When we engage in discussion with one another we often pull from the knowledge of our friends, families, and colleagues to bolster the statements we’re making. When I talk about attending law school in the future I’ll frequently draw on the experiences of my father, an intellectual property attorney. He has experience with the type of education in which I hope to immerse myself and in a career that I will pursue, and he is a credible source concerning issues related to law. However, his understanding of the curriculum one encounters in law school is not the be-all and end-all of knowledge related to the subject. His field of work has many nuances that are not shared by the type of law that I want to practice: human rights. As knowledgeable as he is, it wouldn’t make much sense for me to consult him about something like the persistent problem of the impunity granted to war criminals in Latin America. His degree doesn’t allow for him to answer the questions I have about all things law, and I therefore couldn’t use his identity as an attorney to disparage the claims of someone more practiced in an area than he is. So what is the point of this analogy about my lawyer dad? Let’s break it down.
The process of drawing on the supposed authority of one’s friends and family happens quite often and it’s frequently used to make false claims about what a group of people that share an identity think about certain issues. For example, does the phrase “well, I have a gay friend and she thinks that it’s not homophobic” ring a bell? If that one doesn’t, perhaps “my black friend doesn’t care if I say the n-word” will sound more familiar. The context of someone making a statement like the examples that I’ve provided is usually that the speaker has been called out for saying something that the person they’re addressing finds insulting, and they’re trying to disparage the latter’s concerns. The speaker is uncomfortable for being told that they’ve done something wrong, and rather than apologizing for making a mistake, they are finding a way to discredit the listener’s argument so they can avoid accountability. The dynamic of this situation is understandable; it’s difficult for us to admit when we’re wrong and it can feel embarrassing to correct ourselves when we misspeak. Nevertheless, a moment of discomfort does not justify using the identity of others as leverage so that we may continue with speech or behavior that is harmful.
For starters, a situation in which one uses another’s identify to justify their own actions or words is sticky from the get-go because the person being used to support an argument is likely not there to voice their own opinion. Let’s use the aforementioned example and say that you’re white and you’ve just used the n-word in front of a friend. Maybe you said it casually – you were singing along with one of your favorite songs and it’s part of the lyrics. You probably didn’t mean any harm by it, and you’re surprised when your friend tells you they don’t think that’s okay. You’re caught off guard by their reaction, so you immediately think of that one time when you were in the car with your black friend, singing the same song, and they didn’t even flinch when you said the word. Hurt by your friend’s response, you get defensive and say that your black friend didn’t care when you said it. This moment is precisely when you’ve reduced your friend to nothing more than an excuse. Did you sit down and discuss how they felt about your use of the word? Probably not. Did you glance over to them after the fact and notice if their expression had changed? I doubt it. Do you know if they were just holding their tongue for the sake of not arguing with you? No, you don’t. You are not entitled to speak on your friend’s behalf because in a case such as this one that involves a politically charged word, they are not present, therefore rendering them unable to voice their own opinion.
When we use another person to dispute someone’s dissent to our actions and words we also run into the issue of using the beliefs of one person to represent those of an entire group of people. That group of people is inevitably diverse – they are bound to think differently and it would be impossible for just a single person to serve as their mouthpiece. Cultural appropriation functions well in this context to illustrate my point. A few months ago, I ran across a post on Tumblr that was written by a young Hindu woman. She was disputing the claim that it’s culturally appropriative when a white girl wears a bindi at a music festival as a fashion accessory. Subsequently, young white women that this post concerned were reposting it and the collective sentiment expressed by them was, “see, I told you it’s fine!” I do not mean to disparage the writer of the post – she has the right to her own opinion and she’s absolutely allowed to express it. However, the white women reading what she had to say, whether or not they realized it, assumed that because this one particular Hindu woman gave them permission to wear a bindi, that all Hindu and other women who wear a bindi for cultural or religious reasons must feel the same way. It’s likely that these white women would go on to discount any claims that they were indeed being culturally appropriative, which further perpetuates a sense of entitlement enjoyed by powerful demographics. In the context of this example, the white person who is being appropriative is also being reductive of the culture as a whole by assuming that every person belonging to it must think identically.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this post is that making assumptions about the way other people feel regarding social and political issues should be avoided. People who have societal privileges use these assumptions to continue with behavior that is disrespectful, and when we look at the bigger picture, the behavior is part of a larger patterns of ignoring oppressed groups when they voice the challenges brought by their identities. Friends and family should not be turned into tokens – people who serve as a component of a symbolic relationship that is meant to prove one is not racist, homophobic, sexist, or etc. Knowing and being in the company of someone of a certain identity does not mean that one does not hold prejudice against that identity, and it would serve relationships of all types well to consider the ways in which our thoughts, words, and actions can contribute to marginalization.
For more reading on tokenization of friends, I suggest visiting these links: