Thursday, August 15, 2013

Guest Post: How to Be Friends with White People (Spoiler: Don't Pick Racists)

My husband and I made a deal: if I confronted my fear of the squat rack, he'd write a guest blog post. I upheld my end of the bargain, and today he's making good on his. 

There’s an article at Salon by Brittney Cooper called The Politics of Being Friends With White People in which the author discusses the disintegration of her childhood friendships with white people and how as an adult she simply can’t do it anymore (befriend white folks that is). Cooper uses her experiences to describe the schism she feels between her and her white peers – a gap that always existed but that was invisible to her until her formative teen years. College and adulthood only widened the distance between them.

Broken bridge

As you could probably guess, since I’m writing a blog post about it, I disagree. This issue here seems to be mainly a personal one – the author, once ridiculed for “trying to be white” retreated into black culture. As Cooper put it “[w]e couldn’t giggle about the same kinds of boys since our tastes fell along racial lines, couldn’t trade makeup or hair products, or move through each other’s social circles with ease any longer, because increasingly these things were defined by race.” I’m not saying these differences were all in her head, but it feels like race is mainly being used here as an excuse for a friendship fading away. They could have remained friends without sharing any of these things, but that’s not what’s important. What matters in this piece is that Cooper, and she’s not alone here, is both a victim and perpetuator of racial stereotyping and doesn’t even realize it.


First – right off the bat the writer experienced inequity in our educational system. She did well in school, and, as such, she was grouped with others doing well. The class, mostly white, but not completely, was nonetheless viewed by the black kids as a different space for whites. This insidious form of stereotyping made academics a white thing and left the writer disconnected from potential black friends.

Second – damn her white friends were racist. Seriously, she was hanging out with people who thought her hair would feel like a fucking brillo pad. The writer was categorized and at times excluded from the white peer group because of skin color and the negative stereotypes that come with it.

In both of the cases, society’s preconceived notions caused a kid to be discriminated against.


Cooper takes a tone in this piece that’s way too sympathetic to racial stereotypes. The first red flag appears when the writer, as a young girl, is discussing with her white friend the prospect of interracial marriage. Cooper’s friend explains that her daddy said “people should marry their own kind.” I’m not really surprised by this statement – I’ve heard it before – what Cooper says next might say it all, “Having never heard it put quite that way before, I simply nodded my head. It sort of made sense.”

Huh? No it doesn’t. Here was a child who didn’t fit in because black kids will tell you that you are too smart and white kids will think you are too dumb. If anyone should know the importance of individual character defying blanket characterizations it should be Cooper. Yet, it gets worse. Soon after this moment, Cooper starts to retreat into the black community (in part because to the racism of her classmates, though she doesn’t call it that, but I believe also because she was supposed to). Cooper had to be with her people and that meant that she couldn’t be with any others. Unfortunately by retreating into her black community, Cooper tacitly reinforced the stereotypes that say race determines who a person is and what it is they do. This is wrong, regardless of the stereotype perpetuated.

As stated, Cooper spent a lot time with some assholes, but here’s the thing: not all white people are assholes… or racist… or conservative… or read Ayn Rand. The biggest mistake Cooper makes is to take these negative experiences as reasons to not have many white friends. Her past is an excuse to not make an effort and that’s weak, really weak. Honestly, it’s no different than those classmates that remarked that she wasn’t like the other black kids.

I am not writing this to say that people should to join any diversity groups or clubs (though it would be awesome if you did), nor should you struggle to be friends with anyone. It just seems that all of the writer’s problems in this article would be alleviated by acting like a normal person and treating the others around her as such… and not trying to be friends with racists.

Ivan is a lawyer and professional smartass by day, a terrific father, and a frequent subject of Balancing Jane posts, for which he is always a great sport. 

1 comment:

  1. Well done Ivan. Michelle good job with the squat rack. I am glad to call you both my friends! Rock on!