We’ve all heard it: “Some of my best friends are Black.” It’s usually a white person trying to explain or justify a racist action or comment or behavior or overall attitude. Now, if you’re Black, you know it’s usually a lie, that these Black “best friends” include the guy who takes your order at Starbucks, or a college roommate you haven’t spoken to in a decade, or the woman in the cubicle next to you at the office whose name you’re not quite sure of. I am fairly confident that I am the Black best friend of dozens of people from my high school who I can’t name outside of Facebook.
So the phrase, “Some of my best friends are” kills a lot more conversations about race than it actually starts, but Khalil Muhammad is hoping to change that. He’s a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. And he hosts a new podcast Some of My Best Friends Are … on the Pushkin network with his white BFF, journalist Ben Austen. On this week’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Muhammad about interracial friendships and evolving views about how they reflect racial progress in America. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: The phrase “some of my best friends are … ” is almost dated. I would think even most white people know better than to say that phrase right now. But what gave you the idea to make that the name of the show?
Khalil Muhammad: Yes, it’s a great challenge to the premise of the show, because in a way it is dated. It’s dated because it has been, as you say, a conversation stopper and a way of shifting the conversation about structural racism for the better part of the last 50 years, since the civil rights movement allegedly solved all of the nation’s problems, and through desegregation and integration everyone was going to become friends and this was going to be enough. Or the notion that the MTV generation of kids growing up on Prince and Michael Jackson would all have listened to the same music, and hip-hop would be this way of everyone celebrating a multiracial democracy, turned out not to work.
And I think with the Obama two terms, we saw the culmination of this 50-year period, culminating around this notion that individualism of personal relationships, of proximity to each other across the racial divide, was sufficient to making sure that we’d have racial progress. And of course, after two terms of the Obama administration and everything that’s come since, it’s clear that that wasn’t enough, that that didn’t get us to the so-called promised land. And so while it is dated, it most certainly is as relevant today in how people navigate these conversations and issues about racism.
You’ve done a lot of serious scholarship. You’ve been at the center of these conversations about race and friendship, which are distinctly different from relationships that are based on sex or romance. What are you hoping to get at in your podcast that you haven’t been able to get a through your research?
Oh, what a great question. So, the first thing is a kind of unfiltered conversation that doesn’t stumble on whether or not somebody said something to another person that they take offense at. And I am not here to critique cancel culture for its excesses, although I think that’s a real issue.
What Ben and I are trying to model is that we can’t use our relationship as evidence that racism is no longer a problem, which is too often how this modeling goes. Therefore, we take the collective experience of 35 years of friendship as an invitation, one, to trust us that we’re going to have an honest conversation, and then, two, our professional careers—25 years for me as a historian, 20-plus years for him as a professional journalist—to say, we’ve also been studying, writing about, educating, and engaging these issues for a very long time.
Your first episode is about interracial buddy movies, right? And so you touched on some of the classics. The Defiant Ones. I’ve never seen that one. Trading Places, I’ve seen a million times. 48 Hrs., which is sort of a buddy cop movie with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. Now look, each of these movies follows a familiar –and I find infuriating– pattern, right? Which is the racist white guy, who’s usually more empowered, meets the Black guy. They hate each other. And yet at the end, they both realize how they were equally wrong and become buddies. What do these movies tell us about how default white people and white people in power in Hollywood see race relations and friendships?
Well, what they show us is that these films were made for white audiences, particularly white male audiences. One of the things that Ben and I were keen to pay attention to when we conceived of this episode was: Are there interracial buddy films with women? With Black women and white women? With Asian women or Latino women? No. I mean, by and large, the genre doesn’t exist for women.
We actually have a bonus episode where we interview one of the leading film scholars, a woman named Jacqueline Stewart, who some of you may know from being one of the hosts of Turner Classic Movies. And she basically said that the genre of Black women co-starring, or in supporting roles, is still tethered to this subservient role. For example, the character in The Help played by Viola Davis. It also evokes a kind of tradition of a Mammy figure as the helpmate to a white woman. Hollywood hasn’t broken out of that genre where Black women are still there to help white women find their full humanity. And that’s why it isn’t a genre of movies yet about equals.
Now Muhammad isn’t an unusual name for Black people. And I always point out, 20 percent of American Muslims are African American. But your name comes from the Black Muslim family. Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, is your great-grandfather. How has your own family story shaped your ideas about race and what’s possible in interracial friendships?
What’s fascinating is my grandfather is a son of Elijah Muhammad and Clara Muhammad, and my father were thoroughly immersed and grew up in the Nation of Islam. And the Nation of Islam that my grandfather built from the ’40s until his death in the 1970s did practice a kind of Black-centered, focused, economic and community development program. Obviously, it took place in Chicago at the headquarters, but spread across the nation.
That Nation of Islam, by the time I was coming of age, quickly changed. It passed power to Louis Farrakhan. And my family—so you’re asking about my family—the family that I came of age in as a kid and then a teenager became a Sunni Islam family. My great-uncle Wallace established a new movement of Sunni Muslims, many of whom were African American.
And I say all that as a long way of saying, they embraced white people in ways that now I have many, many white relatives that are blood and very much different from the conception of the Nation from the very beginning. And in that sense, I came of age seeing the religious roots of my own family background as a much more expansive understanding of Islam. It was not about race, but about a commitment to a belief system that was ecumenical. It was the same kind of shift that Malcolm X himself made late in his life.
As we evolve as Black people, as you get more information, as you gain strength in your own identity, sometimes you can find the stuff that you tolerated from your white friends in high school you would never tolerate now. How do you talk about that sort of evolution with Ben? Because you guys have known each other since high school. I’m pretty sure there was stuff Ben used to say that wouldn’t be cool today, or vice versa.
That’s an interesting question. So Ben is actually not like that, and not just because he’s my best friend. His journey was as kind of the Jewish kid who grew up in what changed from a Jewish to Black neighborhood, and the family stayed. He literally grew up down the street from Jesse Jackson’s family home, and he and his brother ended up marrying their Black high school sweethearts. So, he’s not that kind of white dude.
We joke about this, that when we were coming of age, I was listening to Phil Collins and he was listening to the Boogie Down Productions. He was wearing a gold chain and I had my shirt buttoned up. So, in his case, that’s not exactly the story.
But I did have other white friends in high school where the kind of things that people say, you don’t really fully appreciate at the time, or moments where you feel like someone ought to be sticking up for you and they don’t. And that wasn’t true for Ben, but it almost certainly was true for others. And especially in college.