Canceling the “Black Friend” Excuse

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Lots of white people believe interracial relationships, from buddy cops to baseball teammates to romances can fix racism. But in real life, conversations about race that include some of my best friends are now scholar Khalil Gibran. Muhammad is tackling those clichés head on.

S2: We can’t use our relationship as evidence that racism is no longer a problem.

S1: Race, racism and friendship. Coming up on a word with me. Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. 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 what’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. And so the phrase some of my best friends are killed, 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’s the co-host of a new podcast about race, entitled Some of My Best Friends Are On The Pushkin Network and Khalil Gibran Muhammad joins us now.

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S2: O Jason, Thank you, and what a great leader and love it. Love it!

S1: So look, I don’t know any black person who does. In fact, in fact, the phrase some of my best friends are is is almost dated. Like, I would think even most white people know better than to say that phrase right now. But but you know what gave you the idea to make that the name of the show?

S2: Yes, it’s a 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 listen to the same music and hip hop. It 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 kind of 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 and how people navigate these conversations and issues about racism.

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S1: You’ve done a lot of serious scholarship. You’ve been at the center of these conversations about race and friendship. And I think that’s so key conversation about race and friendship, which is 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 at? Or have you been able to express as easily through your research?

S2: Oh, what a great question. So. 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 you know, 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 to our professional careers. Twenty five years for me as a historian, 20 plus years for him, as a professional journalists to say, we’ve also been studying, writing about educating and engaging these issues for a very long time.

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S1: Your first episode is about interracial buddy movies, right? And so you touched on some of the classics, defiant ones. I’ve never seen that when trading places, I’ve seen a million times. 48 hours. You know, and 48 hours is sort of a buddy cop movie with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. Here’s a clip.

S3: You don’t even try this shit, man. I don’t work like this. No deal. We ain’t got no deal. I own your ass. No goddamn way to start a partnership. I get this. We ain’t partners. We are brothers and we friends. I’m putting you down and keeping you down until Gaines is locked up or dead. And if Gaines gets away, you’re going to be sorry. You ever met me? I’m already sorry.

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S1: Now, look, each of these movies follow 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 somehow their hate is is written as if it’s equal. You know, you can talk about, you know, happened Leonard, the recent show with the recently deceased Michael K. Williams. You know, the white guy tends to be empowered in these relationships. 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?

S2: Well, what they show us is that these films are made for white audiences, particularly white men, male audiences. I mean, one of the things that Ben and I were keen to pay attention to when we conceived of this, this episode was are there interracial buddy films with women, with black women and white women, or with Asian women or Latino women? Though, 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’s who’s actually, some of you may know from being the host of Turner Classic movies. One of the hosts and we asked her this question, 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 notion of Katherine stock its characters in the help, played by Viola Davis, also evokes a kind of tradition of a mammy figure as the helpmate to a white woman. Hollywood hasn’t breaking. 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.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break, we come back more on interracial friendships with historian Khalil Muhammad. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. Hayward listeners wanted to tell you about the upcoming Texas Tribune Festival, a multi-day celebration at the intersection of politics, public policy and big ideas, which I will be participating in happening virtually September 20th through the 25th. You’ll hear from speakers like Pete Buda, Judge Nikole Hannah-Jones, Better Work, and I’ll be talking to Julian and Joaquin Castro about the political landscape in 2021 and the 2022 election cycle. See what’s next for Texas and beyond. Tickets at Trib Fest dot org that’s Trib Fest dot org. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about friendship across race with author, scholar and podcaster Khalil Muhammad now. Muhammad is an unusual name for like black people, and I always point out like 20 percent of American Muslims are African-American. Everybody for people who don’t know that, that’s not uncommon in the black community. Tons of us Muslims in our family. But your name comes from the black Muslim family. Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation Islam, is your great grandfather. How is your own family story shaped your ideas about race and what’s possible in interracial friendships?

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S2: Yeah, yeah. So surprisingly, what’s what’s fascinating is so of course, my father and grandfather as a son, my my grandfather is a son of Elijah Muhammad and Claire Muhammad. And my father, as a grandchild, thoroughly immersed and grew up in the nation of Islam and the degree to which the nation of Islam that my grandfather built from the Forties until his death in the 1970s did practice a kind of black centered, focused economic and community development program that obviously 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 pass 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 a new movement of Sunni Muslims, many of whom were African-American. And I say all that to say is 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 that Islam was not about race, but about a commitment to a belief system that was ecumenical was the same kind of shift that Malcolm X himself made late in his life.

