Blak friends in a ‘friendship recession’

27 Sep 2023

Post-lockdowns, and even just as our lives get busier, it can be difficult maintaining connections with friends. Ellen van Neerven writes of prioritising Blak friendships can be significant in times like these.

There is something unique about Blak friendships. It is the ultimate form of received solidarity. I feel comfortable talking with my Blak friends about mostly every topic that goes on in my head as most likely we have had similar experiences – whether with upbringing, family and work. I won’t have to explain microaggressions to them, and they will believe my stories – where others may be dismissive or reductive. Our interactions run on instinct and understanding. 

We have the same sense of humour – the type that might elicit stares from strangers if we’re all together and giggling about something specific and random. Often Blak friendships take on familial roles – especially if the other blackfella is from a neighbouring mob or locale. For example, another Murri person who grew up in south-east Queensland may feel more like a ‘cuz’, ‘sis’, ‘bro’ or ‘sib’ to me because of our shared and similar connections. We feel like family – and sometimes we are. There is a long and detailed history of mob sticking together – banding together – because we have to. 

I treasure my Blak friendships, especially as we are currently in what has been termed a ‘friendship recession’.

Navigating a friendship recession

A ’friendship recession’ lays claim to the fact that in recent times more and more of us lack close meaningful friendships, therefore fewer people to rely on during crises and we are feeling increasingly lonely. Many factors have been attributed to this recession, including COVID-19 isolation, digital habits, financial crisis and workism – which is the driving belief that work is the central part of our life and identity.

Beyond a few weeks of mandatory lockdown in Queensland (we were spared the long periods mob in NSW and Victoria went through) I spent most of the years of 2020-2022 at home, largely to protect a family member who was undergoing treatment for cancer. I avoided crowded areas, restaurants with poor ventilation, parties, birthdays, community events and live music gigs, places that once filled me with a sense of social cohesion and connection. My interactions with friends were almost entirely behind a screen and I became more insular.

When I slowly began going out again, I found my social skills were rusty and that I was increasingly overcome by mild bouts of panic and exhaustion. I also felt guilty about the time I had missed, time I thought I couldn’t get back. But then I slowly relaxed into a type of minimalism where I stopped obsessing about scarcity (do I have enough close friends anymore?) to feeling grateful with what I had (I want to make the most of my time with people I enjoy).

Loneliness can mean being surrounded by friends and feeling completely alone. Many of us emerged from major life shifts in the last few years and asked ourselves: how do you measure quality in a friendship?  A 2019 report focusing on friendship in Australia, found that Australians had on average 3.3 core friends. Much has been written about the health benefits of friendships: better health, and increased chance of recovery from illness. Friendship is connected to survival. 

Representation of Blak friendship is important

Many of our ideas about friendship come from television. A lot of these reference points are white American like the eponymous Friends, Seinfeld or How I Met Your Mother where a group of 30-somethings live in each other’s pockets in the urban metropolis of New York City. If I compare my friendships with those on these TV shows – they have little in common. These shows also don’t teach us about friendships as we age and grow.

There’s a political and activist flavour to friendships between Blakfellas but there’s also a feeling of irreverence and absence of code switching. With my Blakfella friendships there’s a shorthand and an ease. We are just as likely to be discussing cooking drama The Bear than we are the referendum. I feel like we can move easily between topics without there being pressure to ‘represent’ a whole community. 

I feel there is a limited portrayal of the uniquely powerful nature of Blak friendships on screen and in books. There are few examples where the story’s main focus is on the friendship between Blakfellas. Perhaps these friendships have long been of little use to the white gaze due to them not progressing or adding to white-centred stories or narratives about Indigenous characters centred in deficit. Because of this, I believe that the role of Blak friendships is underrated in mainstream society. 

I am enjoying watching a group of Blak friends: Kevin Yow Yeh, Bob Smith, Jared Hutchison, and Mia Strasek-Barker on Gogglebox, who bring a uniquely Blak flavour to their commentary of Australian TV culture. I have not seen this type of representation on TV before.

There are two recent ABC comedies that centre Blak friendships. Kiki and Kitty (2017) with Elaine Crombie playing the role of Kitty, Kiki’s (Nakkiah Lui) personified vagina and supportive best friend, and All My Friends Are Racist (2022),  with Davey Thompson and Tuuli Narkle playing two Zoomer Blak best friends navigating social circles and performative activism.  These shows are onscreen examples of mob yarning about everyday life, what’s going on their heads, with a big scoop of humour, not taking life too seriously. 

I am writing a novel about the friendship between a group of mostly queer Blakfellas. As much as I spoke earlier about Blak friendships thriving on similarity, my novel also explores how this assumption of shared experience and values can cause tension in relationships, and how the site of Blak friendship can also be a supercharged space – where injuries can hurt more due to their communal nature, and betrayal can feel deeper. This dynamic means we have to navigate this space with an awareness of what others might be going through, and what good relations feel like. 

A lot of a writer’s output is personal, and while writing this I am asking myself how I can be a better friend. Since I’ve started going out in the world again, I’ve sought  ways to uplift my friends in the time that we have together. Life is short, and small gestures can go a long way. There’s been many times where my friends have shown up for me and it has made all the difference. 

The learned qualities we bring to our friendships are reciprocity, care, sensitivity and shared language which includes humour.

So I’d like to see more story portrayals about Blak friendships please. – to comfort, entertain and complicate the expected narratives about our communities. 

Back to Stories
Related posts

Businesses like Woolworths don’t base decisions on morals

As we’ve seen with recent media drama around Woolworths and Coles being accused of price gouging, Nat Cromb reminds us we shouldn’t pat companies on the back for doing the bare minimum (especially when they make business decisions instead of moral ones).

He never had a chance – honouring the memory of Joshua Kerr

Meriki Onus honours the life and death of a proud Gunnai, Gunditjmara, and Yorta Yorta man, Joshua Kerr who tragically died in custody in 2022. Meriki has been present at Josh's inquest and offers her insights and reflections into systemic oppression and historical injustices.

Two apology days and no action

On May 26, 1997 the final report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, called the…

Enquire now

If you are interested in our services or have any specific questions, please send us an enquiry.