What If You Had a Racist Friend?

BBC News, February 9, 2009

What do you say when a friend or colleague utters a remark that could be regarded as racist? Whether or not Carol Thatcher’s use of the word “golliwog” was racist, comedian Jo Brand found it so offensive she walked out of the room.

It is an awkward conversation to have. One minute you are chatting away to an associate when out of nowhere they make a comment you find offensive. Knowing what to say in response, and how to behave towards them in future is not simple. So, what to do about it?

The reaction of comedian Jo Brand to just such a situation led to a slew of headlines last week. After an edition of the BBC’s One Show, in which Brand had appeared, she was unwinding with crew members who included Carol Thatcher–an occasional reporter for the programme.

It’s reported that Brand stormed out of the room after challenging Thatcher.

The flood of complaints over the decision to sack Thatcher from the show suggests that many think Brand’s reaction, and the BBC’s later response, was over the top. Nevertheless, many others will have found themselves in a similar quandary at some time in their life–unsure how to challenge an offensive remark, if at all.

One such person is Jerry Dammers, once the lead songwriter in the 1980s pop group The Specials and then The Special AKA. It was under this second incarnation that Dammers performed one of his best-known songs, Racist Friend.

Cut him loose

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, Dammers says the song was his way of dealing with a friend who “just suddenly used to come out with racist comments”.

“Apart from that he was a really nice guy–it was just really out of character. It didn’t make any sense,” he says.

Apart from penning the song, Dammers also stopped seeing this “friend”–an approach echoed in the song’s chorus: “If you have a racist friend/ Now is the time, now is the time/ For your friendship to end.”

But for Dammers, who confesses he is “not a confrontational person”, the song was substitute for a more direct challenge. He never actually got to tell the person why he had broken off contact.

“He actually died a few years ago. I didn’t see him for years and years afterwards. When I heard that he’d died, I felt terrible that I hadn’t told him that the song was about him, and why I’d cut myself off from him.”

This tactic might work sometimes, but for others the idea of cutting adrift someone dear to them is understandably extreme.

Professor Roger Crisp, fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, says in the case of friends you should make the most of your relationship with them to try to change their views.

“Some philosophers have had some pretty implausible views on friendship. Aristotle thought that only virtuous people could be friends. A racist couldn’t be your friend according to him.”

“Us and them”

But musician Tom Robinson, who, like Dammers, was known for his activism, is wary of the motives of so-called racist friends. When someone shares a racist remark with you, it is a form of conspiracy, says Robinson; a way of them seeing it as “us” talking about “them”.

“They are involving you, trying to make you collude by saying it to you.”

And if the associate in question has very extreme views then it would seem unlikely a firm friendship could have been formed without this opinion having been apparent early on and causing difficulties.

“If the person is a virulent racist, disliking black people perhaps, then there is a difficulty for the non-racist friend,” says Professor Crisp. “Then you think ‘imagine I was black’ then this person wouldn’t like me.”

Although racism in the UK is less overt than it once was, it still exists. People’s views are shaped by those around us, and those that we are aware of–celebrities, politicians and others in the public eye.

“A minor racist joke or comment that seems innocuous filters down, especially if it’s made by a powerful person. It goes much further and influences much more people,” says Dammers.

There is no obvious response to hearing a friend’s racist comments, but from Jerry Dammers’ experience it is a good idea to share your feelings.

“If you don’t confront it, you will regret it, I can assure you that much.”

[Editor’s Note: Stories on the Carol Thatcher matter can be read here.]

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