My new friend did blackface!

I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. Should I say something?

It’s definitely time for a conversation, says our elder. This is a real teachable moment.

Dear EWC

I am a junior in college and only now am I making friends. There is a guy in my major that I get along with really well. We have similar humor and approach to concepts and appreciation for absurdity. We’re slowing hanging out more outside of class and through him I am making another friend. I know my description of this probably sounds silly but friends are very hard for me to make and keep. Anyway, last week I discovered he did blackface a few years ago. He was going through pictures and said to me and someone else, “Oh, this is me in blackface. I won’t show you this.” I honestly thought he was doing a bit. I mean this is the same guy that I have felt comfortable joking about race with. The same one who asked me if it was a cultural appropriation for him to get a Black Lives Matter tattoo (he’s white; I am black).

Obviously, since I am writing you, it wasn’t a bit. He showed us a picture of his face covered in brown eye shadow. I immediately laughed for two reasons. 1) Nervous laughter is a very unfortunate natural reflex of mine when I don’t know how to react and 2) I honestly couldn’t believe that he was being serious. His reaction was to say he was glad I could laugh at it. I was trying not to let it bother me, but I can’t stop thinking about it. He didn’t really seem ashamed or apologetic but is that too much to ask from such a short interaction that was over as suddenly as it started, and we were on to a different topic? Is blackface really this normal? We act like its not. But maybe to some white people it is. I don’t know. Should I try to move past it and be friends or should I just drop him? He did say he’s different now, so maybe that was his way of showing remorse. What do you think?

Aondreaa replies

Your letter gave me pause to think, and I decided (as an old white lady) to call one of my friends (an old black lady) to discuss your situation. We both agree that you should not give up on your friendship because of this unfortunate revelation. At the same time, we think you should have a conversation with your friend (one on one) to let him know that, despite your offhand reaction in the moment, you are really distressed about the incident and would like to explain to him how demeaning it is to a person of color for a white person to dress in blackface.

My friend and I agree that this is a “teachable moment”, and hope your conversation with your friend will lead to increased sensitivity on his part and increased the ability to deal with troubling situations on your part. How the two of you handle this will probably determine where your friendship goes from this point forward. Hopefully, he will acknowledge how hurtful his dressing up was to you and will not do so in the future. Who knows, perhaps he will go back to the photo and delete it, perhaps not. His reaction to your friendly concern will go a long way toward repairing the damage and will be a lesson learned for both of you.
My friend and I agree that we ourselves have laughed or failed to respond honestly to potentially embarrassing situations that occur in a group setting. Be sure that your next conversation with your friend is not confrontational or accusatory. You want to improve and cultivate the friendship, not terminate it.
Good luck! We hope that our advice bears fruit!

Letter #: 451641
Category: Friendship

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