Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ally School V: Your "Black Friends"

Criticism stings, especially when you had no idea you were doing anything wrong.   Your friends of color are around you all the time and know you better than some random stranger.  They have never objected to your jokes, to your comments on political and social issues, to your attitudes or your behavior.  And so when you suddenly get called out for something you've done many times before, it's tempting to trot out your friends in your defense.  Tempting but, alas, rarely helpful. 

The "black friend" (who may alternately be Latino, gay, Muslim, etc. as circumstances require) is a common trope in discussions.  For a few examples, let us turn an Atlantic Wire article about the recent "Obama phones" flap.  There are so, so many things to say about this controversy - and I hope to return to it in an upcoming post - but let's start with two commenters and their "black friends." 

From user Carl6352:
@CitizenKK: you are right i am happy to be called a racist all my black friends dont mind. why because i live in the real world not the pc world this clown wrote about. actually racism does not exist as the definition is written it is used to keep black people down and a few to get rich off the definition. whats funny is the biggest slander is to be called a oreo cookie a traitor but we have one sitting in the white house now black on the out side and white on the inside. could this be why he dispises rich white people so much?after his indoctrination at harvard i would not be surprised that he learned to hate his mother for being white!
From user Strongmind:
carl6352: my black friends have long ago left "their community." Why? because they wanted more out of life, and they did not want to be dependent on anyone except themselves. they are no different than myself!
Carl6352 has the approval of all his black friends "in the real world not the pc world this clown wrote about." They presumably agree with him that Obama "dispises rich white people" and may even "hate his mother for being white." Strongmind's black friends have made something of themselves by leaving "their community" and its toxic dependency on free cell phones.  Even black people (those who opinions matter, anyway) agree with them: those who say otherwise are obviously just white-hating welfare queens.

One might reasonably suspect that Carl6352 and Strongmind's "black friends" exist only in their fevered imaginations. Given online anonymity, it is impossible to say for certain.  It is equally difficult for a stranger to verify whether or not your friends are real.  But it's not hard at all to find numerous examples of "black friends" like these alongside Mexican co-workers against illegal immigration, gay relatives against same-sex marriage, etc. This means that even true anecdotes about your friends are likely to be seen as a sign the lurkers support you in e-mail.

Even if we take you at your word, we have no way of knowing how your friends really feel. Maybe they are unperturbed by your comments: perhaps they look skyward and sigh every time you open your mouth. And their reaction has little bearing on the situation at hand anyway. Oppression is both depersonalizing and intensely personal: everyone experiences differently the act of being reduced to a stereotype. What one person may find tolerable or mildly annoying may be a painful trigger for another.      There is no Big Golden Book of Racism which details every problematic word or deed. Nor is your friend a Grand High Person of Color who can grant you absolution in every situation.

Instead of using your friends as a well-worn and generally counterproductive defense, you might try seeking their advice.  Discuss the incident with them and ask for their input -- and then listen rather than interrupting with apologies, justifications and other distractions. Your friendship has survived you being tactless: it's not going to fall apart because you finally got a clue. You now know what not to do in a particular social situation. You know that a certain number of people find your t-shirt distasteful, your joke offensive, your turn of phrase troubling.  And you can use this information to guide your future behavior.

If your friend sees nothing wrong with your action that is also useful data, but it is not the end of the matter.  One Jewish person may see amusing sarcasm where another sees anti-Semitism: one woman may find alarming misogyny in what another woman calls "boys being boys."  You now know some people take offense to your behavior while others do not.  At the very least you should probably avoid it in formal and business situations or when dealing with strangers and casual acquaintances.

A protestor huffs indignantly.

"So you're telling me I'm supposed to be worried about somebody I don't even know.  Even though all my black friends are OK with me? Sounds like you have a lot of white guilt."

There's nothing wrong with giving extra weight to a friend's opinion. But you're not always dealing with your friends. When interacting with people you don't know you probably want to be especially cautious.  You also need to recognize the difference between environments: something which may be acceptable among friends may be very not acceptable in your workplace.  It's not "white guilt" so much as "white desire not to be seen as an asshole" and "white desire to stay gainfully employed."

And how often do you find yourself in these situations anyway? If you're accused of racism or insensitivity regularly you may want to consider why so many thin-skinned militants and feminazis are determined to give you grief.  If you occasionally put your foot in your mouth, how hard is it to avoid saying something inflammatory a second time? This isn't about sackcloth and ashes, it's about making a reasonable effort to treat people courteously.