Anonymous Asked: How Do I Deal With This Racist White Friend?

By Guest Contributor Jha; originally published at Silver Goggles

So some of you readers have discovered my Tumblr Ask Box is available for Anonymous questions. I don’t respond to every single one if they don’t ask a question specifically, but I do try to answer questions as much as possible.

Today I got this question:

Hi, I hope I’m not bothering, but I need advice, in regards to writing and race, and I hope it’s alright to ask! My white friend and I are trying to write a steampunk novel and she’s failing so bad at race issues. She’s the white liberal – racism is bad people doing bad things (but always redeemable once they ~understand~!), racism is caused by stupid people, always look forward never address the past grievances, interracial marriage solves everything! It’s so frustrating.

I’m afraid of correcting her because I don’t want to hurt her feelings, and afraid that she’ll see me as “one of those POC” and hate me. I’ve tried to get her to read your steampunk blog (which I love and thank for its existence!), but she is…weird about it. I know that at this point our friendship is suspect, but she is someone I love dearly and I can’t help it. And I’ve put so much effort into this project, I don’t want to give up now. Is it at the point where I should let her be, or is there something I can do to approach this topic? Thank you so much, sorry for the length. Have a good day!

It is an unfortunate state of affairs when you have to ask people on the internet for advice on how to deal with racists on such an intimate basis.  We all know people like this. Hell, I’ve been that colorblind liberal! How does one deal with that kind of person? I don’t have all the answers, not having all the details, so here’s my general tack on the situation:

Firstly, you have my deepest sympathies. This is where it’s clear that it’s the people closest to you who cannot be trusted sometimes.

Secondly, you need to ask yourself if you really need her input on this novel, or if there is someone else you can collaborate with without so many issues.

Thirdly, if the answer is, yes, you need her, you need to ask yourself what your boundaries are: what can you continue to tolerate from her? What will you continue to tolerate from her?

Then lay out your boundaries. Sit down with her and have a firm talk about it. Tell her to read my blog and stop being weird about it, or else it will damage your trust level and raise your anxieties about this project.

Because as much as you are afraid of hurting your feelings? It’s also really clear that she’s continuously hurting yours. If you keep letting this continue, it will irrevocably destroy your friendship because you will feel constantly fatigued at having to deal with her racism.

You need to be honest with her about the fact that her racism, which is getting to the point where it’s just flagrant ignorance and dismissal of PoC perspectives and no longer microaggressive, is hurting you, and you don’t want this friendship to die.

You don’t have to give up on this project; in fact, it sounds to me that the final result will be a lot stronger and more powerful without her racism tainting its process.

If she flounces, you will know where you ever stood in her esteem.

Good luck! There are other folk out there willing to help you along if you need it.

If you were one of those colorblind liberals in recent times, what made you think differently about PoC’s struggle? If you’re a PoC who has one of these friends, what did you do, or would have done differently?

  • J M

    “Without education or firsthand experience, it’s difficult to grasp. Racism is something alien and bizarre to imagine, it’s not something intuitive.”

    Great point. And that is part of the systemic nature of it: to successfully perpetuate racism, the full reality of it must be hidden from those who could be allies if they understood the truth of what was happening around them. They’re not just refusing to look at it out of sheer cussedness, it’s actively being concealed from them, and they’re being constantly rewarded and reinforced if they agree that it isn’t there.

  • zdrav

    Too many white people think that racism only comes in the form of low-educated, no-teeth-having “rednecks” who are safely situated away in the Appalachians.

    Guess what? Some of the most racist people are so-called liberals who talk a nice talk but whose circle of friends are all white and wealthy. These are the people who have the power to dismantle white privilege but would never do so to any significant extent.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ankhesenmie Ankhesen Mié

    I don’t want to hurt her feelings, and afraid that she’ll see me as “one of those POC” and hate me. I’ve tried to get her to read your steampunk blog (which I love and thank for its existence!), but she is…weird about it. I know that at this point our friendship is suspect, but she is someone I love dearly and I can’t help it.

    This part reminds me of that troll letter Essence magazine published a while back in which an alleged black woman complained her white husband used slurs in bed:

    Every time we try having sex again, the slurs fly. Our sex life is pretty much over right now because I pretend to be asleep every time my sexy, handsome man wants to be with me. I feel completely turned off. I love my husband deeply so please don’t tell me to leave him because that’s not what I want to do.

    • racialicious

      Latoya writing.

      I think those are slightly different scenarios. The intimacy of a friendship and the intimacy of relationship are slightly different dynamics.

      Like the letter writer, I too have a very old, very dear friend. We have lots of shared memories and she was there for me during very hard times in my life. Initially, I wasn’t doing this kind of work, so these kind of scenarios didn’t really pop up in our conversations. Thus, our friendship continued.

      But as time wore on, we started clashing. Essentially, this friend understands basic person to person racism, and she understands racist laws, and even bias, but does not believe in structural racism. (She also doesn’t believe in structural sexism which makes me both infuriated and relieved.) We’ve had a couple blow out fights about whether or not structural problems exist – one where we didn’t talk for a year, and one that happened just recently. It always starts out as something small and then grows into that huge issue.

      Ultimately, I think we will not be friends for much longer. And that is very, very painful to accept. We want to think the best of our friends, we want to make excuses, we want to think of what we shared versus what we disagree on. But it’s also a very painful reminder of our lives going in different directions. Her social circle has gotten much, much whiter; mine has not. We value different things, we have different lives. I think, for me, it comes down to respect – I have some friends where I am on the opposite side of their viewpoint about certain topics, but we can still discuss those topics and feel respected and heard. With this friend, that fundamental respect is lacking. And can I really be friends with someone if that core respect isn’t there?

