I'm not racist, some of my best friends are black
August 14, 2011 10:06 AM   Subscribe

This is a question about intelligently discrediting racist defences, with specific regard to the statement "I'm not racist, some of my best friends are black."

Having just seen encountered this defence of racist statements, I would like to counter it effectively in a way that is intelligent, thought-provoking and ultimately leads to the person responsible re-addressing their entire stance on race, logic and public discourse. Unfortunately, I am incandescent with rage and unable to think clearly myself.

I know that pointing out the existence of black friends does not and cannot mean that someone is not racist or that they have not said something racist, and it seems to me that the very attempt to do so invalidates their claim. But I'm hoping that someone can help me to coolly and calmly point out some excellent arguments to that effect. Although it's highly unlikely that they do have a number of best friends who are black, I have no way of knowing to what extent this is true, and it strikes me that this has little bearing on the matter either way.

Essentially, how do I best respond to the statement? If you'd like to tell me to not respond to it at all, because it's unworthy of a response, then by not responding, and by not challenging their statement, I feel I would be condoning it. Because the guilty party will feel that they have successfully defended their point.
posted by The Discredited Ape to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This previous question covers that topic. (Amusingly, it came up in the first few google results for a search for "some of my best friends are black." The #1 result was this, which is probably not helpful - if this person is making that statement, they're not going to appreciate the irony - but it's utterly hilarious.)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:11 AM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Being racist doesn't mean that you personally hate all people of that race. You can think black people are inferior and still like them personally.
posted by empath at 10:14 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, being racist is something you are, it's something you do.
posted by empath at 10:15 AM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Yes, you are."
posted by LarryC at 10:15 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it might be worth teasing out the logic of the statement. "I'm not racist" and "Some of my best friends are black" are not, in fact, logically related, on the face of it. To the extent that they are related, it is because of the suppressed premise "If I like any people of a race other than mine, I am not racist." Which is, as has been pointed out, a pretty silly thing to say.
posted by valkyryn at 10:19 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm probably a bit of a dick about this, because last time this happened to me, I said "Really? That's great. I'd be genuinely interested to know what your black best friends think about that statement you just made. Could you let me have an email address for one of them, so I can ask?"

Naturally I didn't get an address, but it seemed to give the person pause. Another tack I've used is "Weird. Because my black friends would think that was some racist shit you just said."
posted by Decani at 10:20 AM on August 14, 2011 [29 favorites]

Pretty much what empath said - it's sometimes comforting to think of racism or sexism like some kind of zombie virus - either you are a zombie/racist or you are a human, but it's not really like that. It's more like one of those bacteria that lives inside every person who is raised in a particular culture. Some people manifest symptoms of racism more than others, but we're all infected. (This is actually a pretty bad analogy, because we can control the symptoms of racism by being thoughtful and self-aware, but we can't take anti-racist pills or anything).
posted by muddgirl at 10:23 AM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

When someone says that, say something to the effect of, "Why do you need to point out you're not racist? You seem to think people will think you are racist if you just say it without qualifying it. Why?" And then go from there. I bet they dig themselves a big racist hole.

(Of course people with friends from X group can be racist against X group people in general, and people from X group can even be racist against X group people themselves. But imho that might be a little over the head of someone who honestly says "I'm not racist but...")
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:24 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, generally calling people a racist to their face is generally kind of counter-productive. If someone says something racist, it's also generally wrong so it's worth pointing out the fallacy of what they're saying specifically, rather than just calling them racist.

Once you call a guy racist, the rest of the conversation is inevitably "what is racism?", which is ground that racists are rather comfortable arguing on, to be honest.

Instead you should focus on the thing that they said that you think is racist, and forget about arguing on their ground.
posted by empath at 10:25 AM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

"I think you might be mistaking friendliness for friendship."
posted by Sys Rq at 10:30 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Step back a second.

How does the conversation get to a point where someone says "I'm not racist, because..."?

It gets there because someone else has accused them of racism. And yeah, like empath says above, this is totally counterproductive. You don't get people to lean things or change their attitudes by name-calling or making accusations. That just puts them on the defensive, instead of being receptive to input that might change the way they think.

My advice? Don't ever have this conversation. If someone randomly makes a directly racist remark, call them on it WITHOUT calling them a racist. You can just say "I find that offensive" and leave it at that: you're much more likely to get an apology in that case, because you, the person offended, are right there in person, and it's not some abstract "race" that's being targeted.
posted by philokalia at 10:34 AM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Have you seen www.blackpeopleloveus.com?
posted by kmennie at 10:37 AM on August 14, 2011

Good ideas here, thanks.

