How Radical Friendship Can Lead to Social Change
December 8, 2021
This article originally appeared on Greater Good Science Center’s site on December 3, 2021, found here.
While many grapple with the question of how to be an ally to friends and colleagues across differences, is it time to re-think the meaning of allyship itself? Author Kate Johnson offers a surprising, yet simple, exploration of what true support and belonging looks like in her new book, Radical Friendship: Seven Ways to Love Yourself and Find Your People in an Unjust World.
When looking for new models of how to relate to one another, Johnson says that while “the traditional role of the ‘ally’ is someone who has a higher degree of power or privilege [who shows] up in solidarity with someone with less power,” she felt there was a deeper way. The current model “relies on existing systems of power and privilege, [and] I wanted to have a way of relating to one another and showing up for each other’s liberation that sources power from something beyond the systems of oppression that we have now,” she says. “Friendships can offer that.”
“True friendship can be a space of rediscovering the idiosyncrasies and complexities within ourselves and in loving relationship with one another,” she writes.
As a biracial writer, teacher, and somatic practitioner, Johnson plunges into Buddhist teachings, simultaneously ancient and forward-looking, exposing the reader to the internal and external narratives we encounter in forming meaningful bonds with those around us.
In this conversation, we discuss the intricacies of connecting, the ways in which inner and outer change are intertwined, and how radical friendship may offer a deeper alternative to allyship.
Jenara Nerenberg: What do you hope readers will take away about the process of developing radical friendships? What does it take to keep connecting and to maintain connection, especially across differences?
Kate Johnson: I think what I’d love for readers to take away from the book is the confidence that 1) whenever we’re relating with another human being, we are relating across a difference of some kind, whether they appear to be like us or not. 2) That mistakes will be made—if we are in relationship and if we are in a relationship where we are allowing ourselves to be seen and known and the other person is, too, we will encounter “duhkha,” as the Buddha talked about. We will encounter disappointment. We will have a misunderstanding. Someone will get jealous, and then a person will feel betrayed. There will be these relational experiences of suffering and stress. That’s not avoidable.
But the third thing I’d love for people to take away is that those moments don’t have to be the end of a relationship, and they don’t have to be a sign that we can’t trust each other or that we should just keep our circles tight and close and safe, but that each of those experiences is an opportunity for awakening, and there might be some freedom available there if we both are willing to stay with those experiences consciously and not go to sleep or fuzz out.
If we feel that we have enough tools and resources to navigate those experiences, they can lead to tremendous spiritual growth, deepening intimacy, and I think the kind of bonds that help us stay together long enough to effect meaningful social change together.
JN: What tools and skills do we need for navigating suffering and stress in relationships?
KJ: For many people, the body is our best, most portable tool for navigating the stress that comes up in relationships. Simply knowing that we’re in a moment of relational suffering before we hastily react is half the battle. If we’ve spent time making friends with our bodies in meditation—which is to say, paying attention to them with patience and love—then our bodies will send us clear signals when we’re stressed, or sad, or upset, and we will have spent enough time with them to be able to recognize those signs. If we notice the moment when our jaws tighten, our breath becomes shallow, or our ears get hot, we can pause and ask ourselves the question: “What am I feeling right now?” If we are intimate with our own experience, we can notice the emotions and the mental reactivity that comes when we feel disappointed, misunderstood, shamed, or blamed. While unpleasant, these experiences are a part and parcel of being in relationship with other humans.
But even when we find ourselves in a tough spot in our relationships, we can make the decision to respond to ourselves and to the other person from a place of radical friendship—which means remaining committed to our own and our friend’s liberation. And this is the second tool I recommend for navigating stress in relationships—remaining mindful of our values. If we value love and liberation, centering those values makes it easier to make choices that allow us to take care of ourselves without harming someone else. They help us to acknowledge when we’ve been hurt without making assumptions about the other person’s intent. And they help us to stay open, flexible, and available to discover new pathways to peace, together.
JN: I of course want to address the topic of racial differences. It’s obviously a theme in the book, and extremely relevant to our world. What do you want readers to know about care and consideration and holding context within friendships across racial categories?
