"Why Can’t We Be Friends?":  A White Remedy to Racism

"Why Can’t We Be Friends?": A White Remedy to Racism

Why can't we be friends?

Why can't we be friends?

Why can't we be friends?

Why can't we be friends?

 

The color of your skin don't matter to me

As long as we can live in harmony

–“Why Can’t We Be Friends?” War (1975).

This was the first song that came to mind after watching the trailer for The Best of Enemies, set to be released on April 5th. Based on “a real friendship,” the film focuses on the rivalry between Black civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis (played by a very white supremacist-looking Sam Rockwell) as they fight over school desegregation in Durham, North Carolina. In the end, as always, they become friends. Great.

Following in the steps of Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy, it would appear (at least from the trailer) that The Best of Enemies is yet another film intended to simplify racism and offer an easy antidote to it: friendship. The implication behind these films is that we are only a few more white-Black friendships away from racial utopia. These are ideologies that are packaged by and for white people. The Best of Enemies is directed by Robin Bissell, a white man, and is based on the book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South (2007) by Osha Gray Davidson (another white man).

Despite the fact that the authenticity of the film is debated—Don Shirley’s brother, Maurice, called the film a “symphony of lies”—Green Book managed to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (as well as a Best Supporting Actor award for Mahershala Ali). The essence of Green Book’s success is the implication that interracial friendship can overcome racial barriers. While friendship and fraternity are undoubtedly important ingredients to race relations, Frank Vallelonga and Don Shirley eating KFC in car does not directly combat institutional racism. Yet audiences clapped as a clan of white men gave acceptance speeches about “loving each other despite our differences.”

Though interracial friendships and intimate interracial relationships are important as they reveal the stupidity of the rationale behind racial segregation, Hollywood’s frequent emphasis on the redeeming quality of interracial friendships is overblown and is usually more about the personal journey of the white man rather than the complexities of Black/white friendships in the United States. Interracial friendships are displayed with the intention of highlighting the courageous men who managed to “stop” being racist and hold the tools to overcoming racism. The redeemed character of interracial friendships is always the white man. While the Black character is essentially a means to end the white man’s racism, a prop, it is the Frank Vallelongas of the world who ultimately emerge victorious, having now conquered the little demon that forced them to hate any Black person, place, or thing.

Hollywood uses literal friendships as a vehicle to destroy racism. However, the reason that War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” came to mind for me is that War sees friendships as something more metaphorical rather than literal. The song does not suppose that literal friendships will end institutional racism in the United States. Instead, War—a predominately Black funk band—offers a version of “friendship” that can be understood as a lack of antagonism and racial violence of whites against Blacks. An alternative title of the song might be seen as “You Should Let Me Be Your Friend.”

The narrative of The Best of Enemies, meanwhile, seems to be yet another story intended to show white audiences that if Black and white people can be friends, then maybe police violence, racial income inequality, and disproportionate Black imprisonment can be “overcome” by a hug and a smile.

The Best of Enemies appeals to audiences because we recognize immediately that there is something almost impossible about interracial friendships. Relationships between Black and white Americans are inherently complex because of the subjects’ relative position in the American racial hierarchy. At the top there are straight haired, blue-eyed, white people, the middle is occupied by everyone else, and at the very bottom sit Black people—Americans who were once only counted as three-fifths of person, Americans who were, and continue to be, treated as less than human. Impossible not in the sense of imagining how a white person can be unprejudiced enough to be friends with a Black person, but rather how a Black person could navigate a relationship with someone who directly benefits from a racist state. Why would a zebra want to befriend the hyena?

Perhaps this is the reason why the “Unlikely Friendships” animal calendars and videos are so heartwarming and popular: they are friendships that would seem to be incomprehensible. If Juniper the fox can lie down next to Moose the dog, then we can, for a moment, believe that we all have it in us to live in harmony. And perhaps, even, white America’s love for the meme-filled bromance of Joe Biden and Barack Obama is based in the hope that if they can hug and smile at one another, then racism can be ended once and for all. Their friendship signals hope for White America, a belief that American racism can be ended by fraternity and, considering patriarchal structures, by a common manhood.

With all this being said, The Best of Enemies has not yet been released. But this is not to say that I haven’t already seen it as the narrative is familiar and well worn. Unlike Jordan Peele’s recent release, Us—an actual Black cultural production written by an actual Black person—The Best of Enemies is a story that is built by and for white people. Its intention is to make white people feel good about what is being done about racism. It’s a narrative that almost encourages inaction in its implication that having a Black friend is the antidote to racism and that love, the ingredient behind friendship, is the answer: nothing more needs to be done. There is no need for prison reform, the decriminalization of drugs, or reparations. All you need is love. In this case, love, much like talk, is cheap.

Charlie Lahud Zahner.jpg

About the author: Charlie Lahud-Zahner is a Junior studying Cultural Studies and Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. He is currently re-listening to Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy and trying to make the perfect egg sandwich.

Personal Pasts, Collective Forgetting, and the Limits of DNA Ancestry Tests

Personal Pasts, Collective Forgetting, and the Limits of DNA Ancestry Tests

“I Am Not My Hair” and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

“I Am Not My Hair” and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

0