Also, generally calling people a racist to their face is generally kind of counter-productive

Oh, I completely agree - this is on a forum that I'm part of, but in a discussion that I haven't so far been involved in. Interestingly, no-one has accused the responsible party of being a racist - it was simply pointed out that some of their comments were out of order.

I think you might be mistaking friendliness for friendship

I have no way of knowing this, though, as I said - it might be the case that their best friend is black ('one of the good ones'), or it might be that the bar they frequent has a black bartender and they know each other's names. This doesn't seem to be the key point though.
posted by The Discredited Ape at 10:39 AM on August 14, 2011

"If your friends are black, and you talk about black people like that, you are not a very good friend."
posted by Sys Rq at 10:42 AM on August 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

"How does the conversation get to a point where someone says "I'm not racist, because..."?

It gets there because someone else has accused them of racism."

Don't know if it's different in the US, but I heard many people say apropos of nothing eg. "Not being racist but all [race] are [this]". They know being thought of as racist is bad, but they still dislike a group of people based on a stereotypical characteristic. It's when they think Actual Racism means beating up non-whites or calling names to their faces, but they don't do this, so it's fine. There's a non-racist variant, 'Not being funny, but...' which precedes an insulting/offensive personal comment. it's when people want to say shit they know is offensive but don't want you to think they are being offensive.
posted by mippy at 10:43 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd say: 'Strom Thurmond had a black daughter who apparently loved him. I don't think you're more racist than him, if that makes you feel any better.'
posted by jamjam at 10:47 AM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Really? That's great. I'd be genuinely interested to know what your black best friends think about that statement you just made."

"If your friends are black, and you talk about black people like that, you are not a very good friend."

I think this kind of thing may be your best shot, because it disarms the specific defense they're appealing to.

If you just inform them of the difference between attitudes toward groups and attitudes toward individual people, you might not get as far. After all, the person who uses the "some of my best friends defense" is basically declaring, "I'm allowed to have this attitude toward this group because I have this attitude toward an individual." They're not failing to see the difference between those attitudes, they're just thinking about it in a warped way.

On the other hand, if you suggest to them that their black friends are likely to scoff at the racist remark, it undermines the appeal to those friends. In a sense, you would be recasting their "some of my best friends" defense as an appeal to authority (that is, the authority of the supposed black friends); and then you'd be pointing out that those authorities wouldn't even support the statement they're being invoked to sanction.
posted by Beardman at 11:08 AM on August 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

All that's required to be a racist and still have close black friends is the following.
  • You're not such a racist that you'll reject someone as a close friend just because they're black, even if they're suitable in every other way.
  • You're able to keep quiet about your more "controversial" views around your black friends.
How many racists do you know that aren't like that?
posted by abcde at 11:25 AM on August 14, 2011

Racism aside, people can be jerks to each other regardless of skin color. I'm not trying to downplay this, as I don't know what comments were made before the defense, but I also think the explanation of skin color often trumps the simple fact that humans are often rude to each other...even when they don't truly mean what they say. For all I know this person could have been trying to break the racial tension (as countless comedians and movies do) but botched it entirely by not making clear his/her motive. Or he or she was blowing off steam, does know better, and feels embarrased while trying to save face. These things I do not know, so I cannot give you a fully rational approach other than to not associate with people that are rude or arrogant, or who do not offer a sincere apology when you state you are offended.

To me, this statement out of context can be a truly heartfelt plea that helps demonstrate a form of bigotry is really not in play...but rather a general mistrust that this person could feel towards even someone just like him/herself. But context is everything here, and actions...what's that saying about actions? They speak louder than words. A person that demonstratively shows racism and follows up with this defense doesn't have much of a leg to stand on. I wouldn't focus so much on the defense at that point as much as what was originally said. "Your friends may allow you to make statements like that, but I find what you said personally very offensive. Don't joke/say those kinds of things around me anymore as you've now become a racist in my mind..."

