Saying “I have a black friend” isn’t enough

29 Aug

That’s a quote from someone in the crowd at yesterday’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

I couldn’t agree more. What does “I have a black friend” mean anyway?

It means, “I’m not racist. See? The proof is this person right here.” And while I would never contest that that black person is, in fact, your friend, I would ask: Why do you think most of your friends aren’t black? Now, I’m not calling you a racist. I’m asking you to consider not just individual, but larger social and institutional factors that shape your friendships. What institutionalized privileges and constraints have created unequal access to potential friends of all racial identities over the course of your life? What cultural norms and biases have steered you to one seat or another in the lunch room, at the movies or on public transportation? And what individual bias or choice have you been unconscious of or intentional about? Because one black friend–or even two or three–doesn’t change the social reality of racism. But a good step is towards less discrimination and more equity is recognizing how I as an individual am not exempt from racism. As Sonia Nieto says, “Nice is not enough.” I can be “nice” to this black person, that transgender person or those disabled people, but if I’m not actively working against racist, sexist and ableist norms and systems, I’m effectively giving permission and perpetuating them.

That’s why “I have a black friend” is a problem. At the heart of this statement is a denial that racism involves me, too. My black friend becomes my “get out of racism free” card, which does, in fact, give me freedom: the freedom to think and act in racist ways. Because after all, I couldn’t be racist. Did you not see my black friend over here?? Researchers in the 80’s coined a phrase for this: aversive racism (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986), which they describe as “a subtle, often unintentional, form of bias that characterizes many individuals who possess strong egalitarian values and who believe that they are nonprejudiced. [Although they] do not wish to discriminate against members of racial minority groups… [they] act on unconscious negative feelings when they are able to justify their actions in other terms.”

In other words, people who “have a black friend” evidence racial discrimination in hiring, jury deliberations, interactions with strangers and yes, even friendships, especially when they refuse to consider that their actions could be biased and ultimately discriminatory. And the kicker is that that dear black friend is their beard.

That doesn’t seem too friendly, now does it?

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