Proximity Isn’t The Flex You Think It Is
Stop using the “Black friend” defence
I know some white people may be offended by this but it needs to be said: proximity to a Black or Global Majority person doesn’t make you an expert on their experience. For sure, you have a ringside seat to many of the oppressions they face. And because you care about them, you can empathize with their pain but, and it’s an important but, you don’t have the same experience - viscerally - that they do. It’s another of those cases where you need to know what you don’t know.
In the past, I’ve talked about the “Black friend defence” - the use of a Black person you happen to know as a way to undermine the validity of what the Black person in front of you is saying. There’s also the “Black partner defence” which is (you guessed it) the use of a Black person you’re married to or partnered with to undermine the validity of what the Black person in front of you is saying.
It’s time for that to stop. Seriously, it’s another manifestation of white supremacy. And I have to wonder if your Black friend or partner appreciates being used this way.
Now, if you’re doing it with context, that’s one thing. I publish a whole newsletter and I have said stuff in here you can quote, but when you do that, remember that I am not a monolith. I have had certain experiences around the globe that inform what I write and speak about, and how I do that. Many of those experiences give me things in common with Black people around the world; but some are unique to my own cultural background. If you have learned things on your journey that you believe reflect a collective view, you certainly can share those, but be mindful of the fact that you might not know it all. After all, who does?
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Instead of going straight for the Black friend defence, question your own motivations for using it. Are you doing it because your actual Black friend said something relevant to what you’re talking about? Or because you have a number of Black friends who share this opinion and it’s therefore a kind of collective expression? That might be ok.
Or are you doing it because you’re looking for backup for something you’re not sure of yourself, and want to escape being challenged? If it’s the latter, then that’s a problem.
To wrap this up, there’s a world of difference between telling someone “I have a Black friend and all Black people feel this way” and saying “My friend x, who is Black, feels this way”. Context and nuance matter in this, as in everything. So, remember to pause the next time you’re thinking of using your proximity to blackness or to a Global Majority person to take down someone else’s argument. Pause and figure out it if this is really the best approach for all concerned. Nine times out of 10 it isn’t.
Thanks for reading my perspective,
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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
I am an anti-racism writer, educator and activist, Co-Founder of Diverse Leaders Group, the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.
Where I live, our current provincial government leader has repeatedly denied the existence of Anti-Black systemic racism. He has stated that racism may exist, but it is not systemic (pause here while I throw up). He appointed a white minister in his cabinet to lead a task force on racism in Quebec. When asked by a reporter why he though he was qualified to lead this task force, he answered, "Because my wife is Black." WTF!! After several days of blow-back commentary and public outcry, someone on the task force reached out to local Black community organizations for their input. Almost a year later, I have not heard anything more about the task force or their findings. The truth is out there...
Very well said Sharon, especially about not being a monolith. I'd love to add further thoughts as a white person navigating this. If you are actively doing the work you will see differing opinions from the Black community. When I've been stuck on the best way to proceed given two very different instructions I've led with something like this, "I've heard X is the best way to do this and I've also heard Y. How would you prefer I proceed / handle this?" Yes it may be uncomfortable for you, but that's part of doing the work. I have no right to assume or tell them how to feel as a person of color.
You may need to back this up even further and start with, "When and if you have the time and emotional bandwidth, I would welcome your input." I was first introduced to this idea by a Black writer shortly after George Floyd was killed. Don't assume a Black person will do your heavy lifting.