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To Every White 'Ally' Who Has Racist Friends

Daniel Radcliffe's comment about having racist friends is indicative of a larger problem.

23/08/2016 5:49 AM AEST | Updated 24/08/2016 1:36 AM AEST
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It's a privilege to get to still be friends with racists. 

“I know some really f***king racist people, friends I vehemently disagree with,” actor Daniel Radcliffe recently declared in an interview for The Hollywood Reporter.

“They’re not white supremacists, they would never be that extreme, but they are anti-immigration and absolutely voted to leave in Brexit,” Radcliffe added.

“And I’m still friends with them because I don’t think that friendship should be drawn along those lines.”

But, shouldn’t it? And if not, then does it really matter that you “vehemently disagree?”  

Radcliffe is currently starring in “Imperium,” a movie in which he plays an FBI agent who goes undercover in a white supremacist group, and finds himself struggling to separate what’s real and what’s fake as he tries to take the group down.

The film seeks to explore what compels people to follow such extreme ideologies, and to humanize, in a certain sense, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. As director Daniel Ragussis said in the same Aug. 19 interview, “There are people you could probably sit with for a couple hours and have the time of your life, and all of the sudden, you find out their political beliefs and you’re shocked because you still have these common human qualities.” 

There’s definitely truth in that. Human beings are complex, our bad and good qualities are often layered so densely together that it’s difficult to paint any one individual as just one thing. For Radcliffe, and for so many people like him, that seems to be what’s at play when dealing with the blatant or casual racism of friends and family. Severing ties with friends based on their racist views, Radcliffe explained, would be “a really sad way of viewing the world.” 

Of course, it’s easy to make a statement like that when your point-of-view is one that’s never been challenged or compromised by the realities of racism. Only someone who has never been discriminated against because of their race could view racism in such abstract terms. To say that racism is a “way of viewing the world” makes it seem as if it’s just a belief system that doesn’t have real world implications for people of color.

So many people ignore their grandpa as he complains about “foreigners” at the dinner table, or their best friend from high school ranting about Black Lives Matter on Facebook, because they can go to sleep at night with a comfortable thought:

At least I don’t believe that. At least I’m not like them. 

White people can disagree with the racist comments of certain friends. And they can feel good about themselves for having so-called liberal, accepting opinions. But then... what? What actually changes? How do their politics actually help anyone?  Perhaps the most insidious thing about casual racism is that there is nothing actually casual about it. When it goes unchecked, it only gets worse. 

The problem with continuing to be friends with people who hold racist beliefs, however benign they may seem, isn’t the actual friendship itself. It’s human to want to remain close to someone who you love, someone who has perhaps been in your life for a very long time. The problem is the silence. Silence is complicity. That’s something every white person who feels that they are against racism should consider whenever a friend or family member says something racist and they don’t challenge it. If you’re really against racism, if you really cared enough about stopping the spread of racism, how can you be complacent?

Something else to consider: choosing to be friends with someone who says or does either blatantly or “casually” racist things is, yes, a privilege.

So many people of color have to close off a part of themselves as an act of survival, in order to deal with white friends who use racial slurs in front of them, or tokenize them. They have to weigh the option of actually saying something and being viewed as the “angry minority,” or keeping quiet in order to assimilate. And sometimes, people of color must ultimately make the decision to sever ties, a decision that often has social and professional ramifications. 

This does not mean Daniel Radcliffe is racist. Indeed, his ability to admit and acknowledge that there are racist people in his life that he holds close is a first step, an important step. But his admission that their beliefs aren’t enough for him to even consider breaking ties with them is part of a larger, often unexplored conversation about what it actually means to be an ally. It’s not enough to disagree. You also have to do something. 

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