ONTD Political

Playing the Friendship Card: White Lies, White Denial and the Reality of Racism

8:16 am - 04/11/2012
Playing the Friendship Card: White Lies, White Denial and the Reality of Racism

I swear, if I hear one more transparently racist person insist they aren’t racist because they have black friends, I am going to shoot them. But not because I’m violent. I’m not violent. And this I know because I have friends who are pacifists.

Yes, this is a joke, but seriously, it’s getting just about that stupid, and not simply because George Zimmerman’s “black friend” swears he’s not racist (and that that whole “coon” thing he said about Trayvon Martin before he shot him was really “goon,” and that it was meant as a term of endearment, natch). Much more, it seems that everyone who ever says or does something blatantly racist to a black person is quick to wrap themselves in the cloak of their multicolored affinity networks, as if this provided the perfect inoculation against the charge that they were anything less than purely enlightened.

I’d like to think it’s because we’ve made progress — that this feigned ecumenism was the result of a real and abiding shame at the recognition of one’s biases, and the concomitant desire to front so as to maintain one’s own sense of decency. But sadly, I think it has nothing to do with any such societal evolution. Rather, it’s just a bunch of phony twaddle spread by those who are too stupid to know what racism is, or, alternately, so cunning as to hope that the rest of us are.

I mean really now, when even Daryl Dedmon (who ran over James Anderson in Mississippi a few months ago, after saying he wanted to “fuck with some n-s”), has friends who insist with straight faces that he’s not racist, and point to a couple of black associates as proof, you know that the black buddy defense is about as solid as goose shit and smells nearly as bad.

When a cop can call a black scholar a “banana-eating jungle monkey” and yet, still insist that he isn’t racist and has “no idea” where that language came from (hint: it’s racism, asshole), you know that some white folks are so congenitally ignorant as to disqualify themselves from either policing or association with remotely decent people.

When a Republican Party activist in San Bernadino sends around phony food stamp certificates, which she calls “Obama Bucks,” to her friends, and then swears this wasn’t racist — because even though they were adorned with prominent pictures of fried chicken, “everyone likes fried chicken” — you know before the sentence is even fully formed in her throat that she’s a lying crapsack.

When you come to political rallies carrying signs of the president dressed as an African witch doctor with a bone through his nose, or send around e-mails depicting the White House lawn covered in watermelons, or throw “ghetto parties” at your fraternity house, replete with blackface makeup, your claims of interracial camaraderie are not merely irrelevant to the suggestion that you just might be a racist, more to the point, they are blatant effing lies. The people who claim they have black friends and still do this kind of thing are liars, plain and simple. Every one of them. No exceptions.

How do I know? Easy. Every time I’m confronted with one of these people I ask them a series of questions, all of which are splendidly simple, yet, questions that they have never — not even one of them — been able to answer in a satisfactory manner.

First, and regarding their black friends, I ask the most obvious of all questions: Can you name them?

And not just first names please — I mean, who can’t think up “Jamal” or “Keisha” off the top of their head in a pinch — but rather, first and last name. After all, I know the first and last names of all my real friends, white, black, or otherwise.

If they manage to somehow get past this question — and only about a third do — I then ask them where their black friend (or friends if they’re really large-scale liars) grew up? After all, if asked this about a real friend, most of us would be able to answer with little trouble.

Then, for the handful who make it this far — and I mean they can be counted on a few fingers — I ask the final and ultimately fatal question.

Could you please dial their numbers on your cell phone for me, and let me speak to them?

Blank stares ensue, followed by something about how they don’t have their black friend’s numbers in their phones (unlike their white friends, whose numbers are right there, ready to be dialed or texted at a moment’s notice). So I ask for e-mail. Nope, they don’t know their e-mails either.

Mmm hmm… Of course not. And ya know why? Because they are lying.

They don’t have black friends. Not real ones at least.
Knowing some black dude with whom you occasionally shoot hoops at the campus rec center does not mean you have a black friend. Engaging in small talk with a black person about your mutual affinity for hip-hop, does not mean you have a black friend. Telling the black person who just bussed your table at the restaurant “thank you,” sure as hell does not mean you have a black friend. Neither does it count if your kid happens to have a black teacher with whom you get along well at parent-teacher conferences, nor when you chat about your respective Final Four brackets with a black person around the office water cooler — nor even when, on occasion, you might go out with a bunch of your colleagues, including the darker among them, to a sports bar for wings and beer.