Whether you accept an apology or cut this person out from this point is totally up to you and your tolerence. If you have to interact with this individual again, I wouldn't let him or her off the hook on their poor judgement/bad behavior until you've said your peace....if they stick to their previously offensive viewpoint, write them off...not worth your time and attention.
posted by samsara at 11:32 AM on August 14, 2011

Interestingly, no-one has accused the responsible party of being a racist


Well, then why not just say: "Hold on a second, no one's accusing you of racism, so there's no need to defend yourself against a charge that no one's making. I'm sure you're a good person; we just disagreed with a few comments you made."

Make it about the issues, not about the person.

But if you insist on countering the "some of my best friends..." logic? You could point out that the definition of racism isn't someone who dislikes every single person of a certain race. I would guess that the vast majority of anti-black racists are willing to admit to say of certain blacks that "Oh, s/he's one of the good ones." The same thing applies to gender or sexual orientation. If someone goes around making homophobic comments, then that's automatically a problem in and of itself. This person can't somehow cancel out the homophobia by pointing out that they really respect Elton John for being a great songwriter and performer. That just means this person found something positive in a gay person that they considered to overshadow the negative, but that negative is still there for them.

Also, friendships and relationships can be complicated. Most people are in, or have been in, loving relationships with someone of the opposite sex. Would you say that all these are incapable of being sexist? Of course not. Aside from the fact that people can make exceptions to prejudices, it's also quite easy to imagine someone who does truly love their spouse of the opposite sex, yet also looks down on their spouse in other ways.

Parents can love their children without viewing their children as equals.

However, again, I would strongly discourage you from entering pointless debates about whether one of the commenters on an internet forum is racist. Once someone feels the need to defend themselves against charges of racism (even if you might not see the need for the defense because you don't see why the person would feel they've been attacked), no good is likely to come from this. Don't kid yourself that you're going to accomplish anything; these kinds of discussions are just an opportunity for people to act self-righteous. If you want to accomplish something positive for race relations, your time would be better spent extracting yourself from inflammatory internet debates, going out in the world, and interacting with people of all races as equals.
posted by John Cohen at 11:36 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Just because you think of them as your friend doesn't mean you are judging them fairly. You think they'd be cool with /what you just said/you thinking that about them/that joke/?"
posted by phearlez at 11:40 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

You won't convince them on their terms. "When you (tell X joke, use X term, etc.) it sounds racist, derogatory to people of X background and is offensive." Social pressure and wisdom seem to counteract racist behavior better than anything else.
posted by theora55 at 12:23 PM on August 14, 2011

Some stock responses (reductios ad absurdum, as it were):
  • 'I hear ya, pal. Some people think I'm an anti-Semite, but I tell them: "No way, man... I only hate most Jews."'
  • or: 'I'm not a racist... I only hate most non-caucasians.'
  • or: 'I'm not a misogynist... I only hate every woman who won't have sex with me.'
If they see the absurdity of such a statement when applied to a different set of people, you might have a chance at winning them over.

If they see such a statement as an attempt to join their pity party, you probably have no hope.
posted by matlock expressway at 1:42 PM on August 14, 2011

You have to decide if you want to argue that racism permeates an entire life or if it can apply to remarks made in isolation. If the former, you have a tougher job because you are trying to prove a negative (the absence of respect for these black friends.) If the latter you have an easier job because you need only say that "racist" just means that at some point someone has said something offensive about a particular race, and it need only be said once and in any context to apply. This is much easier to stick on someone because it requires a spotless track record to disprove, and the person obviously does not have it.

tl;dr, get yourself in a situation where you just prove a positive right in front of you, instead of proving a negative that's everywhere but in front of you.
posted by michaelh at 2:10 PM on August 14, 2011

Give them this and refer them to #5.
posted by quiet coyote at 2:48 PM on August 14, 2011

Racism isn't about whether someone has more negative than positive feelings about a group of people per se, it's about assuming that they're all substantially identical, usually in a very negative way. So the crux of the issue is that they're assuming that, say, "black people," which might include every black person, all share some negative trait. Simply because you can refer to a group of people by a single word, doesn't make them all the same. So you might point out that the problem isn't that they dislike every black person, it's that they assume all black people have something wrong with them; however, in fact, since black people are just people like everyone else, it's clearly untrue to say that they all share any one quality besides skin color. And for the same reason, being friends with some black people doesn't mean that someone likes every black person or black people in general.

