…and why it had to end: these ‘friendships’ are often already compromised.
It took me many years — decades — to face the fact that one of my long-standing friends, M., was really a virulent racist of the color-blind variety. Embarrassingly for me, I didn’t realize it until her behavior towards another friend, R., had segued from the typical liberal color-blind narrative to the outright racist under the pressure of revealing her white privilege. The revelation of M.’s white privilege was so unbearable to her that she utilized a long list of defensive maneuvers (many of which are summarized in lists in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility), thus resulting in the same social realities that would be advocated for by any overt white supremacist.
During this period — which lasted several years and unraveled just prior to and during the Trump election 2016 — our friend R. finally decided that M.’s ‘ignorance’ was only a method of privilege buttressing and ended the friendship. R. told me that she had realized that the conflict between M.’s speaking as if she were anti-racist but acting the opposite had strained their friendship because she could no longer define ‘friendship’ as deliberate hypocrisy.
M. is a white female American in her fifties, fourth generation in the US, of Irish and German descent. Her father was raised in the South and is overtly racist and misogynistic. She left a cushioned middle-class New Jersey suburb when she graduated from high school for a pricey undergraduate institution and eventually ended up receiving her Ph.D. at an Ivy League institution in NYC, where she teaches in the medical school. She is active as a feminist, repeatedly asserting that men are at a decided social advantage and using statistics to prove her point and to help her succeed professionally. She is married to a white male who works in the finance sector of the business district in Manhattan. Both consider themselves liberal Democrats who are routinely offended by the behaviors of real white supremacists and state this repeatedly, emphasizing how good they are in comparison.
“Why are racial structures reproduced in the first place? Wouldn’t humans, after discovering the folly of racial thinking, work to abolish race as a category as well as a practice?” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists
Around 2013, R. who is a third friend and is of Indian descent, started to talk about the discrimination she faced as a female of color and physician. In routine conversations we had as friends, over a period of several years, she explained the ways in which her white supervisor denigrated her after she had been promoted (to a level with only white people, both male and female,) excluding her both covertly and overtly, ‘recruiting’ others to his ‘side’ by constructing lies about her performance, etc etc. Ultimately, he did not want her, one of 4 people who had been promoted and the only person of color, in that position. He wanted a white person there, either male or female, as evidenced by both previous behavior with others and current behavior with R.
M. and I sympathized with R. when she started to talk about her experiences. Having worked for large corporations for decades, I could attest to the fact that these sorts of behaviors happen routinely — that higher-level people, who are almost always white, will exert downward pressure on people of color once they see them rising to levels of power and will defend their majority in leadership positions.
So, when R. showed us all the evidence she had amassed — conversations in which he made more overt racist statements (privately or only around other white cronies), the obvious ways she was excluded, for which there was official objective documentation, etc etc — and told us she had hired a lawyer, I was enthused. Her case seemed to have much, much more than the evidence necessary to lead to a potential resolution of the discrimination. She interviewed three lawyers, all of whom offered to take the case as a contingency one since even the objective evidence, without her opinions, was plentiful.
At that point, R. started to read about the sorts of color-blind racism that comprise collective corporate racist behaviors. Some examples include studies which show that the CV’s of people with ‘different’ names (black, immigrant) are often thrown away or tossed to the bottom in favor of ‘white’ names; studies which show the vast disparity between white and POC representation at higher corporate levels; evidence of privileging at the educational level, in particular with Ivy League schools, which sets up privileged white people for (unearned) success; and the simple statistical facts which indicate that white people are much more highly represented in leadership positions than their representation in society. She pulled out a study which showed that white women are more likely to have received the benefits of affirmative action than any person of color.
M. began to squirm once her potential unmeritorious privileging was revealed. Once white privilege was revealed on a collective basis, she became uncomfortable with the conversation. Any implication that her position may not have been gained meritoriously through discussions of white privileging made her defensive. The facts that R. presented were simply factual conclusions of studies, but they were facts M. didn’t like because they forced reality on her: they forced her to question her merit.
As friends, the three of us started to discuss the implicit as well as explicit advantages that all white people have simply for existing, and the ways in which these myriad advantages not only uplift them professionally but in all arena of life. It was at this point that M. began to become extremely defensive, routinely tossing defensive ‘white fragility’ statements into the conversation. Because the actual conversation potentially involved her unearned advantage — because we started to talk about the way in which promotions help buttress both the economic privileges (money) and the cultural ones (leadership positions, ie self-esteem) of white people — she couldn’t sustain the conversation.
We realized gradually that M. was only comfortable discussing white privilege when she was excluded, despite the fact that as a blonde, green-eyed, suburban white girl, she is in the center of the vortex of white privilege. M.’s posturing included classics such as: ‘racism is over,’ ‘we’ve come so far,’ ‘this is really about feminism, not racism,’ and, as a last resort, ‘maybe you’re imagining it.’ Interestingly, when the topic was about the fact that R. is female, M. was more than eager to launch into a long conversation about misogyny in Fortune 500 companies, but when faced with their racism — that is, when she was unable to ‘channel switch’ to her particular disadvantage, thus distracting from her privilege — she simply flung it away in favor of defending her merit.
Most interesting is the fact that M. was enthusiastic about acknowledging the racism against R. — as long as she was the one white female excluded from our white supremacist system, embodying the color-blind racism of Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists. Once accountability was required, she checked herself out despite — or because of — the fact that it reveals her significant privilege. At this point, she chose to functionally erase R.’s very real experience of discrimination in favor of supporting her elevated status as a meritorious white person somehow magically excluded from our white supremacist system.
