How Diverse Friendships Can Improve Your Mental Health (MLK Day 2023)

Did you know that racial segregation is worse today than in 1990?

Othering and Belonging Institute

Think about that for a second. How many people who aren’t the same race sat on your sofa last year? How many close friends do you have that were raised in a different culture?

While the desire for racial progress and the heart for equity increases around the US, the reality of our social lives is struggling to catch up.

I’ve had the privilege of working in social inclusion and racial equity for the last two years. Here’s my most significant takeaway: by and large, we aren’t doing life together. We don’t live in the same neighborhoods, we don’t share the same friend groups, we don’t go to the same workout classes, you fill in the blank…

We step into a past where very intentional decisions were made to ensure that white and black communities in America live separately. Not only is this historical reality decimating our social fabric in America, but it’s also impacting our mental health and limiting the fullness of our life experience.

This life separation is one of racism’s greatest tricks. Not the overt bigotry that makes headlines but the subtle, systemic separation that creates a culture where we don’t see each other. Where we don’t empathize with one another.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood that a lack of proximity is one of the most significant impediments to racial equity.

“I have a dream that one day right down in Alabama, little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.”

– MLK Jr.

When he painted this image of two children holding hands, he called out the need for change in the social fabric of America. Despite the unthinkable actions of many white people, Martin Luther King Jr. continued to implore his “white brothers and sisters” to get involved. He remained strong that this struggle for racial equity is “all of our struggles” because, as we’ve learned, it really does damage all of us.

As expected, overt racism has crushing effects on communities of color, from their physical body to the inner workings of the mind. But maybe more surprising is how extreme anxiety drops when young people grow up in integrated settings. Or the economic advantages that diverse backgrounds inspire.

I grew up in almost entirely white spaces. When I went to college, I didn’t think much of it; before I knew it, all my friends were white. Looking back now, I see that not only was I participating in the system of racism that still casts a shadow across America. I was significantly limiting the potential for a fuller life experience. And it deeply saddens me that despite increasing diversity, many spaces across the country remain segregated based on race.

Now living back in my hometown, I’ve intentionally prioritized relationships with people that don’t look like me. While I still love and appreciate the people I grew up with, it’s remarkable how much more dynamic my life feels now. While I’m certainly still learning and unlearning – these relationships have made anti-racism a part of who I am and integral to my daily life.

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, we expect you’ll see several quotes and motivational videos. How could you not?! Dr. King was an unbelievably powerful orator, leader, and change-maker. But what can YOU do to keep carrying this vision forward?

Start by asking yourself, “who are the people you’re doing life with? How diverse are the spaces that you spend your time in? We implore you to be intentional and build relationships with people who don’t look like you. And through these relationships, remain open and curious about how you might uniquely contribute towards carrying the torch of equality forward. Not only is it the right thing for you to do, but I guarantee your life will be more vibrant and exciting. Sounds like a win-win to me!

Happy MLK Day, friends, and a special shoutout to our community members of color. We see you. We love you. We stand with you.

In gratitude and love,

Works Cited:

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2011). When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact. Psychology Press.

Semuels, Alana. “Segregation Is Increasing in America.” Time, Time, 21 June 2021,

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