Hollywood doesn’t get everything right, but if there’s one thing the industry has given us, it’s a portrayal of the dynamic and often complicated nuances of Black women friendships.
As television shows like Insecure, HARLEM, Girlfriends and Living Single have illustrated, these relationships have their ups and downs, moments of joy, laughter and tears, and even moments of space and silence.
Films such as Girls Trip, Waiting to Exhale, and Set It Off do similar: they’ve given the world a glimpse into what it’s like for Black women to get deep in the trenches with one another. Maybe it’s not as dramatic as robbing a chain of banks (we still love you, Set It Off), but it is growing together and supporting each other through challenges including divorce, motherhood, heartbreak, loss, new jobs and cross-country moves.
In the 2019 study The Strong Black Woman Collective Theory: Determining the Prosocial Functions of Strength Regulation in Groups of Black Women Friends, authors Shardé M. Davis and Tamara D. Afifi examine the power of Black women friendships. While this study primarily focuses on behaviors of Black women within negative and oppressive workplaces, this could be a framework that transcends into every facet of life. According to the “Strong Black Woman Collective (SBWC)” theory, “Black women enact communication behaviors that affirm strength in each other. By exhibiting these behaviors, Black women delineate a safe space to concurrently promote solidarity within the collective and confront oppressive forces.”
The entire span of our lives is important with regards to these relationships, but our early 20s through our late 30s are a time of great growth and transformation. Many of us leave the comfort of college and step into the real world by taking on new professional roles, moving to different cities, and starting families—all the while holding ourselves at very high standards while trying to juggle it all. Enter: the importance of solid friendships.
Sweet July spoke to over a dozen Black millennial women (roughly between the ages of 27 and 42) about their experiences with friendship, the pitfalls they’ve experienced and the lessons learned in the process. What we found across these conversations was one common thread: Black women, especially after living through a pandemic, are much more intentional about how they spend their time and energy as they pursue and maintain friendships. Here’s what else we learned (with moments from our favorite Black women-led films and shows to help set the scene):
Sis, Set Reasonable Standards
SCENE: In Girlfriends episodes “The Wedding Parts 1 and 2,” Joan (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) puts her current romantic relationship woes ahead of Toni (played by Jill Marie Jones) on one of the most important days of Toni’s life—her wedding. From arriving late to the bridal suite to leaving the bachelorette party, it’s evident Joan fails to show up for her friend. She also fails to adequately communicate with Toni, which results in bottled resentment for years to come
For many Black women, celebrations like birthdays (or any other major milestone) are taken pretty seriously. Whether it’s dinner, brunch or a trip abroad, there’s an expectation that if you’re invited, you’re going to show up.
So when a former friend decided not to show up to her birthday party a few years ago, 29-year-old Lauryn decided that it was time to call a particular friendship quits.
“It was a lot of little things that led to this big thing, which, in hindsight, I wish I would’ve addressed,” she tells Sweet July. “As Black women, we often expect for our friends to have an understanding of things, because, by nature, we’re all problem solvers and fixers. But there comes a time when we can’t just simply gloss over things we are unable to fix.” With the birthday no-show as the impetus, the end of the friendship was ultimately a result of not feeling the support she was giving reciprocated.
Nicole Lewis, LCSW, LICSW, a Mississippi-based therapist, tells Sweet July that in the last few years, she’s noticed her clients having difficulties with communication in their friendships. “There are a lot of unstated expectations that cause conflict amongst their friend groups,” says Lewis. “Some of these challenges include not being celebrated and validated by their friends, which seems to result in passive-aggressive communication that later catapults into cutting off their friends. I review the values of my clients and the values of their friends to help them identify what drives their decisions. We also review their expectations of themselves and others.”
When 24-year-old Ryanne recognized that her now ex-best friend was showing signs of disrespect and a lack of accountability, she knew it was time for her to move on. “For a long time, I had ignored blatant red flags and chalked them up as her personality traits,” she says. “But after learning of betrayal, I decided that I deserve better friendship.”
Jessica Gaddy, a Los Angeles-based therapist and the founder of the holistic health platform Nia Noire, says that as we grow through relationships, letting go (and knowing when to let go) of unfulfilling relationships can be valuable to your personal progression—but with growth comes grief. “When friendships end, we must allow ourselves the opportunity to grieve the loss of that person in your life as well as the idea we’ve created for the outcome,” Gaddy tells Sweet July. “As with stages of grief, ‘acceptance’ gently encourages us to understand people for who they are and who they’ve shown us to be—empowering ourselves to determine how we choose to operate within that relationship moving forward.”
