Accountable Relationships – Or – “I’m not racist. My friend is black.”

“I’m not racist.  My best friend is black.”

"I'm clearly not a sexist.  My girlfriend always feels empowered."
“My housemate is Jewish, so there’s no way I could be anti-Semitic.”
“My brother’s gay.  I have no problem with gay people.”

Don’t get caught in this trap!  The list goes on and on.  I have heard it a thousand times, and unfortunately, at different points in my life, I have said it myself.  The “I’m not (insert ‘ism).  My friend is (a member of the group in question)” excuse for something problematic we may have just said or done or stood by and ignored.

In “The Wall”, I talk a lot about introspection and relationships being the keys to overcoming one’s personal prejudice and bigotry in order to build a more hate-free and just world.  I rarely use the word relationships, though, without prefacing it with the term “accountable.”  I do so because so often, people try to use their interpersonal relationships to shield themselves from the kind of honest introspection that must accompany their relationships across difference.  If we cannot look inside of ourselves at our own prejudices because we think our relationships prohibit us from being prejudiced or bigoted, we are seriously misguided.

I, for one, have a number of friends of color.  I know, though, that my friendships with people of color are hindered, though, by my own innate prejudices around race and ethnicity.  I have friends from a number of religions, but that does not mean that I am free of religious prejudice.  I have friends who are gay, straight, and everything in between, and I even find it difficult to identify as straight.  However, I still have my struggles with homophobia and heterosexism.  Only through really understanding my prejudices (FIRST) and building more accountable relationships across difference can I hope to overcome these sad realities.  What do accountable relationships look like, though?

In talking so often about relationships, I realized that it is important for me to clarify the difference between an accountable relationship and a tokenizing relationship.  After all, if my work ever encourages people to tokenize those around them, my point is not only missed, but my work may be doing more harm than good.

In thinking about this subject, I love the site that a friend recently showed me called “Black People Love Us” because of how it satirizes the whole idea of a tokenizing relationship.  I highly recommend you check it out.  Tokenization refers to when someone is approached, befriended, questioned, or addressed because (and solely because) they are a member of a particular identity and as a representative of that identity.  Basically, we’re talking about treating someone as the “token” black person, woman, queer-identified person, Jew, poor person, whatever it may be.  To tokenize them is to seek out a relationship with them simply BECAUSE of their identity.  Oh how often I have seen the conversation turn to race and someone ask the lone person of color in the room, “As a Latina, how do you feel about __________.”  I sometimes worry that my encouraging people who are working on their own prejudices to seek out diverse relationships will encourage less accountability and more tokenizing.

Don’t Be Michael Scott

Thus, I’ve decided to follow in the long line of list-oriented blogs out there and devise a few lists of what “Accountable Relationships” look like and what “Tokenizing Relationships” look like. Undoubtedly, though, I have forgotten TONS of stuff. PLEASE add to the lists! In the comments section, I would love to see what other people see as accountable versus tokenizing!

Accountable Relationships . . .

  • Are based on a genuine interest in the other person as a person, not simply as a member of a group.
  • Involve constant introspection.  If you can’t look within yourself to understand your motives and the baggage you bring to the relationship, you can’t be truly accountable.
  • Are built over time – You can’t expect someone to talk honestly, especially about tough issues of identity, after hanging out twice!
  • Grow from mutual interest in one another – you can’t build an accountable relationship unless you have some stuff in common!
  • Are relationships all the time.  When you’re in a group of folks who are just like you, you are still accountable to your friend who is not necessarily like you.  You can’t stand by and allow prejudice or bigotry a home if you’re truly being accountable.
  • Involve tough conversations.
  • Involve light-hearted, fun conversations too!
  • Provide a space for those in the relationship to “call one another out” on issues of power and identity – When I’m doing something messed up, I expect those with whom I’m in an accountable relationship to call me on it.
  • Often involve apologies – In accountable relationships across difference, you’re going to make mistakes.  Lots of them.  Be ready to ask for forgiveness and grow from the experience.
  • Provide a space to socialize.  It shouldn’t JUST be built on tough conversations and struggle.
  • Involve mutual growth – If only one member of the relationship is growing and learning, you’re looking at a tokenization.
  • Are honest.
  • Are built on trust.
  • Are confidential when necessary.  Don’t go blabbing the intimate details of your relationship to other people, especially if you think it proves your “cred” when it comes to race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.
  • Are constantly changing and growing.
  • Makes both people happy!  Accountable relationships should, in the end, be a positive relationship, one where both people are happy and excited to see each other, to talk to each other, to spend time with one another.

Let’s build more accountable relationships!! And fewer tokenizing ones.

Peace be the Journey.

Tokenizing Relationships . . .

  • Are based solely on wanting to know someone different than yourself.  They have no other purpose, nothing else in common, or no other common ground other than difference.
  • Expect one member of the relationship to educate the other on issues of identity – Educate yourself first.  Then the relationship should be a place for challenging discussion of those issues.
  • Are defensive – When someone calls you out for something you said, you react defensively!
  • Involve one member “showing off” the other to friends. Not cool!
  • Expect one member to speak on behalf of their identity.  “As a black person . . . ”  “How do Muslims feel about . . .”
  • Are only relationships when the other person is around.  Being accountable to those of other identities means standing up against prejudice or bigotry, even when they’re not around.
  • EVER involve the “I’m not (insert ‘ism).  My friend is (a member of the group in question)” excuse.
  • Question the other person, their identity, or their motives when they are not present.  Accountable conversations are great!  Call each other on stuff!  Just don’t call someone else into question when they’re not around.
  • Are patently offensive to one of the members.  Political correctness is a great idea – it basically says that when words are known to hurt and offend, don’t say them!  Don’t allow political correctness to stand between you and your friends, but know what hurts and offends and don’t say it!
  • Are stagnant – if there is not growth in the relationship, it runs the risk of being tokenizing.
  • Is harmful in any way to one of the members.
  • Involve dishonesty – If you are not honest with each other, what is the relationship built upon?
  • Are draining to one or more member of the relationship.  If the relationship is exhausting but is maintained because a member sees a greater good, it is not particularly accountable.

5 thoughts on “Accountable Relationships – Or – “I’m not racist. My friend is black.”

  1. One thing that is super interesting that I had never thought of is that my friend Sheila recently pointed out that in reading the “Accountable Relationships . . . ” side of the blog, she couldn’t help but think that this is exactly what she hopes to find in a romantic relationship. I hadn’t necessarily thought of it in this way, but I think her point is amazing.

    I want my romantic relationships to be accountable, anti-sexist, anti-oppressive relationships as much as (perhaps even more than) any other relationship in my life. Thinking of said relationships in this context, then, is just another way to build a more loving, healthy partnership.

  2. […] hurts to be told that you have done or said something pretty messed up (which is why when creating accountable relationships, apologies are super […]

  3. […] all, as I say in my blog on Accountable Relationships, relationships can’t “JUST be built on tough conversations and struggle.”  We […]

  4. […] Relationships across difference – Let’s start/continue reaching out and building accountable relationships! […]

  5. Maybe it\’s because all of the women you\’ve been with aren\’t right for you. That\’s how it was for me exepct for one person.Here\’s my story. I fell in love with my best guy friend not long ago. We\’ve been good friends for two years before we fell in love. We aren\’t together (long story), but we still love each other and will always be there for each other. One day, I think we will be something great once he realizes what he has with me. My opinion is, I think it makes a relationship work out better if you\’re good friends before you start anything intimate. That way you already have an understanding of that person before you take a leap into intimacy.

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