Tuesday, August 11, 2009

pat themselves on the back for having black friends

This is a guest post by Abagond, who writes of himself, "I have lived most my life in or near New York City. Although I tend to think of myself more individually, I am in fact part of the wave of middle-class West Indians who left the city in the 1990s to bring up their children. . . . . My parents were writers, which meant we did not always have enough to eat. I have been writing 'articles' since I was six. I would look at the insides of worms and write about it."

“Some of my best friends are black”
is a phrase whites use to prove they are not racist. They also use it when they are about to say something racist: “Some of my best friends are black, but….” As if that gives them a green light to say any racist thing they want.

My first reaction is to doubt the quality of said friendships. But giving them the benefit of the doubt, it has become clear that black friendship has little effect on white racism:

A white Boston police officer said this in an email about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr, a black Harvard professor:

If I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC.

Later he said in his apology:

I have so many friends of every type of culture and race you can name and I am not a racist.

A white high school student who went to a whites-only prom did not think he was racist either:

I have as many black friends as I do white friends. We do everything else together. We hang out. We play sports together. We go to class together. I don’t think anybody at our school is racist.

A white commenter, the first I kicked off this blog, only called black commenters names, never white ones. To one black commenter he said:

That’s right. Go play on train tracks and get hit by a train. No one wants you alive.

But he did not think he was racist either. To prove it he said:

Oh and by the way, four of my best friends have been black… My brother is married to a black a girl, too. So you really have no argument kiddo.

If anything the black-best-friend argument shows that the speaker does not know much about racism and is blind to it.

I used to think that whites who marry black or live in black neighbourhoods were not all that racist. But even that is not true! While they do tend to have less stereotyped views of blacks, they still hold onto their sense of whiteness and the racist views used to defend it. They still see things from a self-serving white point of view.

Come to think of it, even blacks can be racist against blacks!

So having a black best friend proves little.

Racism in America is built partly on a separation of the races and the stereotypes that fill in the lack of first-hand experience. Like the sea monsters on the old maps of the Atlantic. A black best friend can help remove some of those sea monsters, but not if you think your friend “is not like other blacks”.

But more than stereotypes racism is also built on the need for whites to feel good about themselves living in an unequal society where blacks get screwed. Black friends, neighbours and lovers will not make that need go away.


  1. Anybody who says "I have (enter minority group) friends" immediately goes on my radar. As you point out it means nothing and shows how clueless they are.

    I once read an article that cited a study that said that there aren't enough black people (who say they have white friends) to go around to all the white people who say they have black friends.

  2. Exactly!

    I have always seen it as logic fail. If your friend is black or a fellow POC, why would you say or act out certain feelings or beliefs? Wouldn't that hurt your "supposed friend"?

    Also, meaning of these "friends" do not exist. They are often co-workers or acquaintances that one rarely hangs out with outside of work or the acquainted place, e.g. school.

    This belief is another disclaimer, such as the "I'm not a racist/sexist/anti-Semite, but....." one, that is so predictable that it's amongst the first obvious turn tos in the playbook.

  3. Great article. Half the time I think their lying or they might be counting the few people they casually say hi to but don't ACTUALLY know. I think you should do a post on white people who have ONE non-white friend and feel that they know everything about that non-white group of people ignoring the fact that all people within that race/ethnicity clearly able to be individuals.

  4. LOL@The picture/post from "Black People Love Us"

    I have been coming here lately and must say that I am impressed by sensitivity and how insightful you are. No offense but a LARGE majority of White males are clueless on matters of race. Either they deter honest discourse by underplaying our situations or flat out and out deny its very existence.
    Thank you.

  5. i used to listen to Al Franken every day during his first year at Air America Radio. for the most part, he seems like an extremely smart, culturally aware guy.

    but there was one occasion, around the time that Senator Strom Thurmond died, and Franken was discussing Thurmond's black daughter (who was conceived with a black woman when Thurmond was still a very young man).

    Franken just COULD NOT GET OVER the fact that Thurmond could publicly hold such racist views, while he simultaneously had a black ex-lover and a bi-racial daughter.

    listening to him, i had one of those moments where i really understood the level of ignorance that so many people have about the innerworkings of race and the many levels that it lives on in our minds and lives as human beings.

    it's obvious to me that just because you have "friends" or intimate relationships with people of a different race, it may not change your views concerning white privelege or the inferiority of the "other". indeed, ideas about race work so insidiously that sometimes we hide the truth of how we really feel from ourselves.

    if someone like Franken can't see these things for what they are, what can we possibly expect from everyone else?

  6. It's been such a joke to me and my friends (for osme of whom I am the only Black friend that they have) that I actually made a t-shirt that says Certified Grade A Black Friend.

    My friend Susan actually heard a girl claim to be friends with me in a bar right before she spouted some racist crap. Susan called her out, both on her (extreme lack of) friendship status with me and her racism.

