I am a BF living in ______, and I'm hoping to get your perspective on an experience I had with a close friend of mine (who is white) recently. I was driving with my gps on, and my friend and I started making goofy comments such as "wouldn't it be funny if the gps said this?". . . that sort of thing. Suddenly my friend says "wouldn't it be funny if the gps had an 'angry black woman' setting and cussed you out?"
A wave of unease and discomfort consumed me, and I deflected, or immediately changed the subject -- anything to take the focus off the discomfort I was feeling. It wasn't until a day or two later that I decided to address the issue. I let my friend know that the comment she made "rubbed me the wrong way" and "hurt my feelings a bit." My friend told me she "didn't mean any malice" and apologized. That was pretty much the end of it.
My issue wasn't entirely the fact that the comment was extremely inappropriate -- it was the fact that my best friend of nearly 10 years said it. I had never ever EVER heard her make any comments even remotely close to that, so I was confused as to why on earth she would have done it then. I had flashbacks of high school and being told that I wasn't "like, y'know, black black," and that I was "like the most non black black person" they'd ever met. I regret not nipping comments like those in the bud at that time, but now I feel I should know how to handle these situations, yet still find myself at a loss.
My question is -- do you find that some white people get a little too comfortable with their friends of color and "forget they're (insert ethnicity here)". . . so comfortable that they make racist and inappropriate comments when they wouldn't with a complete stranger?
Rufus (my blogger name)
Side note: I've been reading your blog for a while and it's really been helping me out, so keep it up!
Thank you for writing, Rufus. I'll try to answer your question, and I’m so glad to hear that the blog has been helping you out. Thanks also for agreeing to make our exchange a blog post -- I hope that other swpd readers will have answers and insights for you, from both sides of the color line, based on similar experiences they've had.
As for my experiences, yes, I certainly have seen white people get too comfortable in this way with their friends of color -- I'm also sure that I’ve done it myself (and I appreciate the opportunity you've provided to remember and reflect on such moments).
Despite what most white people think, society trains us unconsciously to be "white," which means we have some common white habits; we act in some common white ways. We sometimes feel and think in racist ways, even when we’re aware of that tendency within ourselves. And so, inevitably, we’re going to mess up sometimes. On top of that, there's also the way that being in the presence of a close non-white friend can mean "letting our guard down," which makes us less careful in our self-monitoring of our racist feelings and thoughts -- I’m surprised it took ten years for that kind of thing to happen with your white friend!
It's odd, in a way; the very concept of "friendship" usually includes the idea that a friend is someone you can feel totally relaxed and comfortable around. Being "comfortable" doesn't seem to mix well with having to be "careful," and yet, in interracial friendships (and in all good friendships, really), it should. It should for the white person, that is; I have my doubts that the non-white person should feel much responsibility to be "careful" in these terms.
I think that having a friend who isn't white, especially a close friend, can make a white person feel that they're not racist -- having a non-white friend supposedly proves that. Even when white people know how ridiculous and even racist it can be to say, "But my black friend says!", there's still something about having a close non-white friend (especially a black one, it seems) that makes a lot of white people feel exonerated from the possibility that they could ever say or do something "racist."
So, if we're with a non-white friend and we say or do something that is racist, we usually expect the non-white friend to give us a pass, because we "didn't really mean to be racist.” And when it comes to most white minds -- as your friend demonstrated when you mentioned your discomfort later -- good intentions are everything. Instead of what's really more important, that is, racist outcomes and effects.
It seems to me that how you felt at that moment in your car is at least as important as your friend's desire to exonerate herself, which she expressed by saying that she "didn't mean any malice." But isn't your friend basically saying, so far, that her feelings are more important than yours?
I’ve also noticed (as you clearly have as well) that such white people commonly think of a non-white friend as an “exception” -- we might even say, and more often think, something like, "You're not like other black people." Actually, I wonder if that’s one reason you changed the topic when your friend joked about a GPS unit having an “Angry Black Woman” voice -- maybe at some level, you didn’t want your white friend to disappoint you, by saying something inevitable, and inevitably derailing. That is, something like, “Oh come on, I didn’t mean that you’re an angry black bitch. You’re not at all like that!” Which would be beside the point, really -- but not in the white friend’s mind.
And again, in the minds of white friends in interracial relationships, moments arise when it's somehow our feelings and thoughts that count, more so than those of our non-white friends. We live, after all, in a society that still privileges and empowers white people, often in subtle ways. To be blunt, I think your friend's expecting you to simply accept her apology about what she really meant, rather than asking you to explain how you felt, is an example of that. Basically, I think it's probably not a stretch to say that in this area of your friendship, she's been trained to feel that her (white) feelings, and her (white) perspective, are more valid and important than your non-white ones. If that's true, I think it could be why she considers it more important for you to understand that she meant no "malice," than for her to ask, listen, and try to understand why you got upset.
So yes, I do find that some white people get a little too comfortable with their friends of color and "forget they're (insert ethnicity here)." I obviously don't know you or your friend, so my speculations may be groundless, but I hope that they help you sort out your feelings about this incident.
One other thing I’ll say, and I hope it’s not presumptuous of me: I don’t get the sense that this incident, and what it says about your friend, are resolved issues for you. If you’re still feeling unsettled, maybe you should talk more fully with her about how that comment made you feel.
But then, that shouldn’t be your responsibility . . . and, such a talk could be painful.
Still, as they say, what are friends for?
What do you think, dear readers? Have you experienced interracial friendships with white friends who make racist and inappropriate comments that they wouldn't make around complete strangers?
If so, how do you handle it? And why do you suppose such comments arise with friends when they wouldn't arise with others?
And by the way, can we avoid comments that advise Rufus to just dump this white friend? As we’ve noticed in other posts and comment threads about interracial relationships, that kind of advice is rarely helpful (and sometimes, I think, it's also condescending and disrespectful).