We tend to have a Black-White binary of race conversations in the United States, so let’s expand our minds to be more inclusive. Casual racism is something that almost all people of color face. It can be in the form of microaggressions, subconscious snap judgments, or even the way one’s body moves or is used around other person. So what do we do when the people we love, the people we work with and build friendships with and are sometimes like family to us, even with all the good intentions in the world, still treat us like we’re “other?”
Chris Rock has this wonderful sketch on interracial friendships, as far as American culture goes. One of my favorite lines in the sketch is, “All my Black friends have a bunch of White friends. And all my White friends have one Black friend.” We laugh at things like that because those of us who are in interracial groups of friends sometimes end up in spaces where we are the one person of a particular race/ethnicity. Sometimes it’s not quite so noticeable. Other times, we might get confronted with some causal racism that leaves us feeling at best, uncomfortable and at worst questioning those friendships altogether.
Unlike Common, I do not believe that “extending a hand of love” will cure any kind of racism–the individual kind of racism that we might experience in moments in time, and the institutional kind that affects every facet of life in society. For many, they remain silent in their discomfort. It is troubling, but understandable. No one wants to be policing every word or action of anybody, least of all, a friend. But I think the problem with this sort of silence, is that it is not courageous or a function of maintaining peace. This silence is a function of deeming that the discomfort in your pain is less important than the discomfort it might cause those who hurt you without realizing it, if you were to call them out.
There are of course those who simply choose to edge out of such friendships. That too is understandable, to a point. No one wants to be in charge of constantly having to teach other people to treat them as equal. But yet it seems to that on some level, this is also a cop-out. Not only will it eventually render all your friends homogenous, which is boring because you learn nothing new from being around people who think, talk, act and look like you. But you don’t give people a chance to change. What is all the work of ending racism on any level, if it is not to inspire change in people?
I think the most logical reaction to our friends’ casual racism is also the least comfortable one: Confronting them about it. The truth is most of the time, people might not even know how their prejudices affect how they treat you. Think about it. Outside of racism, have you ever said or done something wrong to a friend continuously and then finally they brought it up, and you had no idea that you had been hurting them unintentionally? Well, that’s the thing about pain and especially healing the wounds and pain in a racist society–even when it is unintentional, it still hurts.
It takes courage to confront anyone, especially those we love, especially those who are our friends. If we give each other the gift of reconciliation when we do so, and not only that, but an opportunity for someone to do better. This is important in a society that is so hurt by its racial past and ongoing presence. Of course that’s the hope. It is not your duty to go beyond those teachable moments. It is not your duty to teach someone how to treat you like a human being if after a courageous confrontation, they still do not get it. In that case, you are better off. Friends like that are worse than enemies because little by little every day, they chip away from your soul. No friendship is with your soul, and you are always entitled to protecting it.