    Living in the South I have made friends (usually at work) and hung out for a while and then later discovered a Confederate flag at thier house, boat, camper, etc... The willful ignorance that people can display always astounds me. How can they want to hang out with me and invite me to wherever and think that that's ok? That I will be comfortable? It generally leads to a discussion where they admit that it never even occured to them. They don't even notice thier own racism or the pain that they cause in others.

    I've lost a lot of 'friends' this way - people who are genuinely good and kind but cannot seem to see beyond their own whiteness. It's sad.

  7. While I too have to doubt the quality of these supposed friendships (probably just someone you say hi to in the hall at work), the thing is even a true-blue friendship with a black person is hardly some wonder cure for racism. It will help in some ways but not in others. Like MissCegenation said, human beings and racism are not that simple.

  8. Even worst is the corollary: I can't be racist, I have sex with ethnic chicks.

  9. Yeah, I've heard this a lot of times too. If you have to trot out your example of a black friend as proof that you're not racist, then your actions really have betrayed you.

    I wonder how many white people I know use this in reference to me. I mean, I know some white girls who are so damn clueless about race and have no interest in learning anything at all that I wouldn't really consider them to be my friends, but they would probably refer to me as their "black friend" when I'm not there and they want to show how enlightened they are.

  10. >Franken just COULD NOT GET OVER the fact that Thurmond could publicly hold such racist views, while he simultaneously had a black ex-lover and a bi-racial daughter.<

    Uhm, yeah. Most men love women, love having intimate relationships with them, marry them, have kids by them, and genuinely love their family, and yet hold male chauvinistic views at the same time. It's the same with racism.

  11. fromthetropics makes a great point. And that reminds me of a similar idea, men who say that they can't be sexist or misogynist because they love their mothers or their sisters.

    MissCegenation too makes a great point and points out something that so many people don't understand, particularly white people. And that is that most human beings really have internalized fundamentally decent behavior towards their fellow human beings, but this simply isn't enough. That means that, for the most part, a person will treat another person with whom he or she is interacting with respect, regardless of racial differences. And even more so today, when outwardly racist behavior on a one-on-one basis is considered socially unacceptable. (That observation is by no means intended to ignore the fact that racist behavior is still exhibited all too frequently on this level all over the United States. Also, this "respectful" treatment of which I speak is so often peppered with condescension or otherwise less than fully conscious racism).

    But congratulating oneself for treating black people respectfully in person obscures the larger structure of racism that both pervades our institutions and our socialization. For, what does it matter if a white manager goes home at the end of the day and congratulates himself for having behaved respectfully with a black job interview candidate if he didn't give the candidate the job due to some internalized racial bias? What does it matter that white people I know who would never be rude in their daily lives to black people nevertheless see some neighborhoods here in my city (I live in DC) as "ghettos" simply because the majority of the residents in those neighborhoods are black?

    And what does it matter if someone thinks that they're not racist if they then go out and tell people that Barack Obama is not a US citizen, or that they don't want their tax dollars going to support health care coverage for minorities?

    We have a long way to go.

  12. This is a relative of "my uncle is gay!" and "I'm not X, but [something X]."

    >I actually made a t-shirt that says Certified Grade A Black Friend.

    G, that's hilarious. You could sell those.

  13. "i'm not racist, i have black friends"

    You'd be surprised how many times white liberals say this when around their fellow white liberal friends. For them, it's like a pat on the back for being so "understanding", "anti-racist" and "multicultural." The fact that they feel they have to point at that they're not racist proves that they are.

  14. You know, you never hear a white person say, "But I have a white friend..." If there is a need to brag on yourself for having friends of different colors, why not point out the color of white friends, too, you know?

  15. Hey wallflower, I DO sell the shirts! http://www.cafepress.com/wholenewg


  16. When my school's superintendent tried to get rid of the Day of Silence, and I told him that what he was discrimination and a display of homophobia he told me:
    "but my daughter is married to a black man."

    Just think on that.

  17. I've heard some racist people who have POC friends say things like "All [insert group] are like this, but you're different." I've heard sexist remarks like that too..."women are usually like x, but you're different." *eye roll*

  18. Please stop crying about racism you're hurting my head. If white man is being a dick and black man wants to say "Hey dude, you're being a dick" or other way around that's NOT racism. You don't have to be over sensitive just because the object of your feelings has different pigment. The fact that you're over analyzing stuff like this makes you the worst racially polarized people ever.

  19. hm how would a white person say they have a black friend in a way that isn't racist then? im not white, im Chinese. i read a few posts, and while i think you are highlighting the blights of racism, i don't think you're really helping to close the divide, just widening the chasm with the 'hey sista ima black, i hate whites.' what you gona do now. say 'im not racist, i have white friends?'

    i live in Malaysia, a country where we have laws enshrined in our constitution giving the Malay race all kinds of special rights from free higher education to cheaper houses and non restriction from government contracts which other races suffer from. you don't have that anywhere else, so be glad.

    stop living off the past and crying out for pity. Every race has been wronged before.


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