KJ: There’s just no way we can accomplish the changes we need to see [in society, at the level of policy, culture, and institutions] without a mass movement, which would require bridging differences and coalition-building to do so. The movements that we’ve seen in the past that have had an impact, like when we look at some of the most thrilling moments in the civil rights movement—they occurred through friendships and relationships between individuals and between communities that were forged across racial divides. I think one of the things that’s so interesting about bridging difference through friendship, when it comes to racial divides, is that we’re more aware than ever of the intersectionality of the world that we live in.
The way that we experience our race is influenced by all of these other factors of our identity. I’m a Black woman. I’m also a biracial Black woman with a white mom. I’m also in a heterosexual relationship. I’m also able-bodied. I’m also a survivor.
There are so many aspects of identity—there’s a complexity there in terms of how we assess our relative level of power and privilege with one another. And so it’s hard because we don’t want to stress ourselves out completely or annoy ourselves by just the dizzying number of calculations we have to make about where we experience privilege, where we are privileged by society and where we are oppressed by society, and how that relates to the other person that we’re with.
I think that is part of the awareness that is called for when we talk about radical friendship, and so part of it is the awareness that we each bring about the multiple identities that we carry and the way they manifest in the world. Part of it is really deep listening to the people we’re in community with about the identities they carry and that have shaped them. And being willing to be in continuous evolution in conversation around those identities.
And we get to be able to really show up in our fullness and to see and be seen in the fullness of our experience, and to really be aware and in dialogue about how privilege—and especially white privilege, light-skin privilege—shows up in those relationships. Because we have a racialized caste system in the U.S., it’s not even a question of, “Is it showing up in our relationship?” It’s more like, “How is it showing up in our relationship?”
And so it takes a certain amount of intimacy and trust to be able to have those kinds of conversations with one another.
JN: And then this kind of personal and relational change goes hand in hand with social change—there’s a symbiosis, right?
KJ: Absolutely. That’s what the teachings of mindfulness training that we’re most familiar with come from. It’s called the satipattana sutta and it’s a Buddhist teaching. There’s a refrain in it—almost like a song where you have a chorus—where the Buddha encourages us (I think eight times over the course of the sutta) to be mindful internally, to be mindful externally, and to be mindfully both internally and externally, which means the relationship between the two.
I think back in the day, people used to say, “Change your mind to change the world.” And I think we’ve learned since that it doesn’t really work that way; you can’t necessarily change the world without changing your mind as well, so there’s something about the way the two work together that seems to be really essential and not to be left out. And that changing your relationships is a part of that, and I think that that’s something that has also been sometimes looked over, especially when you look at spiritual political movements. There are ways in which there’s this strong personal practice and there’s a strong systemic analysis, but not a lot of intention or care around the practice of relationship. When that middle piece is weak, movements can’t stick together long enough to gain momentum.
There is something that seems to be really important about: How do we actually manage conflict, love each other, help each other to grow, and show up for each other when we need support in such a way that it allows us to gather that kind of momentum and to stay together?
JN: Exactly. And in thinking about the application of the book for teachers, therapists, and others, can you share how people can develop those different aspects of themselves and their relationships with others?
KJ: It’s really about the desire to show up for both our own and another person’s liberation and that that stance of “I’m not going to abandon you and I’m here for your freedom” is one that can be so beneficial and healing coming from an educator or a mentor or a therapist.
It’s about the inner stance that we’re taking towards them and also the way that we choose to view them, which is as a person who has everything they need to meet and awaken through the circumstances of their life. And it’s also someone who could benefit from our company as they move forward on their path.
Something about the word “accompanying” each other has been really hitting lately, like to use that metaphor of a path and to have a fellow traveler. We may have different roles towards one another in that there’s not one way to accompany another person in their journey to freedom. But whatever relationship we have with that person, it’s about having this deep intention to support and walk with them in that journey.
True friendship can be a space of rediscovering the idiosyncrasies and complexities within ourselves and in loving relationship with one another.