If M. can prove that R. was not discriminated against, she shows that POC only imagine white privilege — such as hers. Therefore, the question mark that must exist for all privileged people — did I earn it, or did my privilege do it for me? — is one she shirks overtly. Those white supremacists get privilege, but not her.
“Racial structures remain in place for the same reason that others do. Since actors racialized as ‘white’ — receive material benefits, they struggle to maintain their privileges.” Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists
M. was able to acknowledge that R. was being discriminated against as a woman, but not as a person of color, even though years of evidence indicated that her supervisor was primarily racist, not sexist. This degree of self-deception and subsequent privileging was underlined clearly when she finally blurted out to R. that ‘it probably isn’t about racism anyway’ since ‘an Indian woman just got promoted to my level.’ She continued, venting months of white fragility, telling R. that it was all imagined and that talking about racism was an excuse. Her reasoning for the way in which racism no longer exists is to point to the one Indian woman who was actually promoted — that is tokenism — in order to justify how she, M., doesn’t receive any white privilege and she, M., must be the one who actually earned it (unlike all those ugly white supremacists.)
Our friend R. decided to end the friendship at that point. I spoke to her about it — even though I already knew the answer, having witnessed and experienced it for decades myself — and she confirmed what I had been thinking. M. is choosing to buttress her ego by refusing her (significant) privileging so that she can believe in her own merit and is doing so at the expense of both the truth AND R.’s integrity. Prior to her own personal experience, R. disregarded M.’s occasional references to her own merit and the way in which she excepted herself from her privilege even when this required significant self-deception. BUT, once it entered their personal lives, R. realized that M. would rather preserve her perception of herself as nice than defend R.’s response to the very real racism she was undergoing, a case so obvious that prior to winning a settlement, three lawyers were willing to take it on for free.
R. asked me this question: if it had happened to you and M. had reacted this way, would you call it friendship? WHAT SORT OF ‘FRIENDSHIP’ IS THIS, ANYWAY?
I realized at that point that M. would not have hesitated to render my experience invisible if it spared her ego, just as she had with R. The fact that she hadn’t done it to me prompted me to ask my responsibility: do we tolerate people who continue to advocate for ‘ignorance’ and self-deception just because they aren’t actively using it against us, or is the fact that they utilize it at all enough to justify re-evaluation of the friendship?
Even though R. no longer spoke with M., I tried to discuss with M. myself. I brought research — which is her forte and wheelhouse — and she repeatedly tried to minimize any research that might imply she has an advantage. When I reminded her of some of my own lifelong experiences with racism, she excepted herself once again, pointing the finger to the ‘real racists.’ I tried to gently point out that, when white people ignore their baseline privilege, already built into the system to uplift them regardless of merit, they allow it to continue. But her reaction to this was even more self-deception.
I wanted to give M. yet another chance, despite the fact that R. had already discussed — over a period of about 3 years — personal anecdotes, color-blind behaviors, and a slew of damning evidence her supervisor had provided in his attempts to maintain whiteness at levels of leadership and power. To R., it had become abundantly clear that M. was not ‘ignorant’ but willfully blind as a matter of maintaining her own social position and her own ego. Most importantly, M. made this choice even after years of both personal and official evidence was placed in front of her. I tried again, but the response was essentially the same: there may be racists out there, but I earned what I have without privilege.
“Although some whites fight white supremacy…most subscribe to substantial portions of it in a casual, uncritical fashion that helps sustain [it].” Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists
I had to end this ‘friendship’ because it became obvious to me, also, that M. consistently chooses self-deception over reality and, ultimately, over a moral response to social privilege. It is no surprise that she and her husband: 1. Bought a house in Harlem ‘because we can’t afford one in Manhattan’; 2. Promptly enrolled both children in pricey private schools; 3. Locked down their house with a security system; 4. Bought an attack dog so dangerous that they cannot have people stay at their home without locking up the dog (to keep ‘criminals from Harlem’ from breaking in); and have already decided to retire to one of the priciest and most racist areas of the country: Philadelphia’s Main Line (topic of another essay; see below)
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M. chooses herself not only over other individual people but over the truth: white supremacy. She does this at all costs: reality, friendship, justice, and the end of white supremacy. As Bonilla-Silva indicates, her bottom line is herself and defense of her big, unearned advantage; thus, defense of a white supremacist system. R. realized that, when it comes to friendship, she can do better. In the wake of this experience, so did I, and I finally found the courage to write to her and tell her why her ‘friendship,’ even one as long-standing as decades, isn’t friendship at all when it erases people of color and supports a white supremacist system. Subscribing casually to lack of criticism for a white supremacist system cannot be casually labelled ‘ignorance’ forever; this term privileges white people by absolving them of the responsibility of authentic anti-racist work.
At some point, this decision is one with which all people of color will have to grapple, because most white people (not all white people, of course) still stubbornly refuse the facts of their automated, unearned, and unmeritorious advantages. Until then, POC should be asking for true friendship, whether or not we are the direct recipients of the behavior. M. already told me, through her behavior towards R., that she simply isn’t interested in acting like a friend and, therefore, really isn’t one.
As an addendum, I should add that, since I wrote this letter almost three years ago, the quality of my life has improved. I believe this is because I am more discriminatory as to what I call friendship, and as a result, I’ve been more inclined to surround myself with authentic friendships.