"Me biased against the group? No, some of my best friends are of that group!"
January 25, 2006 9:31 PM   Subscribe

Why is "some of my best friends are black/jewish/gay/whatever" seen not only as unconvincing when it comes to disclaiming bias but also as a stereotypical response by one who is biased?

I've only run across the particular formation in sarcastic references to veiled bigotry, but I've never quite figured out why having best friends from such-and-such minority doesn't prove that you don't hate said minority. Maybe there's specific history behind the statement?
posted by Firas to Society & Culture (41 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, because "friends" is such an imprecise word. It could mean "There are black people at church" or "I work with some Jews" or "my neighbor is gay" or whatever. You could refer to these people as your "friends" and the uninitiated would not really know how close you actually are to them, which could be useful if you're a bigot.
posted by kindall at 9:35 PM on January 25, 2006


Bigoted statements even coming from a member of the group to which they are directed are still bigoted. Certainly being friends with a member of a persecuted group doesn't enable one to engage in further persecution.
posted by awesomebrad at 9:37 PM on January 25, 2006


You know the joke where someone says in mixed company something like, "everyone knows a woman is useless outside of the kitchen"? And then, realizing the woman to his left is about to punch him in the face, he says, "present company excepted?"
posted by chrominance at 9:41 PM on January 25, 2006


Isn't it just misplaced use of argument? You want to add depth to your statement, and a best friend is a relationship of depth, so with some curious logic and a quick leap of faith: hey presto - having a black/jewish/gay/whatever friend must assert your lack of bias.

I had a similar situation recently when a co-worker declared that Steven Spielberg was cheap, and she said she knew this because one of her colleagues served him and he tipped her poorly. I pointed out that this was no argument that he was on the whole cheap, to which she countered, "but I've worked in the service industry for 10 years...."
posted by forallmankind at 9:43 PM on January 25, 2006


My perception is that if someone is accused of this kind of bias, there isn't much at all the person can say in defense of themselves to convince people otherwise, regardless of whether or not they are in fact biased. Almost no matter what the response of the accused is, any defense they make (such as the common, "well I have black/jewish/gay whatever friends") sounds automatically lame. Crying racism/antisemitism/homophobia, etc. is just an effective way to attack someone, whether or not the accusation has any grounds. Unless you are overtly sympathetic to whatever group you are accused of having bias against, you're pretty vulnerable to such attacks.
posted by shoos at 10:00 PM on January 25, 2006


I always assumed it was because one shouldn't think of one's friends as labels and the fact that you do means that characteristic is the most important to you.

In addition, one shouldn't prop up one's friends as proof that the stupid thing you just said wasn't stupid.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 10:08 PM on January 25, 2006


The reason this is unconvincing/incriminating is that the speaker's attempt to deflect criticism just undermines other aspects of his/her personality.

If speaker A makes a bigoted remark against blacks, and follows up with "some of my best friends are black," then the implication is that this is the kind of person that would both a) make derogatory remarks about his best friends behind their back and b) view his best friends with bigotry.
posted by Brian James at 10:11 PM on January 25, 2006


It's the "I am not a crook" effect.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:12 PM on January 25, 2006


I mean that seriously. No really. Seriously.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:13 PM on January 25, 2006


Its an old cliche associated with people who make racist statements and then go on to proclaim "but hey! some of my best friends are..."

Its not new. I found this from 1963:

Some of My Best Friends Are Negro." Ebony 9 (Feb. 1953): 16120, 22, 24-26 and White on Black: The Views of Twenty-one White Americans on the Negro. Ed. Era Bell Thompson and Herbert Nipson. Chicago: Johnson, 1963. 3-17


But without looking at the article, I dont know if thats intended in an ironic sense.
posted by vacapinta at 10:20 PM on January 25, 2006


You want to add depth to your statement, and a best friend is a relationship of depth ... having a black/jewish/gay/whatever friend must assert your lack of bias.

I believe this is why people say it, but then the question is, "why is this considered unconvincing?" On that point, I believe it is considered unconvincing because while it assuredly adds depth to the statement, it is impossible to disprove, and is therefore the speaker is seen as having taken the "the easy way out." It's kinda like you attempted to win the fight without honor.
posted by frogan at 10:22 PM on January 25, 2006


Because racist doesn't always mean raving skinhead neo-nazi. Xenophobia is odd in that people can get to know one member of some group as a person, and like that person/be friends with that person, and not change their prejudices against that group in general, in a "you don't count, you are one of the good ones" kind of way.

