Can White People and Black People Be Friends?
Posted by Enrique on 12.26.2012
Hope you had a merry Christmas, dear readers. For our last "Story Time with E" of the year, I thought we'd look at some possibly touchy racial issues, because there's not nearly enough of this kind of thing on the internet. A couple of weeks ago, some guy called Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III a "cornball brother" for kinda sorta not being black enough. Although I had an idea of what cornball brother meant, I wasn't familiar with the term, so I had to ask my one black friend if it was indeed in common parlance.
Except I don't even have one black friend. I've never had any black friends. Obviously it would be a bad idea to assume my own experience is normal, but I can't imagine it's rare either – and even if it is, I certainly wouldn't be the first person to write ignorantly about race on the internet, so what the hell. Let's have a look at why white people and black people can't be friends (and hope it's not a dreadful bore).
The story so far…
There are exceptions
The plot of the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally… revolved around whether or not men and women can be friends. A primary obstacle, as articulated by Billy Crystal's character, is that any relationship between men and women of roughly the same age includes some level of sexual tension – maybe overt, maybe only in the subtext, but it's there – and that keeps men and women from having honest, open, "real" friendships.
The analogy isn't perfect for black-white friendships, but it's not terrible. Obviously, such tension would be more or less prevalent depending on where you live. If you live in a racially diverse urban location, I would assume the potential for black-white friendships is higher. But even in more diverse areas, I don't think it would be surprising to find relatively few black-white friendships.
Again, I'm a nondescript internet writer with no hard numbers here, I'm working off assumptions and speculation about how common it is for white people to have meaningful relationships with black people. To bolster my case, here's a 2008 post on Stuff White People Like that also appears to assume that most white people don't have black friends. As a bonus, it makes a joke out of the fact that a certain kind of white person (probably the kind of person that is familiar with Stuff White People Like) would like to have at least one black friend, if not more. I think we can all agree that when one is looking for corroboration of one's opinion on race relations, Stuff White People Like is at least as authoritative as Wikipedia.
The RGIII "cornball brother" affair is a shining example of why it's hard out there for an open-minded, diversity-embracing white person. Earlier this month, RGIII responded to an interviewer's question about being a black quarterback thusly:
"For me, you don't ever want to be defined by the color of your skin," Griffin said. "You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That's what I strive [for]. I am an African American, in America, and that will never change. But I don't have to be defined by that." […]
"I am [aware] of how race is relevant to [some fans]. I don't ignore it," Griffin said Wednesday. "I try not to be defined by it, but I understand different perspectives and how people view different things. So I understand they're excited their quarterback is an African American. I play with a lot of pride, a lot of character, a lot of heart. So I understand that, and I appreciate them for being fans."
Last week, on ESPN a black sports writer named Rob Parker said some things about RGIII's comments that probably wouldn't occur to most white people – or if they did, they sure wouldn't say them on television:
"My question, which is just a straight honest question: is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?" Parker asked to much confusion among the show's other participants. "Well, [that] he's black, he kind of does his thing, but he's not really down with the cause, he's not one of us. […]
"I want to find about him," Parker said. "I don't know because I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancée. Then there was all this talk about he's a Republican, which there's no information at all. I'm just trying to dig deeper into why he has an issue. Because we did find out with Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods was like, 'I've got black skin, but don't call me black.' So people wondered about Tiger Woods."
Here's the movie version if you're interested. It also features some comments about RGIII's hair style and a few seconds of Stephen A. Smith being uncomfortable.
Parker has of course been suspended for 30 days and issued an apology. I'm sure there are plenty of folks out there who think Parker should be fired, or who would love to tell you that a white guy who said something even close to that would be fired, but that's tedious and unimportant.
The point I would make is, when white people who don't have black friends hear Parker say something like that, a lot of us assume it's true. We assume Parker speaks for most black people when he says that he thinks there's a possibility RGIII isn't "down with the cause." And then we take the next step and we assume that most black people do that kind of thing all the time – look at other black folks and render judgment as to whether they're black enough.
If having a white girlfriend/fiancée means a significant number of black folks are ready to pronounce someone not down with the cause, how far does that go? How many white friends is a black person allowed to have before other black people start thinking he/she is Oreo-ish? If I had a black friend, would I be an embarrassment to him? Would he have to explain to his family and black friends that I was cool, and he was still down with the cause?
If you don't have black friends, it is easy to develop the impression that black folks are making judgments about racial authenticity and propriety all the time. And if they are likely to be doing that to other black folks, it stands to reason they must be doing it to white people too. How friendly can you be with someone if you think that they are constantly judging you?
You don't have to be a Republican apologist (although it surely helps) to notice that a lot of people want to call racism on silly differences of opinion. Even since the U.S. elected its first African-American president all those years ago, it seems like accusations of racism is more pervasive than ever in our political discourse. To be sure, it's not just black folks that play this game – in fact, it wouldn't be surprising if the white progressives who cry racism make up the majority of these accusations.
But if you can't talk about politics with your friends, who can you talk about politics with? I argue with my friends about politics all the time. Since my political views are well outside the mainstream, we disagree on a regular basis – but I never get the impression that my relatively extreme views could deeply offend them or be at odds with their basic sense of decency. I think I'd have to tread a lot more carefully if I had black friends.
In fairness, I assume most black folks are normal and aren't going to write off most white people as racist for disagreeing on politics…but if you don't have black friends, you can't really be sure. What if I advocated reining in the growth of our monstrous federal government? That might be racist. What if I thought voter ID requirements – that aren't any more burdensome than the act of voting itself – are not necessarily unreasonable? That might be racist. What if I thought an under-qualified presidential candidate was more of a "celebrity" than leadership material? That might be racist.
If I had a black friend, maybe I'd earn points with him by opposing the drug war, criticizing the U.S. criminal justice policy of mass incarceration, and denouncing efforts to regulate saggy pants – all of which disproportionately affect African-Americans. But more likely I just wouldn't bother talking about sensitive subjects at all. I wouldn't even be sure what a sensitive subject was.
Although I can only bring a white person's perspective to this issue, I assume it goes both ways – being friends with white people can't be a picnic for black folks either. How many black folks want to be friends with some Stuff-White-People-Like-quoting dude who would constantly be uptight around them, always trying to awkwardly demonstrate that they're pretty fly? If I did have black friends, I'd be the jackass trying to work "honky" into the conversation in a dubiously ironic manner, and talking about how much I liked the movie Black Dynamite to prove I was down with the cause. Christ, no wonder I don't have any black friends.
That said, I would just reiterate that I don't think all my insecurities are irrational. As long as there are prominent figures in the black community – in addition to white liberals – who appear to be keeping score of racial propriety in a way that does not apply to other ethnic groups, it's going to be a drag on the potential for black-white friendships. Regrettably, this heightened sense of racial score-keeping will probably continue throughout the next presidential administration.
Hopefully, in a few years the climate will have changed. And if the day ever comes that I do have a black friend, presumably one of the first things he'll tell me is that no one actually says "cornball brother."