That awkward moment when I realized my white "liberal" friends were racists
Has the sharing of prejudice evolved into a hip bonding ritual in 21st-century America? This writer shares his surprising experiences as a white male navigating through young white “liberal” circles — after all the black people have left the room.
“White power!” the smiling girl declared, her fist held high in a grotesque imitation of a Black Power salute. A tall, thin, stylish humanities major in a midriff-baring red T, she was a vegan, an environmentalist, an intellectual, and she was my friend.
The comical scene played out to its record-scratching, freeze-frame, “WTF?” climax around a picnic table populated by frat boys in the middle of the sunny UCLA campus. It seemed like the thousandth time a friend had suddenly unloaded a blatantly racist bombshell, although this was the wildest one yet.
As a Canadian working and studying in Los Angeles for ten years, I began to wonder why progressive young hipsters of various races were so eager to privately share their disturbing ideas about black people. The fact that these probing admissions came from a large number of my “coolest” friends, rather than the usual suspects, made it seem like a disturbing new cultural phenomenon.
Seemingly nice young people, once they knew and trusted each other, were trying to take their friendship “to the next level” with these revelations of their racist beliefs. It was like they felt they could finally talk openly and drop the façade they maintained in public. They did this joyfully, as if it were a postmodern bonding ritual to confirm that they were members of the same cool social “tribe,” one that didn’t include blacks.
It wasn’t like all my friends, or even the majority of them, were doing this. But it was a lot of the ones that I had liked and admired before they let me in on their little secret. “White power” girl had been a friendly, interesting person I’d known for months when she invited me to lunch with her friends one day.
The friends turned out to be a bunch of burly, blond “Triumph of the Will”-esque frat boys, but when I talked to them, they seemed surprisingly “alternative.” They were into literature, history and art. They said they didn’t drink, inviting me to an underground frat party where they planned to take “psychedelics” and project old films along with the music, as if they were at a Hollywood club.
All this chilling and friendliness screeched to a halt when my friend saw a black student group handing out flyers nearby. She started fuming about it, saying it shouldn’t be allowed, that we ought to do something about that. Then she up and dropped her “White power!” on us. I actually laughed and repeated it sarcastically, thinking it was a bad joke.
The frat boys froze and stared at her. She frantically tried to reassure them with “It’s okay, he’s into it!” At that point, I understood that I was the only one at the table not “into it.” One of the guys hissed “Shut the f— up!” at my friend. For a second, I felt I was in a conspiracy thriller. What was this, had I stumbled onto a coven of white supremacists at UCLA? I never really found out, since my “friend” barely spoke to me again after that.
Other encounters in L.A. weren’t as dramatic but ran along the same lines. When I first came to the city from Canada, I didn’t know what to expect, other than stereotypes learned from the mass media. Most of these weren’t accurate, but there was a sort of relaxed, casual racism and segregation around the city. I saw blacks and whites living and working in the same neighborhoods, but I didn’t have any close black friends for years, and neither did any of my friends.
This wasn’t surprising, considering some of their personal opinions. One of these friends in L.A. was a supercool, dreadlocked (but white) dude who told me his father was a Death Row Records corporate lawyer. His girlfriend was a blond cheerleader who said her bank executive father gave her an SUV, an apartment and $10k a month on her 16th birthday. They seemed to know the people and have the money to prove their stories.
The couple was unusually nice to my brother and me, eagerly inviting us out for expensive sushi in the Hollywood Hills. Once we had a few drinks, they got down to the bonding, regaling us, initially in hushed tones, with what they “knew” about black people. I don’t know why they chose us; maybe because we were nice Canadians they thought we must be good old-fashioned white folks.
The guy told us how much his father made off of the rappers and how easy it was to finesse their contracts to give them less profit. He said most of them were criminals and not smart enough to run their business by themselves. Considering who his father’s boss apparently was, he may have found it easy to justify certain stereotypes in his own mind. His girlfriend’s ideas were even more laughable, including the classic “Black people are dirty!”
Now, these two may sound like a couple of clichéd racists, but in everyday life, at school, around their black friends, they always seemed like non-judgmental, progressive liberals.
But there was another friend who was far more liberal than the others, and who had much more profound philosophical beliefs about race. This was a really caring, creative, and certifiably alternative Asian-American woman. She was well-educated, highly-skilled and just interested in the world.
One night, after lazily describing an eccentric idea for a piece of furniture shaped like a deep-sea creature, she explained her quite developed theories of social Darwinism as applied to African-American history and the civil rights movement.
She had heard that Martin Luther King was actually a self-serving demagogue who fomented racial animosity and stopped blacks from integrating into modern society. She wondered if the post-slavery marginalization and death of so many black people was just “survival of the fittest” at work — a natural “culling” that would efficiently thin the herd of American society by eliminating its weakest members.
She had also visited the South and was amazed at what she saw as such an ideal relationship between blacks and whites. She thought that they really knew how to get along with each other there because they had been living together so closely since the time of slavery.
Some of these opinions are extreme, but they may be more common among “intelligent” people than we think. It’s not that these apparently liberal racists knowingly create some convoluted hybrid philosophy combining progressive concepts with outdated racial theories. The reality may be that racist ideas are still passed along so effectively that many people take them for granted and don’t see any problem holding them in parallel to their political ideals, conservative or liberal.
That’s why this type of social bonding through shared bigotry seems so dangerous. It makes some people feel that racism is an important part of their identity, something that reinforces a sense of belonging to a special group, while differentiating that group from others.
Originally Canadian, Adam Salter studied and worked in Los Angeles for more than a decade, where he graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy. He has worked as an independent equities trader for over 15 years and is a published freelance writer with an interest in finance, technology and online media. He also has held several positions in educational institutions such as the University of Toronto and The Pantheon Institute. Follow Adam Salter on Twitter: @ASaltLick