Friends are people with whom you share the multitude of pain and joy that life has to offer.

They are the people with whom you share real secrets, insecurities, fears, triumphs and defeats.

They are the people who know they could turn to you in a pinch, and to whom you could turn were the proverbial shoe on the other foot.

They are the people who — were they really in your life — would jack you up were you to say or do any of the incredibly stupid-ass things that you seem to do or say over and over again.
And they are the kind of people that having jacked you up over your asshattery would make sure you knew exactly why you should never say or do that kind of thing again, or why, if you find it impossible to curb your stupid, should yet make damned certain never to use them and their friendship with you as a cover for your actions.

Of course — and here’s the bigger point — even if one does have black friends, this doesn’t mean that one is free from racial bias or could never act in such a way as to further racism. I mean, if personal closeness to people of color were all it took to insulate oneself from a charge of racism then, by definition, male heterosexuality would be the perfect defense against charges of sexism: to wit, all straight men could answer allegations of misogyny, no matter how blatant, with a simple, “but I’m married to a woman!” every time they ogled a woman’s breasts in public, called a woman a bitch, claimed that women who get raped “probably asked for it,” or ruminated about how no woman should be president because of, ya know, that whole menstrual cycle thing.

In short, personal affinity for someone who is of color, or a woman, or LGBT, or whatever, says nothing about how one views the larger group from which those individuals come. After all, there were many whites who supported enslavement and segregation as social systems, and yet, managed to conjure personal kindness for individual black people on a case-by-case basis. Their friendly relationships notwithstanding, they were complicit with evil, and thus, were themselves instruments of that evil. Whites who claim to have black friends (and perhaps even do), and yet view the larger black community with disdain, or view their black friends as exceptions to a general and more negative rule (like the ones who tell their black friends that they “don’t even think of them as black” as if that were a compliment rather than the prejudicial calumny it is), are indeed racists, however unwilling they may be to wear the label. Sadly, based on the social science research, this applies to most of us, for indeed, the white community in particular does (by our own admission) continue to adhere in large measure to any number of hostile and racist stereotypes about African Americans. That we may be willing to carve out a few exceptions — our own personal Cliff and Claire Huxtables — does nothing to alter this sad fact.

Even more distressing, the systemic inequalities that continue to plague our nation are capable of rendering even genuine interracial friendships moot by virtue of the fundamentally different treatment provided to those on the respective sides of that racial coin. So, for instance, I grew up with mostly black friends, for the first several years of my school experience. Having attended pre-school at an early childhood ed program at a Historically Black College (Tennessee State), most of my early peer group was black. It was black kids with whom I identified early on. It was black kids on whose ball teams I played. It was black kids with whom I hung out in the cafeteria, with only a few exceptions.

And yet, a few important facts are worth considering: facts that make those early friendships far less important to understanding my own racialized experience than they might otherwise seem.

First, my genuine affection for those friends did little or nothing to prevent them from experiencing institutional racism and race-based mistreatment in those schools. Routinely they would be punished more harshly than the white kids (myself included) for minor behavioral infractions, even though they committed those infractions no more frequently than we did. That we were friends did not imbue me with an understanding of what was happening, let alone the nerve at the time to speak out and interrupt the process to which they were being subjected. Likewise, most all the black children in those early grades — so many of whom were truly friends of mine — were tracked into basic and remedial level classes, while most all the white kids were tracked into advanced and honors classes, even though we showed no more promise (and sometimes quite a bit less) than they. And again, my closeness to those kids, personally, did not prevent me from taking advantage of my race-based privileges — or indeed, even allow me to notice that they were race-based privileges at the time — let alone to protest the unfairness of it all. So although the friendships were real, their impact on racism as a functioning social reality in the lives of my black friends, and myself, meant absolutely zip.

Second, and as I’ve written about elsewhere, my genuine connections to black people — in all likelihood far more extensive than 90 percent or more of all white Americans — did not provide an ablative hardening around my consciousness, which somehow prevented the entry of any and all racially-biased thoughts from time to time. I’ve caught myself having racist thoughts over the years, and though I have caught myself and interrupted the thoughts before they manifested as racist action, that doesn’t get me off the hook. It means that like anyone else, I am subject to the influences of my culture. It means that advertising works on us all, and in the case of racially prejudicial imagery, we’ve all been subjected to plenty of that advertising, so to speak. We can deal with that honestly and humbly — and resolve to do better tomorrow than we managed to do today — or, alternately, we can prevaricate and pretend that we haven’t a racist bone in our ostensibly colorblind bodies.