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S1: 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, 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.

S2: You know, 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 a having changed from Jewish to black neighborhood, and the family stayed story. 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, 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, so in his case, that’s not exactly the story, but I did have other white friends in high school where, you know the 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 certainly was true for others and especially in college.

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S1: So I remember when I was in college, my first year at the University of Virginia, and there was a meeting of the Black Student Alliance and the the head of the organization standing in front of everybody. And he’s like, Hey, this is for members only, not the press. And I happened to be there with a very liberal white friend of mine named Josh. And so he said the press needs to leave and we’re all kind of looking around. And then the whole room turns to my friend Josh, and he’s like, The press needs to leave him shocked. It’s like, Oh, I guess they think, I guess that means me. And he got up and he left right. And I think there something to be said when you’ve had these kinds of relationships where you said, you know, people sticking up for you and everything else like that. How were you guys going to talk about that management? Because not everybody who has the best white friend does that white friend happen to have a black, significant other, which probably increases his awareness? Your average white person doesn’t know a damn thing. They they rarely know when to stand up for black people. How do you sort of introduce people to that concept?

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S2: Yeah. I mean, it’s a good question, because I think that part of what this show is trying to do is to let people know that the work is. Is life long that it’s not just modeling honesty in the conversation itself, but it’s also exposing that people who feel like they work in diverse environments or they live in diverse neighborhoods are barely scratching the surface of what is required to reach greater awareness, as we know it is required for this kind of anti-racist commitment, but also then to actually do the community based work. So let me give you give you an example. I have a neighbor who I’m close to, and when I first met this neighbor, he’s a white guy, referred to something his son was doing by calling his son out of his name. He called his son, Jamal. Wow. And when I heard it, when I heard I was like, No, he didn’t like because what he was basically saying is, you’re acting black because you’re misbehaving. And so this is a little embarrassing because this happened 10 years ago, but I have still not talked to that guy about this. But here’s what’s happened. He and I have become very close friends and he is doing some of the structural work to change this country. And I say that as somebody who who understands policy, who understands what’s required to some degree to fix the structural foundations of racism in this country. And I can say with great sincerity, he’s doing it. But it’s very hard to go back to 10 years ago when I when I should have done it then, but it might have railroaded the relationship. So what Ben and I are trying to do in the show is to say, Look, we have to have these conversations when they’re happening. We have to be smarter about what’s going on. And then we have to lean into the actual brick and mortar of dismantling racism rather than being comfortable that we had this difficult conversation.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break, we come back more on interracial friendships and racism with Khalil Muhammad. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today we’re talking about interracial friendship with Khalil Muhammad. So let’s take a step back. This white fantasy that personal relationships are key to ending racism is something that white folks hold very, very dear. Here’s a clip of Joe Biden talking about it in a speech earlier this year.

S4: Did you ever think you’d turn on TV? You’re much younger than I am, but your little boy? This year, everything could turn on the TV, and roughly two out of three had to be biracial couple selling a product. That never would have happened,

S1: Biden has said more than once. He cited interracial couples in commercials as signs of progress on race. I’m going to tell you this Khalil, because this is a key thing for me. Not only did I find that offensive. Not only did I write a piece about it in The Grio, but I have actually found the spate of interracial relationships in both commercials and television to actually be kind of an act of violence. And the reason why is because they are not reflective of actual demographic changes in this country. And second, the relationships still seem to be there sort of mock progress. You know, 86 percent of African-American men who are married in this country are married to black women. 92 percent of black women in this country who are married or married to black men. And yet, and I’ve done my own research on this over 70 percent of interracial couples on television. It’s always a white guy and a black woman. How does the idea of interracial friendship change when someone’s partner selection is also interracial? Because I can imagine being friends with a generic white guy can be very different. If that white guy has a black girlfriend or a black wife or or a white guy, he may think he’s progressive as heck. But when his black friend comes home with a pretty white woman, suddenly he’s feeling kind of bothered about, and he can’t explain why. How does that affect things?

