The “Black Friend” Playbook

Gaslighting by any other name would bite as deep

Hello friends,

Today, I want to talk about the “Black friend” playbook. As I’ve discovered, in the wake of the murder of Asian-Americans in Atlanta, there’s an “Asian friend” playbook as well. As I mention in “A Bad Day”, it’s the same playbook.

You often hear it when people - usually white men, but I’ve heard it from white women too - are trying to:

A) Explain why a particular event or action isn’t racially motivated (my Black friend agrees it’s not racist)

B) Get a pass for a questionable statement or action (my Black friend doesn’t have an issue with this joke)

C) Distance themselves from accusations of racism (I have Black friends so I can’t possibly be racist)

D) Give themselves some credibility as they gaslight your lived experience (I have a Black friend, so I know more about Blackness than you, with your lived experience, do)

I’m sure many of you have heard these statements before. A visual version of this happened a week after accusations of racism in the royal household, where Prince William was seen in a photo with an arm around a Black person who was vouching for him. (Why the Black person did that is a whole other story.) Of course there was also a photo of William riding an elephant surrounded by brown people below, so make of that what you will.

But here’s the thing: having a Black friend or acquaintance doesn’t make people not racist - and it sure doesn’t make them actively anti-racist. That takes action. When white people are talking about the Black experience, I think a little more humility is in order, plus a recognition that there’s a LOT they don’t know about living in Black skin.

Does adjacency to Blackness or Asianness give white people a magic insight? It depends what you mean.

You know how I love to flip the script, so first, let’s look at the “Black” part: if I claimed to know what it’s like to be white, most people would think it was ridiculous.

In fact, I freely admit that the simple fact of having a white husband and white friends doesn’t tell me what it’s like to live in white skin.

I can guess, up to a point, because I’ve lived in Black majority countries where the color of my skin doesn’t matter much, but I don’t know for sure, and I never will. (And even living in Black majority countries doesn’t exempt you from the workings of white supremacy, so there’s that.)

My point is that just as adjacency to whiteness doesn’t make me white, adjacency to blackness doesn’t make someone else Black, and it doesn’t mean they truly know what’s going on.

Next, let’s look at the “friend” part. Other people have written about this, but the gist of it is that if you work in the same office but know nothing about me, you’re not my friend. If we’ve hung out together, helped each other through heartbreak, stayed up till midnight putting the world to rights over our favorite tipple, dashed to each other’s aid at a moment’s notice, met each other’s friends and family, then yeah, we’re probably friends.

So unless your Black friend is someone you’ve had deep conversations or hung out with, then you don’t have a Black friend.

You might be wondering, then, what gives me the right to talk with authority about how whiteness operates?

Lived experience.

I’ve lived in France and England, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the US. Much of that time was spent with people who didn’t look like me.

Black people are experts in what racism feels like and how it works. At this point in my life, it’s nearly five decades since my first experience (memory) of racism. Most of the people operating from the “Black friend” playbook haven’t spent enough time with Black and brown people to really get to know us, so they don’t have the lived experience that provides an informed opinion.

In my experience, most people who use the “Black friend” argument (or similar arguments relating to other ethnicities) are uncomfortable with discussions of racism. It’s a form of gaslighting - an effort to convince someone - Black people - that there’s an explanation other than racism for what happened.

It’s time for it to stop, and for people with little or no experience of racism to accept that people who have experienced racism know it when we see it.

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Thank you for reading,


© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo courtesy of Canva.

I am an anti-racism writer, a professional B2B writer and blogger, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.