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Gary Younge
Some of my best friends

Having friends with identities other than your own can teach you all sorts of things. The most valuable, obviously, is how to enjoy their company. But, along the way, the fact that they have a different experience may also introduce you to perspectives you had not encountered and challenge presumptions you never knew you had.

To that extent the recent survey by the Commission for Racial Equality, which revealed that 90% of white people have no, or hardly any, black or Asian friends was interesting. In an article in G2 on Tuesday, bestselling author Mike Gayle asked: "What were readers meant to do with that information?"

It is a good question. First, they might have put it into context. Given that minority ethnic groups comprise around 10% of the population and are concentrated in urban areas, the statistic itself is not that shocking. Then, they might use it like any other poll, to help them better understand the world they live in.

To me it offers a counterweight to the smug self-satisfaction that the post-racial nirvana Britain thought it had reached because we laugh at Ali G and enjoy the brilliant works of Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy.

Or readers could have taken Gayle's example and seen both the poll and its findings as a direct personal attack on their integrity and anti-racist credentials. In a series of rhetorical responses to his own question, he asks: "Were [readers] meant to feel guilty and go out and befriend more black people? Were they meant to wring their hands in shame at not having kept in Christmas-card contact with the nice Asian family that used to live next door?"

These were the first in a battalion of straw men Gayle demolished with zeal. As a black person with few black friends, he regards the very commissioning of the poll as an affront. He predicts a "black media mafia" lining up to call him a "sellout" and a "coconut" (brown on the outside white on the inside), as though Trevor McDonald is about to knock his door down and drag him, kicking and screaming, to a blues party.

Had he read on just a little, he would have seen that 47% of ethnic minorities say white people form all or most of their friends. Far from being exceptional, his experience is fairly common. So since nobody has asked him to feel guilt or shame or called him any names, one must only presume that these demons live in his head.

Back on this planet, the poll does not suggest there is an intrinsic moral value to having black friends, or tell us anything about the value of those friendships it did record. Indeed, it neither accuses nor assuages. The numbers on their own are neutral; only the context in which they are (mis)understood gives them the capacity to discriminate.

The number of black friends someone has is not an indication of racial enlightenment or racism. Black people do not exist as an educational resource to guide white people with racist attitudes towards humanism. In fact, when people quote, mention or cite their black friend it usually means they are about to make a hideous racist statement for which they do not want to take responsibility.

The poll did not suggest that he go out looking for black and Asian friends, but common sense suggests that the potential for racial stereotyping and misunderstanding is greater if you don't know people of a different race than if you do. As a nation, we talk about race a lot (albeit in code), but different races don't talk to each other.

For what social contact with people of different identities can offer is the chance to gain a sensibility that we might otherwise be missing out on. Only the chance, because, like any other identity, race confers neither knowledge nor insight - only a particular experience that might lead to both. Not through Power Point presentation but the stories, joys and ordeals that friends share.

Whether people take that chance, and what they do with it, is up to them. But right now we need all the chances we can get. Gayle finds racism "a bit wearisome" because "he's the only black guy in a designer hotel who is not wearing a porter's uniform", or "the only black person not serving drinks" at a publishing party. Others find it a bit more wearisome because they are stuck serving the drinks and wearing the uniform. They don't want to be his friend; they want the same opportunities as his friends.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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