Because of that saying "I'm not anti-x some of my friends are x" sounds a combination of clueless and defensive. And if you are clueless and defensive, well, there's a good chance you don't understand why something you just did was racist/sexist/homophobic/what-have-you-ist.
posted by aspo at 10:31 PM on January 25, 2006 [3 favorites]


On preview: yeah when used as a pre-emptive defense it is really bad. "I'm going to say this really racist thing and I know it so I'm going to try to defend myself right now by showing what a open hearted person I am by even, gasp, being friends with one of those lesser beings" bad.
posted by aspo at 10:34 PM on January 25, 2006


Because it's how you think of strangers that defines whether or not you're discriminating. Of course you like your friends, even the ones that you might have initially been prejudiced towards based on their race or religion.
posted by easternblot at 10:43 PM on January 25, 2006


awesomebrad, upon reflection, you're right—association with, even membership of, a group doesn't absolve one of holding unfair views about its characteristics. But I guess I'm still left wondering why, even if its not final proof, such a statement is commonly seen as disingenious—for now I'm thinking that maybe it's so obvious a defence that its commonality turns it into a bit of a joke.

I first came across this in an interview of Eminem, when he was accused of racism and the interviewer was taking his side; the interviewer said something like, 'but you work with black people all the time, you can't be racist?' And Eminem responded with putting on a hick-type voice and saying "I'm not racist, some of my best friends are black!", going on to say that racism is a serious issue, etc.—my assumption was that he meant racism is subtler than that…

I just saw something in the New York Times a couple weeks ago, I wish I could remember what it was, where a columnist was taking someone to task for a stupid comment, and responded to a defensive quote with 'don't you know, the customary way of saying this is 'some of my best friends are...'"

I'm a bit irritated that I can't source either of my anecdotes above, but I'll try to dig up the second.

So the other day I saw a clip from the Godfather II in The Daily Show, wherein a politician says, "Indeed, I can proudly say that some of my very best friends are Italian-Americans." If I recall correctly, the politician was supposed to be a slimy bastard, I'm not sure if that particular statement in the speech was meant to be (yet another) point against his character for the viewer. Anyway, it got me thinking…
posted by Firas at 10:47 PM on January 25, 2006


I've had other people tell me that multiple "so-and-so" 's have said (or words to this effect) "I'm not racist, I dated a chinese guy (me) in college!"

No idea why it's pulled up as a defense.

posted by PurplePorpoise at 10:49 PM on January 25, 2006


I always thought that it was the actual act of referring to ones "friends" by the race, sexual persuasion, etc. that made the statement ridicilous. As if being black, blonde, gay, 10 feet tall is the defining characteristic of that person.

However, say you are a honky who is trying to describe a friend of yours who is black (friend A) to another friend of yours, who is white (friend B). If you were trying t be PC, you might say they are tall, they have black hair, brown eyes, slightly overwieght, whatever, but wouldn't be a little bit ridiculous if you didn't just outright say that they were black? As though you were trying to avoid that word?

I ask this because I am a honky currently living in Korea, and it didn't occur to me that, for example, Korean drivers' licenses do not indicate the person's hair color or eye color, because guess what?! Almost all Koreans have black or brown hair and brown eyes.

Yet, there are a few blacks who live here who we are friends with, and they stick out like a sore thumb in the small town where we live. So to me, it's only natural when talking to my friend Steve, who is black, to describe the other black guy who lives in our building as "that other black guy." (I didn't know his name at the time).
posted by Brittanie at 12:20 AM on January 26, 2006


I think it's unconvincing because it insults the intelligence of the listener; it asks them to completely disregard an obvious instance of bias and all that it implies about the speaker in favor of the claim of a non-sensical social rule, i.e. it is impossible to be biased about any group if you have friends of group.
posted by clockzero at 12:47 AM on January 26, 2006


I think that easternblot pretty much has it. "Some of my best friends are x" is entirely consistent with the thinking that "There are a few good ones but in general they are more violent/less intelligent/obsessed with sex/whatever - although they do all have a great sense of rhythm" which is a much more common type of bias than "All of them are awful and I couldn't possibly be friends with one".

Consider the following: "But my wife is X", "But my grandfather is X", "But my brother is X", "But I am X". It might be true, but it doesn't prove that you don't regard the majority of that group as inferior.

