So, You Have a Black Friend?

| November 3, 2016 | 0 Comments

After I wrote my first article, I had a lot of interesting conversations. Most were good, but some were bad. They were bad because there was confusion about the overall goal of my article. A lot of this confusion arose from a lack of understanding about what racism is, and a lack of willingness to participate in those conversations. My hope with this article is that it will clarify a lot of the confusion and open up conversations to make everyone involved feel more comfortable.

Most importantly, I feel like there is some confusion about the difference between racism and prejudice so I’d like to clarify. Prejudice is defined as a preconceived notion that is not based on reason or actual experience. Individuals carry out prejudice. Racism on the other hand is the popular belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race that determine whether it is inferior or superior to another. Racism is supported by a system.

Why isn’t reverse racism a “thing”?

Based on the definition of racism, you need the support of the system. If you are a White person who has been the subject of an ill comment from a Black person, it is not racism. Rather it is a personal prejudice that person has against you because you’re White. However, that comment most likely has not had a far-reaching, negative impact on your life. Maybe it stung for a little while and got you thinking, but at the end of the day, your privilege was not diminished by one Black person’s comment.

You don’t have to be racist to promote racism, though. If you are a White person who says one poorly thought out comment, that doesn’t mean you are racist. And I think that line of thinking prevents conversations of racism and micro-aggressions to occur in a conducive setting. Making jokes or comments about the stereotypes of Black people (that they are loud, have “weird” names, have big noses, etc) or equating Black people with a setting or thing that is not human, all promote racism whether it was a good-natured comment or not.

That’s why when someone says “Oh, well I have a Black friend” they are promoting racism. Because they have just reduced the voice of Black people to one individual, which brings me to my next point…

Sympathy is not Empathy

There is a big, fat line between understanding the concept of something and having actually experienced it. Sympathy is great, but don’t be offended if a Black person tells you that you will never understand—because the truth is you won’t. Systematic oppression is a huge weight to bear, and honestly why would you want to bear it? Rachel Dolezal, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), purposely did. And why was that racist? Because she was operating under her idea of what it meant to be a Black person in America. She purposely changed her hair and subjected herself to those things that she believed would make her inferior. Maybe she was able to sympathize with the struggles of minorities, but she took it to the extent of trying to empathize; however, her attempt at empathy was constructed out of a stereotype as to what it meant to be Black and was therefore an unnatural experience.

If I, or most any other Black person for that matter, seem standoffish when talking about a topic related to racism, it is because talking about it to a White person can be exhausting. We need so many words to describe how immune we feel towards the incessant microaggressions we face and the fear and helplessness we experience whenever there’s an argument between a White person (pedestrian or police officer) and a Black person. We need so many words to describe how every time we are excluded we wonder whether it is because of our skin. We need so many words to express the fear we have when we watch Donald “Why is Obama playing basketball today” Trump rallies. So, it’s just easier to not talk about it with a White person because while you may sympathize, the feelings are just as much of our experience as the actual event of a microaggression, if not more. And that is something only understood through empathy.

Now, let’s go back to your Black friend. So, you want to sympathize with Black people more or maybe a Black person said something insinuating that you can never really understand, so you say that you have a Black friend. In the moment, it might make sense to say, “Well, I have a Black friend” when someone says you can’t possibly understand, but if we think about it, you are saying that having a Black friend automatically makes you an expert on Black people. We would never say that because you know someone from Paris, Australia, Brazil that it makes you an expert on their people and their culture, but for some reason White people say it about Black people all the time. Furthermore, that line of thinking, that surrounding yourself with a different group of people means you aren’t possible of promoting stereotypes, completely reduces that group of people, as well as puts pressure on your friend and speaks to what you categorize and view said group of people to be.

These conversations are important, and being able to distinguish racism and prejudice would clear up a lot of misunderstandings, like that #BlackLivesMatter is an assertion, not an attack and that telling someone you have a Black friend doesn’t completely erase any offenses you might make.

Featured image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Category: Columns, featured, Politics, Social Activism, Thurman Thoughts

Kayla Nguyen

About the Author ()

Kayla is a Senior studying Biological Anthropology and Arabic. She is from a small town in Wisconsin--her inspiration for coming to Boston. When she's not writing blog articles, she enjoys cooking, watching movies with giant bowls of popcorn, and considering going to the gym.

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