Master TV satirist Stephen Colbert frequently pokes fun at the notions of racial political correctness by having his brash conservative pundit character proclaim that he cannot see race. It's a simple and reliably funny conceit that plays on the prevalent, if specious, notion that we live in a post-racial era, one that ignores, or optimistically shrugs off, the lingering and substantial issues between the races.
In furthering that joke, Colbert at one point decided to adopt "a black friend" named Alan (which became a running gag on the show, despite the fact that the guy who appeared in a photo as Stephen's friend was never hired by the program). Though a throw-away gag, the adopted-friend bit ably illustrates some of the anxiety some white people feel about the need to be embraced by the black people. Colbert's gag riffs on the idea that intolerance by whites has been replaced by a well-meaning uneasiness and that while there have been great strides in racial progress, racial harmony remains something of an awkward proposition.
As a white person with a number of lifelong friends who are black, I can say I don't feel that awkwardness in my personal relationships with them, but I know that these relationships retain an oddly-charged, often convoluted quality among some whites.
Granted, it's not rare for white people of my generation to have friends who are minorities. In fact, those who don't associate with people outside their race have long been the exception in most areas of the country. But that doesn't mean that mixed-race friendships are any less sensitive of an issue today. Now, instead of having mixed-race relationships that cause controversy, it's the absence of such relationships that draws the raised eyebrows. White people now feel pressure to overtly demonstrate their lack of racism to each other and to minorities by making a big deal of their minority friends or by embracing cultural symbols and behaviors associated with other races.
Today, being called a racist is the most contemptible label for a white person. Some have complained that the racist label is tossed about so freely that it's almost like being called a "communist" in the post-Cold War era. This is certainly preferable to a time when racism was tolerated or even encouraged. But one of the sad upshots is that it has also fostered a sense of paranoia that stems from the inability or unwillingness to distinguish between actual hate-fueled racism and ignorance.
A tone-deaf white person who refers to a successful black person as "articulate" is called a condescending racist, when the person either spoke without thinking of the connotation or was unaware of it. If a white person is called out for saying something insensitive, the clichéd response is: "Well, I can't be racist; I mean, I have black friends!"
Association with minorities has become a mark of authenticity for many whites, an indicator to themselves and others that they are not racist. The familiarity with minority cultures becomes worthy of bragging rights. Among young people, knowledge of some obscure slang or cultural wrinkle is held up as evidence that the person is accepted by that authentic minority culture.
While Colbert's desperate search for a black friend is ridiculous, the pressure to appear to be friendly with people of other races is keenly felt.
The racism label gets even more muddled in conversations among whites. In some parts of the country, where there are higher concentrations of minorities, young people often mock areas that are more uniformly white as backward and sometimes inherently racist. While the dearth of minorities in some of these areas may be the result of past racism, it doesn't necessarily mean that the current residents harbor any animosity toward people of other races.
It's no secret that white kids have a history of emulating black culture to the point that mainstream standards of coolness are almost entirely defined by those appropriated cultural elements. Mainstream youth culture has co-opted so many aspects of black culture that white kids may feel a familiarity with blacks without really associating with any of them.
At the same time, as hip-hop is considered the music of a generation, many white kids feel pressure not to be associated with seemingly benign pop-culture elements that are considered to be white. Take, for example, hockey or country music. Many white people of my generation avoid these activities in part because they are marked by an absence of minorities.
While mixed-race friendships and relationships have become commonplace, there remains enough underlying, authentic tension mixed with the paranoia of appearing racist that the subject of race can't be considered an irrelevant one.
Michael Tunison is a sports blogger and freelance writer. His online homes include Kissing Suzy Kolber, With Leather and Deadspin. He's currently working on a book to be published by HarperCollins and is a former staff writer at The Washington Post. He lives in Alexandria, Va.