Of course there is another aspect to this which is that people who are acting defensively are perceived to be either lying to you or lying to themselves. You're better off just saying "Well, OK, I'll think about that" and letting it go.
posted by teleskiving at 1:28 AM on January 26, 2006


I’d say the phrase has become notorious having been recognised as a rhetorical cliché employed in specific contexts by those opposed to (or fearful of) blacks/gays/jews gaining political power, to such an extent that the context has stuck to the phrase, even when it stands alone. The following quote puts it nicely:
He [I.F. Stone] told me that in his view the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism came from “the fear of Jews claiming their rights and operating as an organized group. It was after all, he noted, “the anti-Semite who would say, ‘some of my best friends are Jews,’ but then go on to denounce organized Jewry.”
I'd be curious too to know more about the history of the phrase as now recognised.
posted by misteraitch at 2:03 AM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


Yes, it’s partly historical. People used this to deflect accusations of racism. The white person says something racist, a racist joke or some crass stereotypical generalization, and then deflects the racism by saying ‘but some of my best friends’. It’s an effort to reconstruct the very liberalism that the racist assertion contradicted in the first place but it uses the subterfuge of friendship which would presumably be a sign that the speaker is beyond racism. Thus the speaker gets to have their cake and eat it – they get to generalize about a group and then claim that they are beyond such generalizations. Its not a mark of the Klan racist, it’s a sign of the hypocrisy of the liberal racist. This is what makes it a particularly pathetic statement. People who say it today are participating in the same dynamic as far as they think the fact that they have friends in a particular minority group means that they are beyond prejudicial views about that group. It suggests a hypocritical ignorance of majority/minority power relationships.
posted by anglophiliated at 2:08 AM on January 26, 2006


It's not just people in the 'majority' group that do it.
posted by lunkfish at 2:19 AM on January 26, 2006




It's because it is a line that was often used (honestly or otherwise) in defense against an accusation of bigotry.

At first, this defense might have frustrated some accusers -- "Hmm, well how can I say he hates blacks if his friends are black?" -- but then the accusers developed the "Oh, yeah, right, that's what all bigots say [and therefore you are a bigot]" counterattack.

So now the script is:

Prosecution: "You're bigoted against Group X!"
Defense: "Impossible! Some of my best friends are members of Group X." (Said without proof, of course, but it worked until too many people used it.)
Prosecution: "Yeah, sure. That's what all bigots against Group X say." (Also said without proof, but it still works. Like when someone says "I was only doing as I was told/only following orders" and the response is "Yeah, that's what the Nazis said! [implication: so you're as bad as the Nazis!]")

Unless someone comes up with an effective (not necessarily logical, just effective) zinger response to that line, if someone accuses you of bigotry it would be better to try some other defense. Like, for instance, walking away.
posted by pracowity at 3:10 AM on January 26, 2006


Because it's always followed (or preceded) by a blatantly racist comment. It's not about whether or not the person is actually friends with the black/jew/whatever, but the fact the he uses it as a rhetorical get-out-of-jail card. It's like people who start out a sentence with "I don't want to talk about X behind his back, but...".
It's meaningless, adds nothing to the conversation except as a segue for racism.
posted by signal at 3:50 AM on January 26, 2006


I heard a woman (friend of family) praising her son for beating up "faggots." When I called her out on the unreasonableness of her remarks she said, "Some of my best friends are gay." I told her, "They wouldn't be your friends if they just heard you."

This is an extreme example, but it does sum up the principle. The latter statement doesn't absolve the former statement. In this case it only helped point out her two-facedness. And what she considers as friends are a group of people she looks down on.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:27 AM on January 26, 2006 [2 favorites]


One, you're assuming that your black/gay/Jewish friend is like all other black/gay/Jewish friends, and if they're not offended by your statements no other black/gay/Jewish people will be either.

Two, you're reducing your b/g/J friend to a characteristic--they've become your token minority group buddy, almost in a Step-N-Fetchit position, the person you pull out when you want to prove you're not actually bigoted, because look, here's one of the minority group members and they don't mind your comments! They're your friend! The act of reducing them to that facet of their life is prejudiced itself. Even if you're well-meaning, defining your friend by their blackness, homosexuality, or Judaism is exactly what bigots do when they say things like "All homosexuals are child molesters" or "Jews are greedy".
posted by schroedinger at 5:30 AM on January 26, 2006


I'm not sexist. Some of my best friends are women.
posted by malp at 5:40 AM on January 26, 2006


To quote the office: "How can you accuse me of hating women? Me *mum's* one!"
posted by RustyBrooks at 5:47 AM on January 26, 2006


Because if you have to say it, something's clearly wrong.
posted by lampoil at 6:33 AM on January 26, 2006


It's like "the dog ate my homework," or "the check's in the mail." It's been used so often as BS that it's now assumed to be BS, and anyone who says it is assumed to be lying.
posted by tyllwin at 6:49 AM on January 26, 2006


The phrase originates (as best as I can tell) from the 1944 Hitchcock movie, The Lifeboat. Tallulah Bankhead plays a spoiled socialite in a mink coat stranded with some other archetypal characters on a lifeboat during WWII. When one is suspected of being a possible criminal she says, "Darling, some of my best friends are in jail." And (SPOILER) at the end of the movie, when the approaching "rescue" boat turns out to be a German military vessel, I believe she mutters, "Some of my best friends have been German."
posted by availablelight at 6:52 AM on January 26, 2006


There are two things going on here. One is the attempt to ward off well-founded accusations of racism; this is the source of the second part of your question ("stereotypical response"). But equally important is what shoos said:

if someone is accused of this kind of bias, there isn't much at all the person can say in defense of themselves to convince people otherwise, regardless of whether or not they are in fact biased.


