Senator Sessions and the Myth of the “Black Friend”

“I’m not racist…just ask my black friend…”

It seems that any time a white person is accused of racism, this is their automatic response. This is absurd. Having a black friend, or knowing black people, or there being black people who agree with your position on a certain subject does not absolve you of being racist. In fact, by using your “black friends” in this way, you are using them as props to either exonerate yourself or support a particular political position, which in and of itself is pretty racist.

White people have a way of distinguishing their “black friends” from black people as a whole. I have a cousin who is racist. Like, super, super racist. Like so racist that when his sister got married and he was asked to give a toast, she had to give the instruction “no racist jokes, please.” I have so many memories of him disparaging black people as a group, caricaturing them as people who profit off of and abuse the welfare system, are illiterate, and don’t take care of their families. He questions the purpose of having a holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and refers to Tiger Woods as “N— r Woods.” And yet — he has black friends. Why? Because they’re “not like those other black people.” They aren’t on welfare and they actually have jobs and take care of their kids. So, they’re okay. To him, it’s just all those other black people who are the problem. It has never occurred to him that his black friends are not anomalies, but rather, evidence that his deeply-rooted prejudices are actually untrue. In his mind, he’s not racist. He’s not a bad person. He doesn’t hate all black people, just those bad ones. And if he were ever questioned about being a racist, in a fraction of a second, he would say, “but I have black friends.”

White people, you don’t get to disparage a group of people because of the color of their skin and then walk away scot-free from scandal because you can point to a few people of color you know who “aren’t so bad.”

But racism isn’t always in the form of hatred and disparaging comments.

I once knew a white woman who almost exclusively dated East/Southeast Asian men (but, notably, hated when white men dated Asian women.) She intentionally sought out Asian men on dating sites. Was she just an admirer of the look of Asian men? Really into Asian culture and tradition? No. The truth all came out one night. She was telling me about her current boyfriend. She said, “he came home the other night from the gym. He was working out really hard. He told me he wanted to get a six pack for me. I told him, ‘I don’t care if you have a six pack, as long as you have six figures.’ And he’ll get it, you know. He’s Asian. You know how hard-working they are.”

Later, I met this guy. He was Indonesian. He complimented this woman’s sweater and admitted he wasn’t sure if it was technically a sweater or a poncho. She responded, “Well, you’re not Mexican. I don’t expect you to know what a poncho is. But, like, you totally know what a kimono is.” He responded, “I have no idea what a kimono is.” I informed her that kimonos are Japanese. He said, “so, we’re all the same, right?” They broke up not long after. Can’t imagine why. Incidentally, our friendship also ended not long after.

So-called “positive stereotypes” are still stereotypes. Admiration quickly passes over into objectification when you are seeking out a partner based on played-out tropes. How deep can affection be when it is rooted in a deluded fetishization? One only has to imagine being the person on the other side of the relationship to understand why this is disgusting, insulting, and yes — racist.

Earlier this week, I watched portions of the confirmation hearings of Senator Jeff Sessions. He is currently up to become the United States Attorney General. This would make him the chief legal officer of the country and the person responsible for vindicating certain federal civil rights claims. Many civil rights groups and alert citizens are aghast at Sessions’ nomination.

In 1986, Sessions was denied a federal judgeship due to accusations of racism. These accusations are not only derived from Sessions’ inexplicable, unusual prosecution of civil rights activists, but also from a former black staff member who says Sessions made jokes about the KKK, made disparaging remarks about the NAACP, and referred to him as “boy” on numerous occasions.

However, during his questioning on Tuesday morning, one of Sessions’ GOP colleagues came to his aid, insisting that people angry at his prosecution of civil rights activists didn’t “have all the facts.” These uninformed liberals didn’t realize that the whole case (which ended in an acquittal, by the way) couldn’t have been a racist attempt at voter suppression because there were black people on the grand jury! And one of the complainants was black! Game, set, match! Firstly, we have a saying in the legal world: a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich. Secondly, black people are not a monolith. One or two black people being on Sessions’ side in this case is not definitive proof that all black people everywhere agreed with his actions or that his actions were not racially motivated.

It was also brought up that Sessions prosecuted Klansmen in Alabama (even though Sessions’ involvement in this case, and others, was greatly embellished). I can’t be racist! I prosecuted the KKK!

White people, you do not get wokeness points for never having terrorized a black family with burning crosses. You can be disgusted by the violence of the KKK while still harboring indefensible prejudices. You can cry at the sight of a lynching while wincing at the thought of your daughter dating a black man. You can hate the KKK and still be racist.

We have to stop giving ourselves passes and pats on the back for not wearing white hoods. We have to stop commending ourselves for condescending to have friends of color. We have to stop considering “never lynched anyone” as the sole requisite qualification to be the nation’s top civil rights enforcer. We have to stop. We have to do better.