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It’s usually uttered when a White person is caught unintentionally doing something racially problematic. The statement is used as proof of the person’s ability to have meaningful interactions with people of another race. It is used as a buffer against current and future claims of anti-Black tendencies: “I’m not racist. My best friend is Black.”
The problem with the statement is that it assumes that a person, by virtue of being Black, cannot be an agent of White supremacy—and that is just not true. White supremacy is not about people…it’s about systems.
In a public lecture for the Media Education Foundation, bell hooks says she prefers to talk about White supremacy instead of racism:
[R]acism in and of itself did not really allow for a discourse of colonization and decolonization, the recognition of the internalized racism within people of color and it was always in a sense keeping things at the level at which whiteness and white people remained at the center of the discussion. … In my classroom I might say to students that you know that when we use the term white supremacy it doesn’t just evoke white people, it evokes a political world that we can all frame ourselves in relationship to …
White supremacy is not an indictment of any one person; it is a way of life that frames and influences the way we live. It is so ubiquitous and invisible that many White folks only notice its existence when their privilege is not prioritized. Beyonce drops an album that does not cater to a Eurocentric aesthetic? White folks rioted. Netflix releases Marvel’s Luke Cage? White folks said the show is racist because it does not feature White people.
As a result, since White supremacy is not about White people, a person of any race can be an ally and an accomplice in the fight against that injustice. However, it also means that Black people can be agents and accomplices in promoting, promulgating, and protecting racial inequality.
As we come to the end of President Obama’s second term, we need to ask hard questions about what it means that the Movement for Black Lives came to fruition under the watch of our first Black president. Perhaps it means that the person who inhabits the oval office, regardless of good intentions and despite their race, cannot help but be an agent of White supremacy. Or maybe it means that the vicious legacy of anti-Black and brown policies cannot be undone in eight years by a president that spends the first two years in office trying to compromise with politicians who were elected on promises to remain uncompromising. Nevertheless, I imagine that future generations will look back on the absurd juxtaposition of American citizens protesting the killing of Black men and women by agents of the state while a Black family lives in the White House.
Also, the tenure of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court illustrates how a person of color can be a proactive agent of White supremacy. His voting record is one of a man who consistently sees things through the prism of White normativity. He was in favor of ending Affirmative Action in Fisher v. University of Texas. He voted against the Affordable Care Act in NIFB V Seleblius. And when considering Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the provision that requires states to receive approval from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before changing voting procedures, he sided with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr who wrote, “Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” Clarence Thomas shows us that White supremacy can filter the gaze of Black people. And that, like Ben Carson, if you suspect a Black man does not go to a Black barbershop, then he is almost certainly problematic in his racial thinking.
There are more examples: Stacey Dash, the ignant negro that says he only dates white women, that preacher who proclaims that racism is a sin problem and not a skin problem from the pulpit, and people who use anything other than Heinz ketchup and Louisiana hot sauce all show that having a Black friend does not really prove anything.
White people: if you get caught doing something racist, just apologize. We don’t care about your Black friend.