What Handler, Paula Deen and the countless others who have been caught up in accusations of racism don’t seem to realize is that saying “I’m not racist” doesn’t mean a lot if your behavior shows that you are. And saying “I have a black friend” is not the same as showing that person and the world that you both respect and value him or her.
The truth is that if they had black people in their lives who were true friends—not booty calls or employees, but people with whom they share true emotional intimacy, as well as mutual admiration and respect—then much of their behavior simply would not have been possible. Or, at the very least, they would have had the awareness to immediately respond to criticism of their words and behaviors with the self-awareness that comes from knowing that you hurt a group of people that someone you care about belongs to.
So perhaps, going forward, there should be a rule. If you want to get away with using the Black Friend Defense, instead of telling us you have a black friend or boyfriend or girlfriend or ex-girlfriend—instead of speaking for them—why don’t you let them speak for you? Let us hear from them, in their own words, whether they think you are as racially aware as you claim to be.
It may turn out that the black friend has your back in a race flap. Or it may turn out that the person you called a friend all along doesn’t realize that you considered him (or her) one—and never really considered you a friend, either. Because in my friendships, people see me as an equal; they don’t demean me or the group I belong to. And when I tell them they’ve hurt me, they listen. If that’s not the type of relationship you have with someone of a different race, then you’re not really friends.
Which means that the next time you get in trouble over race, don’t name-check that person to ease your conscience or solve your PR problem.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.