Earlier this week Love Isn’t Enough featured a post titled, “It does still matter if you’re black (or white) by a blogger named Jennifer (the post was originally published at Mixed Race America.)

Jennifer writes,

“A friend recently told me that many white students will say that they have an African American friend but most African American college students don’t claim to have any white friends (or friends of any other racial group). The disparity, a researcher noted, was that the white college students were counting, as friends, black students who sat next to them in the classroom or who lived in the dorm–people they chatted with and were friendly with. But the African American students counted as friendly only people they had significant ties to–whom they socialized with outside of a classroom or dorm environment.”

I did a little research into this, and found a WSJ article by Jonathan Kaufman from 2008, that I think was the genesis for the quote above. In this article, Kaufman writes,

Following a recent discussion in one of his classes about the campaign, in which most students expressed support for Sen. Obama, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke sociologist, asked his white students how many had a black friend on campus. All the white students raised their hands.

He then asked the black students how many of them had a white friend on campus. None of them raised their hands.

The more he probed, Mr. Bonilla-Silva says, the more he realized that the definition of friendship was different. The white students considered a black a “friend” if they played basketball with him or shared a class. “It was more of an acquaintance,” recalls Mr. Bonilla-Silva.

Black students, by contrast, defined a friend as someone they would invite to their home for dinner. By that measure, none of the students had friends from the opposite race. Mr. Bonilla-Silva says when white college students were asked in series of 1998 surveys about the five people with whom they interacted most on a daily basis, about 68% said none of them were black. When asked if they had invited a black person to lunch or dinner recently, about 68% said “no.” He says his own research and more recent studies show similar results.”

When people say racist crap, like recently when my local radio station KDWB played a song stereotyping Hmong people (Minnesota is home to one of the largest populations of Hmong in the U.S.) to the tune of “Tears in Heaven,” their response, when we complained to the station, was that “some of our Hmong listeners thought it was funny.”

The same old tired regurgitated twist on “I can’t be racist, my _______ friend thought it was okay.”

Some of my best friends have been racist. Because sometimes they’ve said racist things. And misogynistic things. And homophobic or heterosexist, and don’t eve get me started on how often my close friends and family have made jokes or statements about persons who are disabled.

And guess what? At times, so am I. Not intentionally (I hope), but I’ve made statements based on prejudices and stereotypes. We all do. I have a very diverse group of friends (and by friends, I mean in the Bonilla-Silva way, as in they-regularly-come-to-my-house-for-dinner-friends; and by diverse I mean of all races, ethnicities, SES, family formations, gender expression, sexuality, age and abilities). I’ve made racist, prejudiced and biased statements over the years. Most of the time I realize as soon as the words leave my mouth – I know because 1) the look on said person’s face, 2) they’ve told me that I was making an assumption or repeating a stereotype and 3) I realized I said something quickly and based on my split-second, implicit biases that we ALL have at times.

We grow up having biases – it’s a result of our upbringing, where we lived and the culture we were/are immersed in, the media messages about difference we picked up both explicitly and implicitly. We have our biases and our prejudices – the point is, when do we decide we are going to be responsible for what we say, and take ownership when what we say is based on stereotype and assumption? What do we do? Say, “I’m sorry you were offended” (which always blames the victim). Or do we say, “wow, I didn’t realize that what I said was offensive” and then take active steps to learn from that experience?

So back to the excuse, “I can’t be racist/misogynist/heterosexist/ableist/other-ist, because I have a __________ friend.” How do you know their laughter was approval? I wonder if their “______ friend” in question really did think it was “okay” or whether they just didn’t outwardly protest – because many people just stay silent or at least don’t protest, if they feel it’s unsafe to really say what they think. Or when they think it’s not worth it, because they’ll get the “but…but…not ME!” defensiveness from their “friend.” Often this is accompanied by a declaration of color-blindness (“I don’t see color; we are all one race, the HUMAN race!”) or worse the “I don’t care if you’re black, white, purple, green or polka-dotted…” (I haven’t yet heard from the purple, green and polka-dotted contingent, but I’m pretty sure they’re crafting their response of thanks for finally being recognized).

This happens in social work all the time too. The history of social work as a profession isn’t exactly known for privileged, middle- to upper-class white social workers giving away their power in order to ally with communities of color. Some of the most offensive things I’ve heard have been racialized stereoytpes uttered by fellow social workers. And woe to any of us social workers of color if we dare challenge a white social worker who just wants to help “our” community (or who claims our community as their own because they’ve worked there for X number of years and have so many ______ friends/colleagues who think they’re just amazing).

When the person in power with the privilege tells the person challenging their offensive language to “lighten up” or that they’re “too sensitive” it actually emphasizes who has power and privilege. And it’s not the one being told to “lighten up.”

Sometimes it’s not always safe to protest. But silence doesn’t always mean approval. Sometimes it means resistance.


4 thoughts on ““I can’t be racist, I have a ______ friend.”

  1. “Sometimes it’s not always safe to protest. But silence doesn’t always mean approval. Sometimes it means resistance.”

    Can completely relate to this statement.

    Appreciate so very much this post. Can relate in so many ways…

  2. Great post. I agree about both the use of offensive language and the need to accept our innate prejudices rather than denying they exist and work more consciously on countering them.

  3. I count myself very lucky that people have been willing to call me out, with kindness, when I’ve said something based on a bias or ignorance. I have particularly learned a lot over the past few years about my assumptions about people who have experienced poverty. Thankfully I have a particular colleague/friend who takes the time to help me understand. I’ve had some very good LGBT friends who have challenged my language and assumptions about the queer community.

    We are all in the process of learning how to be more inclusive and respectful, and that learning can happen once we stop being defensive.

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