About a year ago, my husband and I were out with a white acquaintance and somewhere in our extensive conversation about real estate, the man made a racial joke. There was that inevitable uncomfortable moment where neither my husband nor I were laughing, so the man quickly covered his tracks by saying, “well, I can say that because my wife is black.”
derailment (n): a defensive argument, statement, or question that dismisses or seeks to undermine anti-racist arguments in an effort to preserve privilege or the status quo
We’ve all either done this or heard this in discussions about race. An errant comment is dismissed by a disclaimer: “I’m not a racist. I have black/Asian/Latino friends/coworkers/or in this guy’s case, a spouse.” Because we know or have affection for a person of color, somehow that makes it okay to make a racial slur. [This is the point where I would express a certain amount of ?!@#$%$^$??]
What struck me about the situation at the top of this post was that the man’s black wife was not present for our conversation. I often wonder if our “black friends” were around, would we say the same things? Perhaps. But often, we have better judgment when we are among a more diverse group. Even if we say such things in that context, do we ever really consider how that makes our “friends” feel?
Occasionally, I’ve seen conversations among a diverse group of colleagues or friends go like this: a white person utters a regrettable remark and then asks the representative person of color if the comment offended him/her. “You know I’m joking, right?” or “No offense, k?” At which point the person of color is faced with these choices: 1) call even more attention to himself/herself by rebuking their colleague, 2) laugh and ignore it like it wasn’t a big deal, but it really might be a big deal or 3) laugh because they, too decide to embrace the stereotype in order to be accepted in the group. In any of these options, the imposed-upon person is being asked to pardon the offender without any condemnation of the act itself. Is this something we really want to do to “friends”? Create awkward situations where they cannot voice the hurt we’ve caused them? Or worse, compel them to accept and adopt our prejudices in order to fit in?
The whole idea makes me question the nature of our friendships with people of color. At least two of my grandmothers regularly referred to all black people as “colored” but had befriended their black neighbors or nurses. At least one of them still used the n-word from time to time. In their minds, these women were “exceptions” to the “rules” they had accepted about black folks. Even while my white grandmothers accepted these women into their lives and homes, the invisible social dynamics of our country, reinforced by the language and behavior of my grandmas, kept them from ever really knowing and loving one another as friends. They were still unflinchingly attached to a system of prejudice that made egalitarian friendship impossible. With this attitude, were my grandmas truly acting as friends to their black “friends”?
In a more contemporary example, I’ve heard younger relations make racial slurs against black folks, Native American folks, and Latino folks all with the disclaimer that they have friends of those races. Again, those “friends” are never around when those things are said because all of us know that those hurtful words would never be spoken in their presence. If it would hurt our friends to say these things in front of them, do we not think it would be as injurious if not more so to say these things when they aren’t around and evoke their names and friendships in defense of our bad behavior?
In my experience, when I become friends with a person different from me, I become more defensive of them or their cause, whatever that might be. Having friends of color makes me more sensitive to the things that threaten and injure them, not less. Having Republican friends makes me more likely to stop one of my liberal friends from ranting about the collective idiocy of conservatives. Having a cousin with intellectual and physical disabilities makes me more likely to call someone out for making offensive comments about “short buses”, etc. I would think that if we really care about our friends of color, we’d be quick to correct false stereotypes.
If we were really a friend to those folks, we’d certainly not be perpetuating prejudice and using our friendships to prop up our wrongful behavior. To those who say, “I’m not racist [despite the racist comment I just made], I have black friends,” I have to ask, which part then is the lie? The comment you just made, or the affection you claim you have for your friends? Let us not betray our friends of color by participating in conversations, ideas or ideologies that tear them down.
From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. -James 3:10-12