The 2003 International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education article, Tiffany, Friend of People of Color: White Investments in Antiracism, by Dr. Audrey Thompson is a powerful scholarly article on whiteness and the problematic nature of keeping Whiteness at the center of antiracism. It is one of those must-read pieces that all critical race scholars should review and reflect on while working in the academy.
This provocative, refreshing piece is written by a White critical race scholar who places the complexities of Whiteness at the center of her discourse on race and racial politics within an educational context. She is clear from the start that the focus of her piece is not on folks of color and our/their unique lived experiences. Thompson reminds us that even Gen. George Custer said the White army was the “Indian’s best friend.” She is not trying to save, cure or fix colored folks with enlightened liberal scholarship that acknowledges multiculturalism as the great societal equalizer. She is not advancing the familiar Hollywood feel-good, real-good-White person saves local ethnic minority, redemptive narrative approaches found in several popular movies, and diversity-type scholarship, of the past 10 to 15 years. Thompson is not “saving” or “befriending” folks of color through a liberation discourse.
Instead, she focuses on creating an open dialogue for White folks about their own blind spots about racism and privilege. She targets Whiteness, White identity, White politics, White pathology and even includes substantial critical commentary on the wave of colonization of the academic work of people of color. Thompson calls for good White folks to examine their own Whiteness before jumping to the ideal of self-exceptionalism and operating/writing/talking authoritatively to set agendas to save or become the friend of the Other.
The story is powerful because it briefly uses a composite White female character, Tiffany, as an example of the most visible and common form of liberal, antiracist whiteness. The story of Tiffany is a meta-narrative and exemplar of the nice, well-meaning, liberal White person helping in the “training and taming” of people of color. One of our colleagues describes this type of person as “cosmopolitan and caring.” After meeting Tiffany and Thompson’s other metaphorical character, “Dr. Lincoln,” (as in Honest Abe), students, scholars and administrators of color must wonder: What would or could we powerless, decentered colored folks ever do without “Tiffanys or Dr. Lincolns?”
Unfortunately, within the popular diversity discourse of higher education, Tiffany has also been suspended in hallowed animation — in complete self-denial of deeply embedded systemic racism and how it affects her life. Sure, Tiffany is indeed a good person; however, she doesn’t believe or see or experience systemic or structurally racist systems, so, of course, those underlying systems must not exist. And if it does exist, Tiffany’s theory or ways of knowing and practicing provides the cure for her “friends.” Tiffany lives within an epistemological and ontological framework where her goodness is the most important thing. The self-centered assumption is that there is really nothing called systemic racism that might possibly get in the way of success and surely she is the unexamined exception to the racial norms of her environment.
And when does Tiffany’s friend enter the conversation? Most importantly, Tiffany’s deniability is supported by good “non-White” folks like Christie. Who is Christie? She is that modern day “friend of color” who provides the safe space where Tiffany’s deniability can flourish. Together, Tiffany and Christie create a dangerous liaison — the good person perpetuation of systemic racial inequity.
Thompson’s piece brings to mind the creation of the iconic late 1960s’ Mattel doll, Christie: Friend of Barbie. Barbie had existed since the 1950s and is one of the most problematic icons of post-World War II American popular culture. However, as a response to the civil rights movement and corporations realizing that they can make additional profits directly marketing to the Black community and, of course, the need to appear “good” and liberal, Christie was born just in time for the dawn of the 1970s and a new racial discourse that demonstrated Barbie (Tiffany) was not racist. Barbie had a Black friend who looked and dressed just like her, except for the color of the molded plastic.
While Tiffany is problematic, she cannot exist within a vacuum. Tiffanys need friends like Christie who assist in the unquestioned processes of accepting the good-White-person redemptive narrative. Tiffany and Christie are equally uncomfortable composites in the pathological discourse on race. Many folks of color know Christie exists, and many of us have been privy to those discussions about her, but we only have those discussions behind closed doors. This too is problematic because the Christies of the world contribute to their second-class-citizen, object-vs.-subject role in Tiffanys’ socially constructed reality. On the other hand, while many folks know that Tiffany exist, and a few folks are willing to put her whiteness “out there” we just can’t seem to talk about Christie or Christie’s own racial deniability and assimilations which perpetuate the status quo.
Christie’s role is to protect Tiffany from the “bad” colored folks who dare speak up about racism, or who reject or questions Tiffany’s self-centered theories or approaches to diversity/multiculturalism. Christie makes sure that Tiffany is never uncomfortable and is always the unquestioned expert. Christie’s accommodating nature, nonthreatening language, confused identity (e.g., Christie understands what “Black” is or should be through the lens of Tiffany), subservient discourse and hand-holding, we would argue, is perhaps more dangerous than Tiffany’s deniability, because Christie serves as the dangerous liaison to an entrenched system of oppression and privilege that all of us should question, re-examine and challenge.
More importantly, however, is that Christie becomes institutionalized as the colored “friend” who undeniably supports structural racism and inequity by never allowing Tiffany to catch a glimpse of her own Whiteness, privilege and racism. Christie accepts Tiffany’s ideas and theories as universal and affirms that work through unflinching supporting of Tiffany. Why? Because the standard narrative demands that Christie cannot occupy the center of her reality and have inherent value. She must exist as a friend of … , student of … , colleague of … and never as a self-determined human being. Christie exists because Tiffany, for her own goodness ratings, needs to demonstrate that she is not racist and is a friend of Black people.
The new Christie is everywhere. She is the faculty or staff member of color, who routinely rescues White people from uncomfortable conversations about race, privilege and supremacy, which in turn supports Tiffanies’ arrested development. Who knows, maybe Tiffany can engage in those discussions and learn from them if given the chance to hear another discourse that might be uncomfortable. Since Christie feels a need to protect dear Tiffany from a reality check, Tiffany and Christie remain in deniability and contribute to the perpetuation of racism throughout college campuses and other public spaces.
Christie must begin to ask herself who she is independent of Tiffany. Christie should try centering herself within the narrative and stop trying to live up to Tiffany’s ideal of what people of color should be. Their collective deniability and complicity becomes the acceptable model of how people of color should act in this reality-life show. Christie becomes the best model of people of color because she is a creation and direct reflection of Tiffany. She makes everyday racism feel so undeniably comfortable. After all, she is oh so Christie!
Mark Giles contributed to this blog.