Top 10 of 2018 – #2 – A Brief History of the “Black Friend”

*Editor’s Note: As the year comes to a close, we’re featuring the ten most popular pieces we published on Black Perspectives. This essay–ranked number 2–was written by blogger Tyler Parry.

Filmmaker Jane Barr on the streets for her film, The Black Elephant (Michael Tapp, Flickr).

In June 2018, two news reports encapsulated a problem in American race relations: a white person says something racist, apologizes (or explains why they do not need to apologize), declares they are not racist, and, finally, proclaim they have “Black friends.” On June 3rd, mixed martial artist, Andrea Lee, posted a photo of her and her husband standing on a boat. Perceptive viewers noticed that her husband had a swastika tattooed on his arm, apparently received in prison to show his affiliations with white supremacist gangs. Critics immediately denounced the couple as racist, understandably accusing them of being “Nazis.” Lee fired back, stating they could not be racist since they “have many ethnic friends” and “have an Asian & a Black guy that live with us.” Lee refused to apologize. Instead, she doubled down on her lack of racism by denouncing her critics as “sensitive a** mofos” who refused to leave the issue alone. Nine days later a Missouri waitress named Tabitha Duncan was under fire for claiming she was “n***** hunting” in a viral video. As social pressures mounted, Duncan issued an apology claiming she was intoxicated at the time and was unaware she was being filmed. Furthermore, she insisted her remarks were unintentional, as she has “Black friends” and “Black people in my family.” Consequently, Duncan lost her job and her candidacy for military service was taken into question.

Such cases reflect a pervasive tradition of white people using their Black friends, family members, or associates as cover for racist statements or actions. It is, as Tim Wise notes, “the fall-back defense for every act of racist asininity.” Such events occur so frequently that they are often satirized in Black popular culture. In the 2014 film, Dear White People, Sam, the film’s protagonist, announces on her University radio program that the required quota for the number of “Black friends needed to not seem racist” was raised to “two.” Michael Harriot, writing for The Root, offered a column entitled “7 Rules for White People with Black Friends,” which included tips on how white friends can navigate using the N-word and how they can stop acting like a “colonizer.” In his animated short, Your Black Friend, artist Ben Passmore uses satire to examine the “unique kind of indirect bigotry” expressed by white people who remain indifferent as racism manifests around them.

Though various journalists, pundits, and creative writers have analyzed and critiqued the “Black friend” excuse, few have tried to historicize the concept. One might think it emerged among a white population inhabiting a post-civil rights movement era free of Jim Crow, as black and white fraternization is usually positioned as the great victory of desegregation. For many, true racism is the legal separation of white Americans from people of color. Once such barriers are broken, people are free to intermingle without the restrictions of a legislated color line. Consequently, racism is declared dead and one’s multiracial friend group is the actualization of a post-racist society. Though scholars have cogently argued against the philosophy of colorblindness as a solution to racial inequality, it remains a pervasive idea in modern America’s socio-political discourse. In an era where Martin Luther King Jr.’s radical legacy is sanitized by a single quote that hoped his children would not be judged by the “color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” white people are apt to believe their associations with other racial groups provide defensive cover against accusations of racism. They are, after all, simply manifesting Dr. King’s 1963 dream.

Based on this premise, one might assume a white person’s appeal to Black friendship would matter less in previous eras when white supremacy was the status quo, as they would not need to prove their colorblind credentials to their opponents. However, white slaveholders used the “Black friend” trope when defending their right to own slaves. In seeking to deflect abolitionist criticism, Southern slave owners issued one of the earliest forms of the “Black friend” defense as they sought to justify how their racial hierarchy harmonized relationships between a dominant (white) race against a subordinate (Black) race.

In 1854, pro-slavery firebrand George Fitzhugh castigated northern abolitionists for interfering with the affairs of white and Black southerners, exclaiming “The [white] Southerner is the negro’s friend, his only friend. Let no intermeddling abolitionist . . . dissolve this friendship.” By claiming sentimental attachments to the enslaved, masters and mistresses hoped to obfuscate abolitionists’ claims that they were domineering tyrants and sought to convince the enslaved that Northern whites held evil intentions. If they convinced the American public that enslaved people loved them and were content in their bondage, they could assert that they were simply preserving the natural order of the races.

Though one could write off the sincerity of a slave owner’s affections for their human chattel, private correspondence does suggest many of them had rationalized this contradiction. Pro-slavery Senator James Henry Hammond privately confided to a friend that his greatest consolation was that his “negroes . . . love & appreciate” him.1 Hammond was, by any measure, a staunch racist and held little reason to express this desire to a like-minded white colleague. The fact that he still desired his slaves to love him, despite holding them in bondage, makes his appeal to Black friendship especially dangerous. He based his conclusions on emotion and did not see the logical inconsistency of his claims.

Such beliefs continued after emancipation as former slaveholders published memoirs about the antebellum South, insisting that the institution of slavery was misunderstood by subsequent generations. Known as the “Plantation Myth,” they documented memories that shifted attention away from the brutalities of punishment and familial separations. Arguing for slavery’s mutual benefits, a white southern belle declared that the true loss of emancipation was not felt economically, but “by the loss of our [Black] friends, those we loved, and those who loved us.”2 Benjamin Franklin Hawkins, a son of Tennessee slaveholders, remembered that during his childhood hunting excursions “the negroes would carry me on their shoulders for hours because they loved me well enough to care for me.”3 Hawkins was convinced that this band of Black men did not perform this act out of any legal obligation, but simply out of love.

The supposedly harmonious Black-white relations that existed in the Jim Crow era led the white population to declare that integration efforts were misguided. Northern liberals were once again meddling in the affairs of a region they did not understand. According to white southerners, only they “knew the Negro” and vowed to counter outside agitations. Their efforts failed and Southern states were forced to desegregate, but this did not eliminate white patronization surrounding racial issues. The Black friend trope was adjusted to fit the needs of a post-civil rights society, though as demonstrated in the aforementioned recent examples, modern renditions bear a striking resemblance to the platitudes of previous eras.

Given this history, the “Black friend” defense is a useless strategy since it never seems to satisfy one’s critics. So why does it continue to be the first line of defense? A 2014 study by social psychologist Daniel A. Effron reveals that humans have an impulse to overcompensate when their moral virtue is questioned. According to Effron, white people who are accused of racism overestimate how much their past decisions might “convince an observer of their non-prejudiced character.” In other words, they have built a form of “racial credit” through their intimate associations with a person of another race, and such interactions satisfy a personal need to call upon these credentials when contesting accusations of racism. Such patronizing actions bolster the case made in Ekow Yankah’s New York Times op-ed “Can My Children Be Friends with White People,” when he suggests that, despite a white person’s liberal credentials and cosmopolitan views, Black Americans should remain perpetually suspicious of their intentions.

Though memoirs, novels, and creative writings abound on this topic, the full history of the “Black friend” remains to be written. Though often associated with recent events in American race relations, the use of Black friends as a buffer against criticism holds a much deeper history that stretches to the very foundations of American racism.

  1.  Quoted in Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 104.
  2.  Quoted in Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 79.
  3.  Quoted in Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 71.
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Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.