Having conversations about justice, equity, this murderous system, and our collective liberation should be as frequent as police brutality and as normal as black folk clinging to the paradox of resiliency.
We must have these critical conversations in the open and move beyond the emotions that immobilize us. Our fragility cannot be prioritized. We must get to the actual work.
Google suggestions: white supremacy, anti-blackness, transphobia, marginalization, and white fragility
Expectation #2: We Must Embrace Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Intersectionality
Developing and sustaining friendships has always been tricky for me. In the past, friendship has been defined with conditions on my wholeness.
I can be Black in one setting, but my queerness was not welcomed. I can be queer in another setting and my size and blackness were not given space.
I have been described as too much as of late; though the truth is, I have made a life of making myself physically and psychologically smaller. I am just beginning to claim the space I deserve, and friends around me are unsure of how to respond to such a declaration.
Learning about Kimberlé Crenshaw’s framework on intersectionality is a great place to start. Intersectionality speaks to the idea that we are operating in intersecting privileged and marginalized identities in every moment – these intersecting identities shape our decisions and the quantity and quality of our choices. Intersectionality assures that we embrace each other in our fullness.
Google suggestions: Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Intersectionality
Expectation #3: We Must Befriend bell hooks
We must have a working and growing knowledge of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy (thanks, bell hooks) – or be willing to read up on the aforementioned framework. This framework allows us to explore a system that is causing violence through interlocking forms of domination.
Focusing on individual experiences, values, and beliefs does not allow us to attack the source of the violence. The language of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy allows us to explore the causation of these individual experiences, and the ways in which oppression is connected. Expending energy on only individual moments will not dismantle the current system that seeks to destroy us.
We must engage the system in its fullness to have any chance of creating the thriving world we seek. In more words, giving the homeless or transit person on the street a few dollars is helpful in the moment, but does little to nothing in challenging a system that has systematically placed this individual outside your favorite coffee shop. Furthermore, this language allows us to explore the ways we all participate in this consuming system, since we’re all taught these rules.
We can talk about racism all day, but the language white supremacy pushes us to explore the ways white superiority is insidious and accessible to all of us – including the internalized hatred people of color experience.
If you cannot experience the world for what it is, we will have very little to talk about and fight for. Holding the above framework should be a way of life for us. Continuous application of said framework is required.
Google suggestions: bell hooks, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, and internalized hatred
Expectation #4: We Must Take Risks
We must be more than allies to marginalized groups. Allies voice their support for marginalized peoples, but take very little action or risk. We must be accomplices in the fight for our collective liberation.
We have rested on calling ourselves allies. To be more exact, well-intentioned folks have figured out a way to be deemed good without poking at status quo. I grow tired of well-intentioned people stating to me in person or on my Facebook page that they agree that my life is worth fighting for (through a variety of wordy affirmations), but continuously take no risk in critical moments.
I want to be an accomplice and I want my friends to be accomplices too. Acting as an accomplice is using your privilege to dismantle the current system that marginalizes many people and circumvents our collective liberation – all while assuming immense risk.
This looks like a colleague or friend calling out ableist language when someone uses crazy to describe an unbelievable situation. Taking risk could show-up when you, as a man, call out sexist comments and policies in a staff meeting. Engaging risk could be you challenging family members on their transphobic and homophobic sentiments.
All of the listed scenarios are risky – you could lose a promotion for being perceived as confrontational or have to end a relationship with a valued family member. And remember, the individual moments matter, but risk-taking that leads to systemic change is the goal.
However, please be careful, because in the excitement of finding your “activist voice,” you may get the urge to speak over the marginalized, instead of uplifting their voices. Don’t do it! This expectation should be paired with expectation #5.
Google suggestions: Accomplice not allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex
Expectation #5: We Must Hold That Not All Risk Is Created Equal
We must understand that the consequences of taking risk will seldom be the same for both parties. The intersections of our privileged and marginalized identities play a critical role in how and when we take risk.
For example, I was sitting at the poker table several months ago because you know, I like to give my money away. One of the players at the table said, “gay marriage is unnatural and nasty.” I sat there for what felt like an eternity, slowly and strategically calculating my response.
As a queer being, I chose silence. Knowing all that I know about justice and equity, I chose silence. Holding all of the risk in that moment, I chose silence.
I played out all the possibilities in my head. Would this person begin to verbally spew violence at me? Would anyone come to my defense? Would this person physically attack me at the poker table? Would this person follow me to my car at the end of the night and make me an example?
We must continuously interrogate the privilege that exists in taking risk. Because of our intersecting identities, acting and speaking up can have vastly different consequences from individual to individual. Sometimes the best that we can ask of each other is to take more risk than not, as we engage a journey of justice seeking.
Google suggestions: Social justice and risk-taking, Hollywood Casino takes your money
Expectation #6: We Must Hold That We Are Violent, All the Time
We must embrace that we are both committers of violence and receivers of violence, as we engage our intersecting privileged and marginalized identities. We must embrace the truth that no one is exempt from committing violence. We all do it, all the time.
I am constantly exploring the blending of my blackness, queerness, and low socio-economic background, but unconsciously spend less time understanding the way my privilege shapes these marginalized experiences. I am a man, cisgender, able-bodied, American (as American as a Black person can be), and now middle class.