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S2: No. First of all, the Biden clip demonstrates just how absurd it is to assume that genuine love in a relationship between a black person, a white person or even two people who happen to be non-white is Asian or Latino, etc. is sufficient. I mean, our show is meant to pierce the veil of ignorance about how simply having an interracial relationship, whether it’s an intimate one or friendship is enough. And while you’re right, having a best friend who also ends up marrying his black high school sweetheart puts him in a rarefied category relative to relationships in this country. The point is you have to make a choice. And so if interracial couples make the choice to see themselves as racial progress on its own terms, then they’re contributing to the problem. If Joe Biden and Barack Obama see themselves as being able to work together as evidence of racial progress simply because they’re black and white, they’re failing to address the fundamental problems that shape the fortunes of people in this country.

S1: And I like that point that you made about people thinking they’ve done the work. What I always point out and what I pointed out in response to say, you know, Biden’s statement is, you know, Candace Owens has a white husband. They’re proud boys. They have black, significant others. Just because you’re sleeping with someone or you’ve married them doesn’t mean that you are in any way in favor of those people having full equality or agency in society, right?

S2: Yeah. Jason. Let me tell you a quick story this this is worth hearing. OK. So when I get to graduate school in New Jersey, I arrive in nineteen ninety five. I’m warned by fellow students that the neighboring town, which is called Edison New Jersey, is a place where black people get stopped regularly, so be careful. It just so happens a few months later after arriving. I’m driving. I’m with my date. We’re heading home from a late night movie. I get pulled over by a police officer. I knew I was going the speed limit. I knew my tags were legit. I knew there was no good reason for me to be stopped. The officer pulls me over, asks me to get out of the car. He points to my license plate and shows that the frame that had put on by the dealer was partially obstructing the name of the state of the license. So in the meantime, another officer pulls up questions. My date. She’s a passenger asks her for ID. She happens to be the daughter of a of a municipal judge in Chicago and says she does not have to share ideas. He’ll be calling her mother. He backs off. I say, Hey, wait a minute. You know, I was told that there were racist cops in Edison. I don’t, you know, I think that’s what’s happening here. You know, get back in your car. I’m not a racist. If you don’t, if you don’t get back in your car, you’re going to get arrested. So, you know, I had a decision to make, you know, so I decided to get back in my car, but I immediately drove to the precinct to file a complaint. Do you know what the internal affairs officer said to me about why the cop who stopped me couldn’t be a racist? Why is that? Because he had a black girlfriend.

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S1: So if you see the range in my face

S2: so you can see the full arc of what we’re talking about here. I’m actually a victim of systemic racial profiling that is later affirmed by a federal investigation. I’m part of the, you know, the literally the statistics of people being stopped under these conditions. When I actually follow through to complain about it, I get told that it’s all in my head because the cop who stopped me can’t be a racist because he has a black girlfriend. There you have it.

S1: What is it that you hope listeners to your podcast will take away from it? What is what’s an email that you could get or a tweet or response that you can get that’s going to make you and Ben say yes, that’s what we wanted to do. That’s what we wanted this podcast to get people to start thinking about and changing.

S2: Yeah. Well, so so the interracial buddy films is this is the first episode, but actually our season is really broad reaching and how we are trying to get at the structural issues and absurd ways in which Americans convince themselves that these things are not as they seem like, this kind of magical thinking that the problem is not as bad as it seems. And of course, in the midst of a backlash against all manner of discussion, what would my colleagues here and I talk about? These are the anti anti-racist who are starting to fill the airwaves with the nonsense that all of what people like Ben and I are doing is actually racist. So we’ve got a lot of work to do. And you, as an educator, as an educator, we are trying to educate about a range of issues. So our next episode that drops soon will be on visiting European prisons to understand what does change look like outside of the United States. Since we can’t seem to wrap our heads around the fact that mass incarceration is the greatest civil rights challenge and example of structural racism that came after the civil rights movement. Maybe we can help people to see this more clearly by looking across the pond. So in some ways, we’re not attempting to to analyze things that people already having conversations about, but we’re trying to reach people who might otherwise tune out or opt out of those conversations because they’re invited into this intimate space between Ben and me that might lower the guards that people put up when they say, Oh, I don’t want to hear any more about that.

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S1: Host Khalil Gibran Mohammed is a historian, author and co-host of Some of My Best Friends are a new podcast on the Pushkin network. Dr. Mohammed, thanks so much for joining me today.

S2: Thanks so much Jason for having me as a lot of fun.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Saluja is the managing producer of podcast Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.