Many people here seem to be so proud of their anti-racist credentials they ignore the second part and assume anyone accused of racism must actually be racist; I'll single out the following as particularly blatant examples of this kind of asininity:

Because it's always followed (or preceded) by a blatantly racist comment.

Because if you have to say it, something's clearly wrong.


I would think spending any time on MetaFilter would quickly teach one that accusations of racism are as common as weeds and not necessarily based on anything more than a desire to tar a person who has said something one disagrees with. And I would add that accusing someone else of racism (or saying "Anyone who says they have black friends is racist") is just as poor a way of proving one's nonracist nature as saying "I have black friends."
posted by languagehat at 7:11 AM on January 26, 2006


tyllwin: It's like "the dog ate my homework," or "the check's in the mail." It's been used so often as BS that it's now assumed to be BS, and anyone who says it is assumed to be lying.

I'd thought that it had pretty much morphed into "Well, I don't want to sound 'politically incorrect' but..." (bonus points for making those endearing "air quotes"). The new phrasing seems mostly bulletproof thus far, with the added benefit of painting the listener as a hypersensitive pantswetter if s/he objects to whatever follows the disclaimer.
posted by hangashore at 7:27 AM on January 26, 2006


Damn. I read through the entire thread, all excited to give the "Lifeboat" reference, and availablelight beat me to it.

I actually played that character in a stage remake of the movie, and the complete sense of entitlement dripping off her is what made the phrase so ridiculous. She's a totally coddled totally oblivious high-society woman who treats everyone like shit, and then deflects criticism by claiming that "some of her best friends are..."

But I agree in general with the others who have said that defining your friends by their skin color, orientation, whatever and then USING THAT to prove something about yourself just proves that you're fairly clueless. You're using your so-called friends as tokens.
posted by occhiblu at 8:29 AM on January 26, 2006


"Many people here seem to be so proud of their anti-racist credentials they ignore the second part and assume anyone accused of racism must actually be racist; I'll single out the following as particularly blatant examples of this kind of asininity:

...

Because if you have to say it, something's clearly wrong."

I disagree (obviously). I think that even if you're wrongly accused of racism, and the first thing you think of saying is "some of my best friends are black," then CLEARLY there's something wrong. If the accusation is unfair or unwarranted, then the appropriate response has nothing to do with your friends or any other part of your private life. It's something like "I don't think my statement/action/whatever was racist at all," or possibly "I didn't mean it that way--I'm sorry that's how it sounded" or--if it's so ridiculously unwarranted that it couldn't possibly contain an inkling of truth--no response at all.

It also displays a bizarre lack of knowledge about the well-known absurdity of said statement.

I stand by my statement that if you have to say it, there's clearly something wrong.
posted by lampoil at 9:45 AM on January 26, 2006


shoos and languagehat, I definitely agree; I said something stupid once only to be repeatedly taunted with the sentence even months later, as if the person was more interested in what I said and telling others about it than what I actually meant and whether that was racist. On the plus side, I wasn't explicitly accused of racism, but I'd be damned if I was going to accept the guilt of racism and apologize for it.
posted by Firas at 11:34 AM on January 26, 2006


As shoos said,
if someone is accused of this kind of bias, there isn't much at all the person can say in defense of themselves to convince people otherwise, regardless of whether or not they are in fact biased.

In general, any attempt to deny an accusation is seen as confirmation of the accusation. I recall (perhaps wrongly) that political consultants advise their clients not to say things like "I have never been a child molester" in response to accusations, for fear of reinforcing the idea in the mind of the public, which tends to hear "I have never been a child molester". Protesting weakly is taken as meaning that you don't believe what you say, protesting vehemently reveals your guilt.
posted by Octaviuz at 11:48 AM on January 26, 2006


I'm going to agree whole-heartedly with lampoli. I can't think of a single case in which "But I have friends that are X" is a rational, well-reasoned response to anything, much less an accusation of prejudice. The person who believes that associating with Y members of group X (or even being a member of group X) absolves them from sexism/racism/homophobia/etc still has a looong way to go.
posted by youarenothere at 12:38 PM on January 26, 2006


*snicker snicker*
posted by soiled cowboy at 3:43 PM on January 26, 2006


I just knew johnmc was racist.
posted by shoos at 11:12 PM on January 26, 2006


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