      But I think that’s the difference in these two scenarios – a husband using a racial slur is a different kind of problem. Most folks at this point agree that slurs are bad and degrading and this person’s insistence on use of a term that makes their partner uncomfortable should raise a red flag.

      But getting your friends to do the work to understand the dynamics of racism…most of society isn’t doing that kind of work, and these kinds of conversations are not commonplace. It’s a different kind of disrespect, one borne out of ignorance. For those of us weighing the worth of a decades long friendship, it feels different. Doesn’t make it easier though.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ankhesenmie Ankhesen Mié

        It’s not the scenarios which strike me as being similar, it’s the wording in bold. It’s like they’re saying, “I know I’m asking you for advice, but whatever you do, just don’t ask me to give this person up.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/shelley.burian Shelley Burian

    My experiences within the specific context of liberals (naive undergraduates) and indigenous cultures in museums is to try and point out the complexity of the issues. People (including myself when I was young) often think that there are clear cut solutions to issues of misrepresentation and marginalization in museums when in fact real progress takes time, intense debate and negotiation, and above all a willingness to admit that “good” people (including you) don’t have all the answers. Many white liberals, particularly who grew up in liberal families, need to undergo an intense period of self awareness with a good dose of humility to really begin the learning process of how to confront racial issues. Mine came from a college course on the visual culture of slavery which was where I learned how racist thinking is engrained in culture (Charmaine Nelson is an amazing art historian). Anyone who is actually committed to understanding and adopting different perspectives should respond positively and gratefully to this experience and someone who doesn’t isn’t worth your time, no matter what they say.

  • francisco

    i was definitely one of those colorblind liberals. actually i probably shouldn’t say “was” because i’m sure there’s lots of shit i do that i just haven’t noticed yet.

    peggy mcintosh’s white privilege essay was a great primer, and #5 (about going shopping without catching the side-eye) was especially illuminating in just how banal it was. kind of like how the final nail in the gentrification coffin is when a whole foods appears in your neighborhood, it’s when i realized how fucking boring privilege can be that it all sunk in. like this quote from the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy:

    England no longer existed. He’d got that–somehow he’d got it. He tried again. America, he thought, was gone. He couldn’t grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald’s, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger. He passed out.

    walking through a theft detection system, having it buzz, and getting waved through anyway? that’s the missing mcdonald’s of my privilege.

    beyond mcintosh’s essay, i haven’t read any books on feminism, anti-racism, etc simply because i have difficulty reading really dense, heady material for extended periods of time. no matter how interesting i find it, i just burn out quickly. so it turns out the most valuable resource for thinking differently has been reading blogs like this or the now-defunct stuff white people do, because of the community, conversation, and variety of voices and experience that surrounds it. it’s really helpful to see how everyone experiences this problem differently.

  • John Nevill

    Racism has so many arms throughout our culture that many people, I think, resort to colorblind liberalism because they are focusing on those arms. They haven’t been given the knowledge to see the underlying beast to which all those arms belong. This is why the liberal-type racist complains about “not knowing all the rules”, or that they “never know the right thing to say”. It’s exhausting trying to keep, in your mind, all of the arms of racism straight, and if all you focus on are the arms then you are going to make some strange rules to help simplify things, like colorblindness.

    The beast to which those arms belong, though, is privilege. Once I was able to understand and appreciate the concept of privilege, the ignorant liberal colorblind racism dissolved nearly instantly. For me, this blog, Raving Black Lunatic, Jezebel (sexism is the same damned beast), and Tim Wise’ blog helped immensely.

  • Debbie Notkin

    First, I want to recommend Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, which your questioner could just give her friend.

    Second, I’ve been one of those colorblind liberals (not, I hope, in recent times, but we all backslide, so I bet I have). One of the most helpful things to me (of many) was Samuel R. Delany’s statement, “”If you can’t see something that threatens my life daily, then you can’t help me fight it. You can’t be my ally.” (referenced in Nalo Hopkinson’s “Looking for Clues”. Also, making the incomplete but still useful mapping of what it’s like for me in areas where I am marginalized or oppressed to what it’s like for PoC. Also the concept of microaggressions.

    I hope some of this is helpful.

  • http://twitter.com/flourish M. Flourish Klink

    I was that chick (probably still am sometimes, but I’m trying). For me it was really important that my friends personalized the issue: “You are hurting me when you do X, Y and Z.” It was easy for me to dismiss strangers’ feelings about racism as “overreacting” or “you know, people of color can be wrong just as much as white people, and that person’s just wrong.

    I’m not proud of the fact that it took five or six tries for it to get through my head, for me to start actually taking the problem seriously. I dismissed even my closest friends multiple times (“Wow, she must be on the rag” – internalized misogyny ftw – “She’s touchy today,” “Something else must have happened and she’s just taking it out on me”) before I finally got the picture.

    I never would have gotten the picture, though, if they hadn’t actually told me that I was being a dick—and not just that, but framed it as “I am hurt when you do X. You are disrespecting me when you do Y. You are making it clear that you do not listen to me when you say Z.” Ultimately, the thing that convinced me to educate myself was that I realized I was going to lose some of my best friends if I didn’t. I know it was incredibly hard for some of them to continually have to confront me (and accept that they would have to draw a boundary and maybe our longstanding friendship would be over if I didn’t start acting like a mensch), and I am really glad that they persevered and didn’t just write me off as too much trouble.