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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

What Do We Do with Our Racist "Friends?"

Photo from New York Times

I went to high school with these twins. They liked to torture animals then tell me about it in great detail during pottery class, trying to infuriate me (it usually worked). One time, we were all hanging out in the senior lounge. I don't remember how it came up but I mentioned I have family from Ethiopia (my uncle emigrated from there in the 80s as a refugee) and one of them (I could never tell the difference) said we should just bomb Ethiopia, since there were nothing but n*****s there, anyway (I feel that I should point out that these guys both went into the military after high school).

There were probably more productive ways of reacting to the situation, but I just got up and walked away, determined not to let them see the tears that had involuntarily started to flow. I come from a pretty liberal (though also white) town in one of the most liberal, and also whitest, states in the country. This kind of overt racism was relatively rare in my town (at least as far as I was aware of it); it was usually more subtle, baked-in bias, like the guy who wouldn't believe my cousin and I were actually related because she's black and I'm white. As a white teenager, I'd been mostly sheltered from explicit racism like this and wasn't sure how to handle it. I called these guys out whenever they'd used "gay" as an insult or other offensive language in the past. But that one, directed at my family members, cut deep. I chose to leave the situation and not give them the satisfaction of the response I knew they were looking for. I immediately went to my favorite teacher to vent. "You know they're just trying to get a rise out of you," he said. "Yeah, and it's working," I sobbed.

Cut to a few years ago, when Trump referred to Africa and the developing world as a bunch of "shithole countries." That one really got to me, too. He was talking about places I'd been, people I knew and cared about. He was insulting much of the world, dismissing them and their vast contributions out of hand. He was dismissing my uncle, who, along with my aunt, founded African Services Committee, a nonprofit serving the African diaspora community in a variety of ways and where I interned as a college student, my uncle, who'd done amazing things for his Ethiopian and U.S. communities. I wrote a long Facebook post about the power of language and the negative effects of a "leader" using vitriol like that. Of course, the twins felt the need to tear me down, laugh at my "triggers," talk about how great Trump was, and generally double down on their racist and sexist beliefs. Unable to sleep at 4:00 a.m. in my graduate program dorm room, I engaged. What followed was a 100+-post debate between the twins and me and another liberal friend who came to my rescue. I took the strategy of being patient, civil, and trying to understand both sides, however flawed and inaccurate one of them may be. My friend called them pieces of human shit. Together, we tried to persuade two obviously-un-persuadable stalwarts. I even brought up that one of them had once said something horrible and racist to me, which I didn't elaborate on, and neither felt the need to apologize for (they didn't even ask what I was referring to, I'm sure in a long line of racist comments they'd made).

I went to class in the morning all shaken up from the debate, the anger hot in me, obsessing over what I should have said. I was already verging on manic, having a hard time sleeping, and the bitter Facebook debate pushed me over the edge (this manic episode is what we finally cause my Bipolar diagnosis). I couldn't let go of my rage. I fully recognize that my anger as a white woman likely pales in comparison to that of BIPOC who have to endure racism, both overt and ingrained, every day, who don't get to walk away from the situation. But I felt that, as a white woman, it was my duty to call out this bullshit, to try to convince other white people of the errors of their ways and the real harm caused by their hate. I didn't want to sit back and let it happen. But a vicious Facebook debate did little but shake me up.

This week, one of the twins posted that the protestors are terrorists and about the recognition the poor white people who have been impacted as a result deserved, how the media was skewing the situation, making white people look bad. I scrolled down through the comments, most of which were in support of these beliefs and outraged by the liberals who'd call them racist. Some of their friends even took the ol' "but I have black friends" tack. Pretty much your standard bullshit. A few of my friends had tried and I made sure to like their posts attempting to convince the twins and their followers that racism is insidious and that all white people have a responsibility to denounce these systems and do something about it. One of my friends was more patient than the other, but they both had good points and offered some real resources, to the delight of these assholes who tore them down. I wasn't sure what to do, besides giving my friends a "like." I could chime in, too, be yet another well-meaning white lady trying to tear down the system from within. But I didn't feel these guys were worth my time or energy. I clicked "unfriend." And I did it again the next day when another guy I'd grown up with and didn't know particularly well jumped on the "All lives matter" bandwagon. And again, when my middle school soccer coach posted the same thing.

I decided I didn't want to give this kind of hate a space. If they weren't going to be persuaded by logic, which it seemed pretty clear wasn't happening, the only thing I had the power to do was turn away from that hate and funnel my energy into real change.

This 2019 piece weighs in on the side of "unfriend" that shit. This piece from 2014 (this shit isn't new, people) seems to suggest there may be benefits in stepping back from social media, ruminating on it, then thoughtfully responding. But ultimately, you need to keep your mental health in check and know if an hours-long Facebook debate is going to help or hurt.

Responding to the trolls, of course, doesn't take into account the real friends and family in your life who may hold racist or otherwise problematic viewpoints and which you may actually be able to make a difference with, as a trusted and respected friend or relative. Don't let your grandma's snide remarks go unnoticed at Thanksgiving. Educate. And, more importantly, listen. But, weighing in on a social media post designed to piss off the liberal "snowflakes" probably isn't going to make a huge difference. If you see a well-meaning friend post something that uses language contrary to their apparent intent, by all means, calmly and respectfully (and perhaps privately) point it out to them. Say "I appreciate your point and you know I respect you, but I just wanted to let you know that that thing you posted has connotations you may not have been aware of..." I had to do something similar with a student of mine this week, whom I'm sure wasn't trying to be homophobic, but was likely unaware of the context of an off-handed comment that could be seen as hurtful. That wasn't what her book was about and I'm sure she wouldn't have wanted that sentiment associated with it, albeit unwittingly. But those inflammatory posts baiting you? Your argument, however respectful and valid, probably isn't going to move the needle.

It's hard to know how best to be an ally. Ultimately, that's up to you to figure out. But I've found that, for me, arguing with racists online probably isn't it. Listening to Black people and other people of color, trying to learn, and using your place of privilege to effect real change, in person, is. I don't pretend to have the answers of how best to be an ally; I'm trying, and probably failing, every day. But I know that engaging with racists on Facebook likely isn't going to help me or anyone else. It's up to you to decide whether you have the mental energy to engage, or whether you simply hit that "unfriend" button.

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