If you have a racist friend

In 1984, The Special A.K.A. / The Specials sang, ‘If you have a racist friend/ Now is the time, now is the time/ For your friendship to end.’ It’s a catchy song and it takes no prisoners. Racist comments are intolerable, no matter the source ‘Be it your sister /Be it your brother / Be it your cousin or your, uncle or your lover.’ Don’t pretend that racism is socially acceptable. Don’t tolerate it and cut people off if they keep it up, the song directed.

With the invention of social networking, the song suddenly gained new currency. Whereas in the past friends, co-workers and family members engaged in self-censorship around their pinko-liberal connections, Facebook encouraged them to share their inner-most bigotry. And here were The Specials with a proposed solution to how to react to this: unfriend them. Write a note saying why (or don’t) and walk away. Their racism is not socially acceptable and the consequence of sharing it is losing our own wonderful company. It was the moral thing to do! And also very very easy.

But in recent months, the extent of white supremacy in the US has become so glaringly apparent, the easy way out no longer seems good enough. If all left/liberal white people unfriend all of our pro-police contacts on social networking, that does precisely nothing to help anything or anyone but ourselves. If we want to do something about white supremacy, we need to leverage our connections to racist expressions, not sever them.

This will be really hard. I’ve had long, frustrating conversations with religious evangelicals intent on saving me from hell. They barely concealed their intense distaste for deigning to speak to me, pretended their hatred was concern and went through their tiresome, hateful scripts. Somehow, my soul was not saved. I thought maybe we could learn a bit of perspective from each other, but they had no interest in listening to me. They wanted me to accept their truth, surrender my entire identity and conform to their vision of a better world (without me in it). This was not compelling. The person I was speaking to was not my friend. He did not value me as a person. He thought I had nothing interesting or worthwhile about me. I was a soul to save. A target to achieve and then he could move on to the next person to save. We can’t copy this technique and expect it to work.

If we’re going to change the minds of racist friends, we have to actually be friends to them, listen to them, see the good in them, but somehow, through this, never agree to disagree about racism. I don’t know how to do this or how to strike this balance. And, honestly, part of the hard work is that it’s not just reaching one’s friends, but also a commitment to doing a lot of learning and research. What’s more, as white people who benefit from white supremacy, some of it is going to be personally uncomfortable.

And through this all, we still need to de-centre ourselves. The effect on us, as white people, is so far beside the point. Fighting racism is literally a life and death struggle for many Americans.

I lost three days of my life when I tried reasoning with trolls on Twitter, and I got nowhere. I don’t know how to do this right. But I think it needs to be done. Internet searches have not been particularly fruitful on this but here are A few approaches to try and some reasons why these conversations don’t tend to go well.

Have you had success reaching out to a racist friend? How did you do it?

Published by

Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

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