Also, maybe point out that liking everyone in a particular group is just as arbitrary, and so thinking about big groups of people in simplistic terms never really makes sense.
posted by clockzero at 2:49 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

If this is an online forum, and not irl, why bother? Trolls will troll. Tell the person you're offended and forget trying to parse racism.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:47 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

"If those friends are as close as you say they are, then you should know that what you are saying can't be true of all XYZ people."
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:22 PM on August 14, 2011

"Would you say [statement that was called racist] to/in front of a friend who is black?"
posted by Pax at 9:22 AM on August 15, 2011

There's sort of a corollary that I've run into where people may assume that if no one in a conversation happens to have close ties to [people of group X], then being bigoted is ok.

So, for example, I've had the experience where someone thinks it's ok to tell a racist or homophobic joke in an all white/straight/whatever group and believes that only "my boyfriend is black" or "my mom is gay" or some very close tie would be grounds for objection (the assumption that jokes are okay within the in-group), whereas I believe that I can be disgusted/offended even if I couldn't claim close ties.

I come from the "nobody's free until everybody's free" school.
posted by Pax at 9:32 AM on August 15, 2011

In the event that I call someone out for saying something problematic to me about Indians or more generally Asians, I very rarely get this "some of my best friends are X" reaction. The reason is that I am Indian, and the transactional influence of claiming close relationships is lessened by my racial identity, which is a stronger claim to authority.

It's important to realize that this is basically an attempt to take control of the conversation by claiming greater credibility, and it mostly happens between people of the dominant space jockeying for position via secondhand means, by exploiting the presumed shared discomfort with questions of power and privilege. "Actually, my mother is black" would be a stronger tactical move, for instance, albeit just as irrelevant. Because the discussion isn't actually about credibility at all, it's also an attempt to derail the conversation by making the conversation about something other than what was said, such as the right or authority to say certain things.

So two things are happening: the person you're talking to is obliquely questioning your right to make this claim of racism, and they are implying that they cannot be so questioned because their racial credibility is better than yours. This is not a game you are going to win or even that you should try to play, because it rests on the assumption that people of other races may be collected like denominations of currency and referentially transacted to maintain or accrue social credibility. This is some serious bullshit.

To me, then, the only real answer is, "So what?" Refuse their claim to credibility or their attempt to shift the conversation to questions of authority or credit. They won't be able to explain further why their collection of friends matters, because it doesn't. Questioning their possession of these friends or their closeness shifts the conversation into a place where they have the clear authority, because obviously they know better than you what their relationships are like. Asking them what their friends might think does the same for the same reason. Flatly denying the derail entirely is the only way to keep the conversation where it ought to be.
posted by Errant at 2:39 PM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Having just seen encountered this defence of racist statements, I would like to counter it effectively in a way that is intelligent, thought-provoking and ultimately leads to the person responsible re-addressing their entire stance on race, logic and public discourse.

A lot of people think of "racism" as something inherent to a person, and something you either are or aren't-- something black and white, without shades of grey. From that perspective, it makes sense that they get really defensive when thinking they're being called A Racist, and that they point to having black friends as a logical counter-argument. So trying to change their way of thinking about what "being racist" is, is probably your best chance at actually making an impact on the person. (Plus it lets you disarm the relevance of their "black friends" defense.)

Why not try something along the lines of: "I'm not saying you hate black people or anything like that, so whether you have black friends or not is kind of beside the point. It's just that I think that what you said was a racist thing to say, because of X, Y, and Z. Is that really what you believe, deep down? It seems to me that all of us live in such a messed-up society when it comes to race issues that it's really easy to slip into saying things like that without thinking about how untrue/hurtful they are, even if we don't really mean it, even if we do have black friends. [include personal anecdote about struggling yourself to get past racist thoughts/comments/actions, if applicable] So yeah, I do think it was really uncool that you said X-- but I'm not saying it makes you a bad person or that you must hate black people, just that I wish you'd apologize/wouldn't say that kind of thing anymore."

Obviously, the chances of this working depend on how deeply embedded the racist thoughts are, the person's willingness to be self-reflective, and a whole host of other issues. But at least in some cases it's worth a shot.

(If the person is using the "some of my best friends are black and they think this kind of thing is fine/true/hilarious, so what I said isn't racist" defense-- which is a little different from "some of my best friends are black, and that means I'm not racist"-- that's a whole 'nother issue...)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 3:14 PM on August 15, 2011

there's varying levels of racism and it manifests in different ways.
maybe challenge what they say rather than over think 'what they are' much - 'racist' has gotten to be an overused and opinionated term anyways.
posted by Hi Dan at 4:37 AM on August 16, 2011

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