I am your African-American friend.
I say that to people who say: “I’m not racist, I have a friend who is African-American.”
We hear that phrase so often its comical. It’s usually right after a white person does something that exposes their bias. It’s the knee jerk defense when a white person is accused of a microaggression (I hate generalizing by saying “white person” because any race can be guilty of committing microaggressions (as can I)).
A microaggression is a brief, usually verbal, indignity or subtle expression of bigotry. Many times, there may not be ill intent but its use insults a group of people. One common example I have often heard is “You’re so articulate”; the obvious insult or jab being that most black people are inarticulate. Other common microaggressions of this theme include: “You’re so smart” or “you don’t act black.”
Another example: I was at a Lexus dealership looking at a display for financing. I was likely in a suit having gone after work. Someone from the dealership saw me looking at the display, briefly explained it and told me I probably didn’t qualify (black = bad credit).
Another example: being followed around by store security at a department store.
Dear Reader: I, and all your other African-American friends, can do this all day.
But the purpose of this post is not to discuss microaggressions. The point of this post is to clarify that I am not the exception; I am the rule. Your African-American friend you refer to when you defend yourself with: I’m not a racist, I have an African-American friend; that friend is also not the exception, they are the rule.
What does that mean? I’m a child of the 80s; I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago. When we did speak of race relations—which wasn’t much because in the 80s it was my job to relate to my white friends and neighbors and not the other way around— I was told I was not considered black. Michael Jordan and other black celebrities weren’t considered black. Blackness was considered to be consistent with negative stereotypes we saw in media at the time.
Were the people around me comfortable with me because I spoke, dressed and acted like them? Is that why I wasn’t “black”? Did they know that in the 80s my parents explained to me that I had to dress and act a certain way to make people around me more comfortable with me being in the room? My blackness always preceded me into a room—so to assuage peoples’ fears associated with that blackness, I had to speak and act a certain way. If I was acting like a 15 year old idiot, my actions would be attributed to being black, while my friends’ actions would be attributed to either being 15 year old boy or being with me.
And although that was over 30 years ago, that theme remains. Have you unintentionally put black people into categories—the ones you know and the ones you don’t? Are you finding the black people you know acceptable because they talk like you, dress like you, and act like you, but reject the rest of us?
In most cases, doing this isn’t intentional. Unfortunately, for generations we have all been conditioned to believe negative “the Black male” narrative.
“I’m not a racist, I have a black friend” is another example of a microaggression. The fact that you have a black friend doesn’t absolve you from bias. Ultimately, you may have said the black people you do not know are not like you and unintelligent (or insert other stereotype here) whereas my African-American friend is like me and the exception to the negative “Black male” rule.
This post is to remind you: I AM NOT THE EXCEPTION; I AM THE RULE.
YOUR AFRICAN-AMERICAN FRIEND IS NOT THE EXCEPTION; THEY ARE THE RULE.
The negative “Black male” rule we’ve been taught for generations is the exception.
Black people share the range of the American Experience. We are rich. We are poor. We are athletic. Or if you’re like me, you are NOT athletic. We are intelligent. We are not so intelligent. We are unemployed. We are underemployed. We are CEOs. We are mothers. We are fathers. We are sons and daughters. We are everything that you are.
The problem is you don’t see “the Black male” as the people you know. The people you know are the doctors, intelligent or rich or gainfully employed or good fathers or great students or the articulate or regular guy keeping a job or divorced dad or single mom—those handful of black people you know are like you and the exception to the rule.
Most other black men and women you don’t know are also doctors, intelligent or rich or gainfully employed or good fathers or great students or articulate or regular guy keeping a job or divorced dad or single mom. You just don’t know them so you may be less comfortable around him as he gets onto an elevator. You’ve been conditioned to be that way.
And please know just because I am a lawyer, doesn’t mean I do not encounter racism. I encounter racism regardless of my resume. I don’t have my resume pinned on me when I walk around a department store. I don’t stop security and say: “no need to follow me, I’m a lawyer.” I don’t say to the woman clutching her purse on the elevator “don’t worry, I’m ‘safe.’” I don’t do that when I hear the loud click of a car door lock walking through a grocery store parking lot intent only on getting groceries.
In those everyday examples, I’m not the exception—I’m the rule of “the Black male” negative stereotype. That’s because they were conditioned to see the color of my skin and not everything else that I am. It should not be necessary to get out a list of references of white people that will vouch for me while walking from my car to Mariano’s.
So when you think about what you can do moving forward, the first thing is to recognize that bias. Your African-American friend is not the exception; they are the rule. Recognize still that the bias was conditioned into you for generations. That doesn’t make it OK, but we all need to acknowledge that bias can’t be turned off like a light switch. But acknowledging its existence is a good first step in changing the conditioning in your home and the people around you.
Make certain you talk to your children. Today is an excellent day to have the discussion. You don’t have to wait until your children are older. Do it today. But remember, your children will model what they see you doing. It’s not enough to tell someone what to do, we must also live it.
So when you clutch your purse in an elevator because you don’t know me, recognize what you’re doing and stop. Like you, I have somewhere to be in that building and that is what put me on that elevator. Not your purse.
Filed under: Race in America