You know Mama Schlomo loves you. And that’s why we have to talk about privilege. Specifically, I’d like to chat about something I think of as the apologia-apology bigotry loop. Or, the privilege of being friends with asshats.
[Trigger warning for privilege and bigotry of many kinds]
Privilege is a multidimensional thing. I think too often when we discuss privilege we think of it as something a person either has or has not. Really though, all people possess some forms of privilege and not others, and “privilege” might be better thought of as “privileges.” This is what I’m talking about when I say “one of the privileges of privilege” (see next sentence).
One of the privileges of privilege is being friends with people whose bigotries you may or may not share. White people have the privilege of being friends with racists. Men have the privilege of being friends with misogynists. Straight people have the privilege of being friends with homophobes. Cisgender people have the privilege of being friends with transphobes.
White people also have the privilege of being friends with people of color. Men have the privilege of being friends with women. Straight people have the privilege of being friends with queer people. Cisgender people have the privilege of being friends with trans people.
But without some real thoroughgoing compartmentalization, this is gonna get sticky. And not in a fun way.
Let’s unpack this a little. And let’s start with apologia.
Apologia means explaining or defending something. And although not necessarily, apologia is often an explanation of something or someone else. Apologia is that thing you have to do – to yourself or to others – to explain why you have bigoted friends.
To an extent, apologia is at least a logical response. We don’t vet our friends like political candidates. We don’t walk around with belief system inventories in case we run into someone friendly. You can make a friend in ten minutes talking about baseball, flowers, pianos or shoes.
And we want to keep our friends. Pointing this out is almost silly, but it’s very important. It’s the reason the problem exists to begin with. If friends were disposable, you wouldn’t have to worry about defending the indefensible.
So let’s just say you’ve heard your friend make a racist joke for the first time. Or maybe they even just laughed at a racist joke. This is the first evidence you have that your friend has racial bias(es). What do you do?
Well, most people will launch into internal apologia. You rationalize that your friend is a great lady or bang-up gent, and that it’s just the environment or their home life that makes them like racist jokes. After all, you think, lots of people are racist, and who am I to challenge my friend? Besides, it’s not like they made a joke about you.
Your reaction to this situation is whether or not you exert your privilege. And in this case, your silence is a privilege. If a racist joke falls on apologetic ears, did anyone get hurt?
In a word: yes.
The darker side of apologia is participation. Maybe you start adopting some of your friend’s stances and behaviors to blend in. Maybe you only disparage people of color and women when you’re around some of your friends. Maybe you call some guys walking past fags so your friend won’t call you a fag. Maybe you dish with your skinny friends about fat girls and then tell a fat friend, “aw, come on, you’re not fat, you’re cool!”
Believe you me, your worlds will collide. And that’s when you have to start externalizing your apologia. Your homophobic friends and your gay friends? Yeah, they’re going to meet.
And then you’ll find yourself launching into an explanation of how you know this guy, and he’s really a sweet person, and he doesn’t mean anything by it. We have this dangerous notion that racists and sexists and homophobes, etc, are monsters we would know by sight who couldn’t possibly have any redeeming qualities and with whom we would definitely never be friends. And if you wouldn’t be friends with a bigot, well, then you’re friend’s not bigoted.
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. It’s just between you, me, and hopefully everyone else in the world: racists can be nice people. Sexists might coach their daughters’ softball teams. Classists can volunteer in soup kitchens and homophobes might get their hair done in the Castro. Bigoted people don’t have horns and tails. And you don’t have to go out and commit a hate crime to clear the bigot hurdle.
So what do you do when your racist friend unleashes on your biracial bar buddy from biology? Well, maybe you find yourself apologizing. That’s the other half of this loop. Maybe you’re apologizing a lot. How does that make you feel? How do you feel about exposing your friends to people who have biased beliefs about them in an allegedly friendly setting?
An apology without action is an act of privilege. An apology without action says, hey, this might happen again. An apology without action says you don’t really mind having prejudiced friends.
What can you do? I can imagine feeling out of sorts in this situation. You want to keep all your friends because friends are a valuable asset in this world. So your first best plan of action is saying something.
Say: “I’m not going to laugh at racist jokes. I’m not going to call women and gay people awful names. I’m not going to demean the humanity of trans people. I’m not going to force my body habits on fat people. I’m not going to do any of these things. I want you to be my friend, because I like you and I enjoy doing X, Y & Z with you. Can we talk about why you do and say these things?”
Say: “It hurts me when you do or say X. I might not be Y, but I have friends who are, and really, that’s beside the point. I respect the dignity of all people and I hope my friends do, too.”
Say: “It’s difficult for me to invest myself in a person with negative beliefs.”
Say: “I don’t know if I can continue to be friends with someone who puts out negative, biased, prejudiced and bigoted thoughts and actions into this world. You don’t respect my other friends, which is in a very real way disrespectful to me.”
You should talk to your friends who evince prejudices. Because it can help. I know it, and I hope you do, too. But you have to mean it when you say that you want to associate with people who respect everyone’s basic humanity. Because standing by while bigotry exerts itself is the fuel bigotry needs to thrive.
Being friends with bigots is a form of privilege. So what are you going to do now?