It really is no surprise that in the current hellscape that is 2017, I’m writing an essay reminding people that you can definitely still be racist even if you have a black friend. This is a basic ass idea, but somehow, the “I have a black friend!” card still gets played whenever non-black people are forced to reckon with race and racism.
The most recent instance came in the form of a tweet on Wednesday posted by Michael Cohen, personal attorney to President Donald Trump.
In light of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, and President Trump doubling down on the “both sides at fault” rhetoric in a press conference on Tuesday, Cohen wanted to clear the air.
Cohen could have left that already somewhat dubious statement at that, but no. He included a mystifying collage of pictures of himself with an assortment of black folk, including Omarosa Manigault and Don King.
It’s unfortunate that Cohen, a Jewish man whose family was persecuted by Nazis, supports a POTUS who has emboldened white supremacists and Nazis who hate black people just as much as they hate Jewish people. But, to make matters worse, he’s using a handful of photos with black people to justify supporting a man who has blasted the Black Lives Matter movement on numerous occasions and who thinks there are some “very fine people” among those who rallied with the KKK this weekend.
It’s debatable how many of the black people in Cohen’s collage even are his friends, but that’s irrelevant. Having black friends (or pictures with black people) doesn’t automatically mean you’re not racist. It doesn’t mean that you don’t contribute to, perpetuate or, perhaps most importantly, benefit from racism and white supremacy.
There’s something to learn from this tone-deaf tweet. When your ideas and principles are challenged, your gut reaction shouldn’t be to post a collage of smiling black and brown faces to prove that you are down. Actions speak louder than selfies. What are you doing in your every day life to actually combat racism? Are you willing to personally inconvenience yourself in solidarity with that black friend you’re so quick to hold up as a shield to criticism and accountability?
As Shae Collins of Everyday Feminism summed it up, black people are not a monolith, and “there is no official black seal of approval.”
White people: if you are truly against racism, if you truly care about your black friends beyond tokenizing them, then interrogate the ways your actions and ideas impact their lives and the lives of black people you don’t happen to know. That work is far more valuable than your excuses.