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Posted by on Nov 21, 2013 in Ethics | 3 comments

Some of my very best friends are…

 

There’s a cliché that you sometimes hear when issues of race and other such such topics are brought up:

“I’m not racist – some of my very best friends are black”.

“I’m not homophobic. In fact, I’m good mates with a gay guy.”

This style of defence is often mocked, and I think that though the mocking is often deserved, other times it can be rather unfair. I’ll try to lay out my thoughts. I’ll keep it about race, but it should easily translate to other issues.

 

1) Merely claiming that one’s best friends are black is not very convincing if one is trying to defend against a charge of racism. It would be easy for any racist to lie about it, or to overstate their relationship. They have much to gain and little to lose by lying, and so such words must be taken with a pinch of salt.

2) Having black friends does not preclude the possibility of being racist. It’s quite possible for someone to be friendly with black people in their personal interactions, while at the same time believing them to be inferior on account of their racial characteristics, or discriminating against them in some way.

3) It is perfectly possible that a non-racist defending against charge of racism views their friendship with many people of different races as being a symptom of their non-racism. In this case, bringing up the race of one’s friends is understandable, even if it doesn’t constitute the sort of evidence that will convince their accusers.

4) The Internet in particular gives rise to various accusations of bigotry, and the accuser often doesn’t know the accused aside from having read a few of their postings. Public figures are usually known by the general public only by their portrayal in the media. The accused might well be using the cliché to express something like “if only you knew me better!”. Again, this is understandable.

5) The cliché isn’t itself racist – this might seem obvious, but as it is commonly heard uttered by racists, people sometimes confusedly see it as a sign of racism. At its worst, it is merely a poor defence.

 

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Imagine that we had two different levels of racism in our language:

    Racism_A: Virulent race hate so intense that it would completely prevent any friendships outside of one’s own ethnicity.

    Racism_B: Any other race-based prejudice, however insidious or subtle.

    It seems to me that that “Some of my friends…” defense is generally directed against a perceived charge of the former sort of racism, rather than the latter. It also seems to me that people raised in a relatively racist culture are more likely to define racism quite narrowly, in the A sense instead of the B sense.

  • 5ulman

    There is a 2003 Louis Theroux documentary (“Louis and The Nazis”) that poked a lot of fun at this, as it showed an undeniably racist little man not quite understanding that having some non-white friends (and saying as much) was hilariously inconsistent with his stated beliefs.If racism (or homophobia) is to be considered an absolute offence, then there isn’t really any mitigation – you either are or you aren’t.

  • Axel Blaster

    I disagree with 5. It’s a common defense. Period. People get defensive, and if they are acting in a racist manner (an racism is a spectrum) they are distancing themselves from having their person defined as a racist. To be honest, the person “calling out” the racist behavior could point out how the behavior is/or could be interpreted as racist. The person on the receiving end could respond by asking why they are perceived as acting racist. A lot of disagreements boil down to Psychology 101.
    Check some of the Schism battles, you’ll see a few examples.