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White ‘Friends:’ Ignorance or Empathy?

In the last few years, the concept of ‘white privilege’ has entered the mainstream. Despite the fact that white supremacy has existed for centuries and, for every white person currently alive, has created and still creates advantages, any exposure of it is still subject to defensive reactions from many white people. These concepts have always been clear-cut to me and other black/brown/indigenous (BBI) friends; however, like much of the general white public, our white friends react defensively and deploy any number of defensive reactions in order to maintain this ignorance which ultimately denies equality for BBI peoples.

This attitude allows white people to maintain their privilege — and ultimately, a white supremacist society — by refusing to acknowledge it Because some of our white friends consistently refuse to see their privilege, they also consistently refuse to see our disadvantage as BBI peoples, as a result actively NOT seeing our damage and suffering. In the final analysis, a refusal to see a friend’s suffering in order to defend one’s ‘right’ to dominate others is no friendship at all.

Friendship is about empathy, and white people who aren’t acknowledging their privilege are shirking empathy for others, because it is their white privilege that damages black, brown, and indigenous peoples. Picking up the white remote and channel-shifting to personal difficulties — discussions about how hard it is to have freckles or how difficult it was to be raised in a middle-class white neighborhood — is a form of distraction. BBI peoples deal with a wide range of personal difficulties — like all white people — AND white supremacy. Here is the distinction:

Personal level: ALL of us may be damaged by personal experiences.

In addition, for BBI peoples, there is the imposition of white supremacy:

Social level: BBI peoples are damaged by white supremacy

This is a distinct difference — an advantage for whites that automatically creates disadvantage for BBI peoples — dictated by social realities which must be acknowledged in order to move forward as a society which claims to care about equality. Refusing to acknowledge this advantage on a social level is a profound and immoral denial. We swim through white supremacy: thus, white people are constantly breathing more easily than BBI peoples. Refusing to admit this is a refusal to admit that and this lack of empathy does NOT characterize friendship.

When the hypocrisy of this active ignorance penetrates individual friendships, it is time to consider one’s definition of friendship and, perhaps, react appropriately. In this true life example, two women, one white (‘Gina’) and one non-white (‘Lee’) — are both professional, self-described ‘liberals.’ For about ten years, all three of us have had a friendship; the two had known each other for almost three decades, since college. Lee, who describes herself as Chinese/white/S. American, was recently passed over for a promotion at her corporation. This position went to a white woman despite overt documentation of Lee’s superlative performance.

During our conversations, all of us discussed white privilege and the way in which white people, generally, are at an advantage. Gina agreed with this also — as she always does — expressing our usual statements about white supremacy on general terms. But once the discussion became more personal — that is, the white woman’s individual advantage — Gina became defensive. That is, the implication that she, as a white woman, has the same unearned advantage as the woman promoted was enough to provoke a reaction protecting herself from the advantages of white supremacy: denial.

In other words, Gina excepted herself from the white supremacy equation despite the fact that she has the one and only trait required to obtain that advantage, and it requires no achievement or merit whatsoever.

When I saw the dumbstruck look on Lee’s face, I was forced to remind Gina that, if each white person were to assume he/she/they an exception, then racism doesn’t exist. Each white person — regardless of how difficult she perceives her day — has social advantages. In the final analysis, because she is embedded in a white supremacist society that offers her automated advantage. This choice — denial which protects Gina’s perception of herself even as it involves deception — simultaneously erases Lee, and it is Gina’s responsibility to admit to herself that she has made this choice:

The rubber hit the road when, during one of these conversations, Gina finally blurted out that everybody gets an equal chance, and that like ALL women (remote in action: channel-switch up ahead) she is at a disadvantage. This belief — she had clearly been holding it in during our previous conversations — left me disappointed afresh, in part because I had already perceived Gina as fair-minded: I had already given her the benefit of the doubt. For the last four months, we had been discussing the onerous facts — both obvious and ‘subtle,’ in the form of microaggressions — not to mention the individual fact that Lee’s superlative performance was subordinated in favor of promoting a less successful white woman. And Gina’s response, after months of discussions and her own actual admission that white privilege exists, is to deny that it exists for her. Ultimately, this is to deny that its correlate, BBI subordination, exists for us, a denial so comprehensive that seems to approach psychosis.

Fundamentally, denial is a refusal of basic human empathy. It cannot be the basis of a strong friendship.

I repeat: when white ‘friends’ refuse to admit that they have white privilege — that their success, at least in part, is likely dependent not only on a free trait requiring no effort but also on the negative downward pressure this exerts on BBI peoples — they refuse to show basic human empathy. This is not friendship. A genuine friend acknowledges suffering, even if it means acknowledging that on some level, her ignorance and advantage may be causing it. The largest barrier to equality — and a buttress for white supremacy — is exactly this woman’s behavior: a refusal to acknowledge her own privilege.

It is not enough for white people to behave as if they are friends on an individual basis when our reality is also dictated by larger forces, especially when these forces are as highly-penetrated and as vigorously active as white supremacy. ALL white people are at an advantage: erasing this by refusing to see it also erases the very real, derogatory experiences of BBI peoples, ones which continue to damage us while rewarding white people. When Gina refused to admit her advantage — which allows her to feel dignified about ‘merit’ even though it is applied in vastly different ways to BBI peoples — she also refused to admit Lee’s suffering.

At some point, BBI peoples will have to decide if this is an adequate definition of friendship, since white people as a group are showing scant if any genuine interest in actual equality. I made my decision before I had to undergo the same ignorance that Lee was subjected to during the course of these conversations. These behaviors represent white liberal righteous self-deception: white liberals, as a group, have become a kind of Emperor who never considers putting his clothes on due to the fact that he is constantly pointing the finger at others, accusing everyone else of being naked. Utilizing sophisticated and insidious means to support one’s ignorance and thus one’s social power is white supremacy, immorality, deception, hypocrisy whether one slaps a conservative or liberal label on it. But it is not friendship.

Gina made a very active choice to NOT see Lee’s derogation so that she can continue to court her warped definition of ‘merit.’ This egregious display of white supremacy should be characterized as amoral even if it is more subtle than overt white supremacy. In some ways it is worse: if Lee had understood Gina’s racism/hypocrisy from the beginning, this ‘friendship’ — and Lee’s subsequent disappointment in finding out it isn’t one — could have been avoided.

I am relieved to say that, after this experience, I am much more inclined towards discussing racial and ethnic issues with white people early in the relationship so as to clarify whether or not they will choose ignorance and white supremacy over basic human morality. Though this has led to disappointment as I have been able to realize, much more quickly, the basic motives of most white people, it also allows me to distinguish these from the small minority of white people , as is so important, act such that favor doesn’t immediately confer to them when, in fact, BBI peoples are the ones actually earning the reward.

BBI peoples are forced to swim in white supremacy, constantly breathing harder than white people for less oxygen, and we deserve to be around white people with the basic ability to be empathetic. When white people choose to shirk this empathy in favor of supporting white supremacy, they also choose to subordinate their ‘friends.’

I repeat:

She/Her: Distort lies until they amplify truth. CryBaby: As loud as necessary.

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