I commit violence on all fronts in very simple ways. Every time I assume a pronoun, take up too much space in my cisgender and man identities, low-key expect my poverty stricken family to pull themselves up, I am committing said violence.
We cannot escape being violent, but we are in control of how we respond when held accountable. We must monitor our defensiveness, our tears, our language, our silence and the space we take up.
Google suggestions: Privileged (white) tears, low-key (please do not misuse), systemic violence
Expectation #7: We Must Befriend Janet Mock, Too
We must have a discussion on the book, Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. A dry read must be included. We will read and discuss beyond singular identities, but explore concepts of intersectionality and simultaneity. Janet pushes us to think about our wholeness in relation to our liberation.
What does it mean to live, breathe, and move in your wholeness? That’s the question I want us to ponder, as we live out the answer together. We must live in our wholeness to strategically and creatively dismantle the system.
Moreover, Janet’s brilliance lends itself to unpacking popular culture seamlessly.
Pop culture has always been an influential component of social movements. It has the power to shape our thoughts and perspectives on the world. It has the power to educate in the absence of the truth.
Consequently, pop culture is counterproductive to dismantling this system when consumed without interrogation, which is why brilliant people like Janet Mock are necessary as we seek liberation. Janet holds pop culture in her shea buttered palm (I’m imagining) and critically examines it with an intersectional lens. And she loves Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, there’s that.
Google suggestions: Janet Mock, Re-defining Realness, Lemonade, simultaneity
Expectation #8: We Must Practice Critical Examination
We must practice critical examination, even of the things and people we hold dear. As we hold the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal framework, we must critically examine everything and everyone – including self.
Too often, folks are loud in their contempt of many of the –isms, but refuse to examine the ideals, institutions, and people that promote and uphold the very things they are fighting to eradicate.
I love my mother and am appreciative of the many things she worked to provide me, as she is still surviving poverty. However, my mother can be amazingly problematic as we engage conversations on queer people and folk from countries outside of the United States.
Critical examination cannot be practiced only when convenient. It must be practiced consistently – systemic change cannot happen without it. We must commit to the hard stuff. This work must become intimate.
Google suggestions: Critical examination
Expectation #9: We Must Lean into Conflict
Please hold that it is unfair to box anyone into perfection, therefore, conflict must be expected. When conflict arises, we must have a real conversation about the happenings of what took place. And again, we must hold the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal framework, as we navigate conflict.
Conflict must always be navigated with a power and privilege lens. Power and privilege speaks to the value, priority, love, discomfort, anger, and other critical emotions that can cause the death of a relationship. Not engaging conflict from a perspective that holds power and privilege will often replace true healing with a lousy bandage.
Authentic apologies become difficult, which makes forgiveness unattainable. Moreover, conflict has to be voiced in a timely manner. We must not allow pain to fester like a raisin in the sun (thank you, Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes).
We are not perfect – mistakes, ignorance, and sincere apologies followed by action should be expected. We are entitled to make mistakes, though we are not entitled to anyone’s forgiveness.
Google suggestions: Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, power and privilege
Expectation #10: We Must Google It
For all that is good in this world, just Google it. Seriously, no more careless questions are allowed. We must have an intimate relationship with Google. Most questions asked of marginalized people could be Googled in thirty seconds or less.
Spend some time Googling concepts and thoughts, doing this homework will provide some necessary depth to your future questions. I’m okay with answering questions, long as I know that you are willing to do some work.
On occasion, I may not answer your question, but I might point you in the direction to a helpful resource. And even as I type this, I’m reminded that I will not always answer your questions, simply because I do not have the energy.
My energy often dictates what I am willing to give to someone’s education. I hope you expect the same of me.
Google suggestions: Jennifer Hudson and James Corden, Fantasia – I’m here, Frenchie Davis – Home
I could go on but I think you get the point. This contract is good for one year starting today and automatically rolls over every year unless either Cody or (insert name) send each other a notarized letter explaining why the contract should be voided.
Oh yeah, and then it has to be signed by both Janet Mock and Beyoncé in the flesh. I will accept Melissa Harris Perry as well.
True, I believe in unconditional love, but having an actual intimate relationship with everyone I love is neither required nor healthy. We must have expectations.
I hereby agree to the above expectations. Together, let’s live and prosper towards liberation.
This is the work of Cody Charles; claiming my work does not make me selfish or ego-driven, instead radical and in solidarity with the folk who came before me and have been betrayed by history books and storytellers. Historically, their words have been stolen and reworked without consent. This is the work of Cody Charles. Please discuss, share, and cite properly.
Cody Charles went deep undercover to study Hotepology at the University of Distinguished Hoteps, where he successfully slayed numerous colonies of Hoteps on nippy Saturday evenings- accompanied by the occasional libation and a Popeyes two piece and a biscuit combo. He is the author of 10 Common Things Well-Intentioned Allies Do That Are Actually Counterproductive, Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators, I Will Burn My Name Onto It, and Simple but not Easy: 25 Steps to Justice. Join him for more conversation on Twitter (@_codykeith_) and Facebook (Follow Cody Charles). Please visitwww.consultcody.com to learn more about Cody.