Finally, no matter how many friends of color we white folks may have, unless we are there to intervene every time they get unfairly stopped by a police officer, every time they get followed around at the mall on suspicion of shoplifting, every time they apply for a mortgage loan and face the risk of being charged higher interest, and every time they apply for a job, knowing that the employer may be looking at them as a walking, talking stereotype, then our friendships will mean pitifully little in the larger scheme of things. Only when those personal relationships translate into collective and committed action will they do black and brown folks much good.

And interestingly, white folks who are actually committed to that kind of action, and the change it would portend in the larger society, are the white folks who never feel the need to parade their interracial friendships in front of others, while the ones who wear their black and brown friends on their sleeves like trophies are the ones who rarely ever do a damned thing to alter the institutional patterns that subject said friends to myriad injustices.

Oh, and just so ya know: this is pretty much exactly what your black friends would tell you… that is, if you actually had any.
nyxelestia 11th-Apr-2012 02:44 am (UTC)
Heh, I get the general idea and I really do think the "black friend" excuse is old bullshit. That said I can't help but feel like the writer is being intentionally inflammatory in many ways, and that's making it difficult for me to take them seriously.

i.e. that whole schtick with asking about the alleged black friends' personal details and phone numbers - honestly, if I were in a remotely similar situation, I'd be creeped out, too. Also, I don't know all my friends' last names, and I only know where a few of them grew up.

I don't doubt the writer has a point and a lot of these people are lying about the black friends thing, but the initial proof used kind of threw me off.
homasse 11th-Apr-2012 03:03 am (UTC)
*head tilt* How do you not know your friend's last names? Seriously, how close of a friend can you be if you don't know their name? Wouldn't that be more in "acquaintance" territory?

I totally get not knowing where someone grew up - I can never remember the name of the town my best friend grew up in, because it's some tiny town in Canada, but I know she grew up in a tiny town in Canada and she and her friends used to go camping in the snow and stick beers in the river - but my brain breaks at the idea of know knowing their full name yet counting them as a "friend."
nyxelestia 11th-Apr-2012 06:02 am (UTC)
I...honestly have no idea. I have always been very bad with names. That said, I don't really draw much of a line between friends and acquaintances. Some of my closest friends are predominantly online (so I barely know their real name at all), and some of my friends tend to shift distances, i.e. acquaintance one week, BFF the next, moderate friend the week after, ect. I have most of their last names on my Contacts list/Facebook though, so I don't feel particularly bereft.

I think I grew used to it because I grew up being an English-speaking girl with a large Indian family, so I got accustomed to thinking of people by what names I referred to them without those necessarily being their actual names. i.e. I can never remember why my aunt's real name is because I call her "Pishi" (paternal aunt in Bengali), I think of her as Pishi, I refer to her as Pishi, ect. By the same token, I know my close friends' last names if I think for a second, but otherwise I know them by whatever I call them.

Ironically enough, I'm actually more likely to remember a vague acquaintance or colleague's last name because I'll get their name from my Contacts list or something more often than I'll use it from my own memory or whatever.
kitanabychoice 11th-Apr-2012 03:05 am (UTC)
I think it depends on where you draw the line between friend and acquaintance. Personally I could agree with what the author wrote -- info about all of my close friends regardless of race can be conjured up instantly. I know their full names, phone numbers, email address, where they were born, etc. Then again, they're my close friends and there's only like six of them in total.

I do agree with you about being the author being intentionally inflammatory, though.
nyxelestia 11th-Apr-2012 06:09 am (UTC)
I...don't draw the line, I guess. I tend to think of people I know and vaguely like or hang out with as friends, and acquaintances as people I know but don't hang out with or don't like. I don't really put my relationships into boxes all that often.

I have all that information on my phone, my iPod, through Facebook, ect. - but, in day to day interaction with them, this stuff doesn't come up, so I don't remember it because I don't need to. If I need this information, I can get it from somewhere/something else. That said, way more than six.
lickety_split 11th-Apr-2012 03:58 am (UTC)
I can't help but feel like the writer is being intentionally inflammatory in many ways, and that's making it difficult for me to take them seriously.