There’s Levels To This
SCENE: On the beloved sitcom Living Single, there’s an episode in season one titled “Friends Like These” where Khadijah (played by Queen Latifah) has a college friend Jackie (played by Charnele Brown) who comes to visit. Maxine (played by Erika Alexander) is skeptical of Jackie as soon as she walks through the door.
“Max, just because you don’t like Jackie doesn’t mean I can’t. Okay?” Khadijah states.
As adolescents, it was common to have that one (or a few) best friend that you did everything with. However, as grown women, it is perfectly acceptable to have different friendship circles that fuel you differently.
For 33-year-old Casandra, a close friendship may have not necessarily ended, but it’s helped her learn that all relationships aren’t created equal. “I’ve learned that I can’t expect myself from other people and to release expectations,” she tells Sweet July. ”I’ve had to accept that as the relationship changes, the person is moving tiers.”
With her clients, Gaddy shares a framework of “Fun, functional and fruitful” that can be used to audit relationships. “Fun friends may be those we hang out with for social functions, but may not be the friends we feel completely safe confiding in with our vulnerabilities,” she says. “Functional friends are those who you can reach out to for particular skills or certain advice, but may not be the first call for a night out or a deep reflective conversation. And our fruitful friendships are the mutually invested relationships that reflect safety, comfort, and emotional intimacy that also exhibits expansion through various growing stages.”
That said, if you’ve determined a friendship is no longer serving you in any capacity, that’s okay, too. To initiate a friendship break up, Danielle Bayard Jackson, friendship expert and author of the forthcoming book Fighting For Our Friendships: The Art and Function in Female Friendships, encourages communicating thoughtfully. “Whatever language you use, focus on what you are pursuing instead of highlighting her inadequacies,” says Jackson.
Talk That (Real) Talk
SCENE: In the latest episode of HARLEM, Quinn (played by Grace Byers) is navigating a number of personal and professional challenges but insists on masking her pain to her trusted circle of friends. It isn’t until she realizes that she can’t pull herself out of a deep funk that she breaks down and lets her friends know that she hasn’t been doing well—and that she needs them.
“I have so much,” she says to her friends. “What am I so upset about?” Tye (played by Jerrie Johnson) quickly corrects her by saying, “Don’t feel guilty about your feelings.”
Good friendships require vulnerability and honesty. And as we’re still navigating the lingering impact of a pandemic, showing up as our full selves in ongoing relationships or attempting to initiate new connections makes matters even more challenging.
“One of the common themes I hear from high-achieving women is that they suffer in silence in their friendships,” says Jackson. “We often feel lonely in our friendships because we don’t allow ourselves to be fully known. We feel a deeply ingrained pressure to always look like we have it together—and our friendships suffer because of it.”
A little over a year ago, as she and a friend were looking for members to join for a Black British pub trivia night, 26-year-old Livv noticed that it was a little challenging to find people who were interested. “We wanted to meet new people, but we struggled with existing ways of doing so,” she tells Sweet July. Spaces like Bumble BFF, Facebook groups and WhatsApp threads, Liv adds, lacked the infrastructure to help her build authentic friendships around things that she was interested in.
As a result, she created SISTREN, an app that connects Black women across the globe through shared interests and events. Those who are members of SISTREN are able to speak openly about their experiences as Black women—even though they may not be from the same country.
“Black women’s friendships are unique because we are often taught that we have to be strong and in control and may not necessarily develop the skills early on to build tight bonds,” says Lewis. “As a sociologist, I recognize the importance of social ties as they can help with your emotional support, but also serve as networks for building your social and human capital.”
We Got The Sauce
Friendship among Black women has an energy that is truly unmatched. It’s like a special sauce that’s a balance of honey and spice, a balm that heals, and a warm aroma that lingers even after you’ve left the room.
“In a world where Black women experience so much sexism and racism, it is especially important to have a community of women by whom we feel affirmed, seen and understood,” says Jackson.
Dearest Black woman, as you continue to learn and grow into who you are, I encourage you to seek the friendships that truly make your soul smile and bring joy to your life. May these relationships challenge you in the best way to be a better version of yourself, to stride toward your dreams, and to learn how to give love and attract the kind of love you want to receive.