I Let My White “Friends” Get Away With Their Racism Because of "Respectability Politics”

I used to be one of these black people who would let their friends get away with their racist behavior because I was afraid of calling them out.
Publish date:
June 29, 2015
racism, France, microaggressions, Respectability Politics

“Flare your nostrils! Show me your big lips!” said the cousin of one of my friends, making fun of my obvious black traits. Everyone around, including my friend, was laughing. I wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. For them, it was harmless. I should be able to take a joke, right?

It was my first year of middle school. I was insecure, barely knew people, and I was trying to fit in. He kept making the same jokes every time we’d wait for the bus back home. I was 11, and already used to racist jokes. I used to laugh it off, because I didn't want to show how hurt I was. Being hurt meant being weak, and I was already so disadvantaged that I couldn’t afford to alienate the very few friends that I have.

A former friend, one I could have given my life for, welcomed me at one of her parties with her and her boyfriend screaming “Ku Klux Klan” at every one of my steps. I told her I wasn’t even African-American and, regardless, it didn’t make any sense (I didn’t bother explaining to her how offensive it was). Plus, she was Middle Eastern, why would she make these kind of jokes? She kept laughing, and kept chanting until I went to another room.

At my 22nd birthday, a childhood friend started laughing when I told her that I was a cheerleader. For her, it didn’t make any sense that I could be black, and cheerleading. Needless to say, that birthday was a mess.

Until a few years ago, I only faintly defended myself when I was confronted with my friends’ racism.

One of the reasons is that I am the poster child for respectability politics: I am a second generation kid, working class, raised by a single mother and made my way to private schools thanks to my good grades, and an educational system where the tuition fees are more affordable than in the US or the UK. I had to have the best grades, be smarter, more mature, to please my teachers and have a good job, because so many people I grew up with didn’t have that chance. This is called survivor's remorse, and I still struggle with it.

I had to be better than my white classmates, and it meant taking the higher road, even if I had to sacrifice my pride as a black girl and my well-being. I wanted to prove my humanity to people who will never see me as one. I wanted to be loved, popular and respected. That way, they’ll end up respecting me, right?

This is called respectability politics. In France, respectability politics means denying your origins and becoming whitewashed. We have to be the butt of the joke, and stay quiet. Everyone reminds us that we are black, but this is not a badge of honour we can wear. It’s seen as a disability we’ve managed to overcome.

The funny thing with respectability politics, no matter the country you come from, is that it is bullshit. I was doing better than most of my classmates, but they were always putting me down by reminding me that, despite all of this, I was still black, and a single pair of their shoes could buy my entire flat. And so did the teachers, trying to tone down my ambitions, because I wasn’t supposed to have any. They acknowledged my talents, but I was still a second-class student. Malcom X said it best: “You know what they call a Black man with a PhD? A Nigger.”

So, sometimes, I’d go along with it. They’d joke about how black men have huge dicks and I’d agree (despite barely having seen one yet).

The other reason is that I didn’t really considered it to be racist. I come from a country where there is no discussion on race, and where white people get offended when you call them on their racism. So, I didn’t want to be the girl. The one who is always offended by anything and everything, who can’t take a joke, who is not fun. Yet, since I was always the only black person in the room, all the racist jokes and comments were on me.

Once, I had a two-hour dreadful “conversation” with a guy I had just met. It was at an industry event, and I thought we would talk about movies. Instead, he asked me if he could make a racist joke because I was taking something out of my mate’s pocket. I told him he didn’t need to. I got attacked for being too sensitive.

It seems like many white people feel like it’s a God-given right for them to be racially insensitive, and when you don’t allow them to, they start going on and on about how they should be able to say what they want, and how it was wrong for me to refuse to hear racist jokes. It’s gaslighting at its finest. I shouldn’t dread social events with my friends just because that I know that, at some point, people will make racist comments. Yet I do. It's brought me so much anxiety that I started to truly believe that there is such a thing as racism-induced PTSD.

I didn’t realize how damaging my experience as one of the only black girls in my posh high school was until long after I’d left. I’d have nightmares about being stuck in the school, unable to graduate.

To be honest, I was well aware of racial issues at this time. But I didn’t want to speak, for fear of being ostracized. These people who would make fun of me for being black were childhood friends I have known for years. How could I blame them for their behavior, when we’ve been friends for so long, shared so much, been through so many adventures and obstacles?

I started standing up for myself long after high school. I moved abroad, where struggling to find a job as a writer as already hard enough: I couldn’t be bothered to waste time with racists anymore. I had to pick my battles, as well as my friends. I separated myself from these toxic “friends” when I realized how wrong their behavior was, and that every time I didn't stand up for myself, I was giving them a pass.

I didn’t remember so much the words of the people who wouldn’t accept me, but the silence of my friends. If they truly loved me, they should have spoken up every time racist comments happened, and stop saying these things themselves. If they didn’t, it meant that I deserve better. Even if it meant putting an end to a decade long of friendship. It hurts. A lot.

But being black, whether they like it or not, is part of my identity.

Today, I can say that I speak against these people every time I encounter them. A few months ago, I went to a elementary school reunion. One of the kids I used to hang out with, out of spite, I guess, started screaming, “Nigga, sale négresse!” (Dirty negress.)

I snapped back, telling him that if it was the only insult he could come up with, I felt sorry for him. After all, he was a jobless loser living at his parents' house with no future, and there is nothing wrong with my being black. Also, I was more successful than him.

It’s not my job to teach anyone about racial sensitivity, even in a culture where this concept is almost unheard of. Google is there for that. If my friends don’t know any better, I can’t afford to stay in touch with them. Needless to say, I’ve lost plenty since.

Respectability politics will not teach white people to respect us, if they don’t do so in the first place. On the contrary, they will be even more hostile, always putting you down for daring to dream big.

In the end, I’m proud of who I am. So, to everyone who has been in my situation, I understand you. Having the courage to call out people on their racism, face to face, is difficult. I understand why you wouldn't. White people who make these comments will do as they please, whether or not their black friends let them. They just use us as an excuse.

However, I feel like it’s uplifting to finally gather the strength to do it. Because if these people do not listen to what their loved ones tell them, then they’re not worth keeping around.