Eaux, the tone argument.

Okay forreal though, anyone who doesn't know my last name is not my friend. I would give them such a hard side-eye for not being able to answer such a basic ass question about me. Like, you can't even identify them to the police in an emergency how can you call them your ~friend?

Edited at 2012-04-11 03:59 am (UTC)
ms_maree 11th-Apr-2012 04:01 am (UTC)
Wel...my best friend...the person who I feel I'm close to, who comes over and feeds my cat when I'm away, who helps me move when I move, who I spend most of my social time with. She's been my friend for over ten years, I only found out her last name last year.

That's just how it works, sometimes. If it doesn't come up, it just doesn't come up.
lickety_split 11th-Apr-2012 04:06 am (UTC)
That's so interesting. I just.... can't imagine that. I mean, like, how do you tell people apart in your phone?
ms_maree 11th-Apr-2012 04:10 am (UTC)
Well, I don't think I know anyone who shares the same first name, it's not something that's come up. I never think about it. A lot of the people I end up being friends with I knew online first and for a whle know them by their online handle, or just their first name.
nyxelestia 11th-Apr-2012 06:26 am (UTC)
Half the time I'm not putting in their actual names on the phone, but the nickname I refer to them by, or some other relationship. Though even if I did, I don't know many people who have the same names, anyway.

As danamaree mentioned, it just doesn't come up. If I need to know their last name for something, I can check their Facebook. A lot of my friends are online so I don't know their real names for ages.

And hell I go through Real Life with a "false" name - "Mia" isn't my nickname, nor is it any way related to or a shortened form of my real name. It's a name I picked out for myself when I was 10 and stuck with it, and I use it everywhere. Most people have no idea it's not my real name. On the flip side, most of my extended family would have a little trouble trying to find me among friends or any situation in which I'm not obligated to use my legal name because they know me by a nickname, and they know my real name, but they don't always remember that with the rest of the world I go by neither.

I guess when I step back and take a look at it, it's kind of weird, but honestly the name thing has never been a big issue (except for the whole "I'm bad with names thing", but trying to remember people's personal trivia has yet to solve that).
tabaqui 12th-Apr-2012 02:34 am (UTC)
For years, people we knew in Kansas only knew me as Bear, and i only knew them as the names they'd chosen (Dreamer, Diarmaid, Lark). I shared intimate details with them, laughed and cried with them, went skinny-dipping with them and my SO and i had sex with some of them a thin tent away.

I have not the slightest clue what most of the 'real' names were, and yet they were a family to me.
angry_chick 11th-Apr-2012 04:07 am (UTC)
There actually isn't anything odd about that. He's not really asking to share phone numbers, he just wants for the person to give their 'friend' a ring. Any of my friends are on speed dial and would be willing to entertain someone for me because they're a friend.

Edited at 2012-04-11 04:09 am (UTC)
nyxelestia 11th-Apr-2012 06:12 am (UTC)
I mean that I'd be creeped out by it. Most of my friends are used to me being weird and would probably take this in stride and let me explain later on while side-eying me, but I'd still be creeped out about calling them in the first place in such a situation.

That said, I can't really imagine being in such a situation in the first place, of needing to call friends at random to prove I have nonwhite friends (especially since I'm nonwhite, myself).
13chapters 11th-Apr-2012 04:20 am (UTC)
I think you're taking it too literally. I mean, I got a new cell phone and number awhile ago, and a lot of my friends aren't in it because they're my grad school friends and aren't nearby me anymore, so there's no point in having them in my phone. I don't have my best friend in my phone because she's in France and we only very rarely talk on the phone because I'm in California and there's a big time difference. If I want to contact those people, I'd have to email them or send them a message on facebook. But they're still my friends. The general point is - if this is someone you just chat with casually, this is not a FRIEND. A friend is someone you socialize with, a person you feel comfortable with, a person you hang out with for fun.
nyxelestia 11th-Apr-2012 06:14 am (UTC)
A friend is someone you socialize with, a person you feel comfortable with, a person you hang out with for fun.

...that is the kind of friend I'm talking about. I mean, their names are probably on my phone or Facebook or whatever, but I don't use their last names in day to day interaction with them, so I don't remember them. Unless I've had some specific situation where I needed to know their last names, I'll usually never have asked and thus not know from my own memory.
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