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Auntie SparkNotes: My Friend Keeps Offending People

Hi Auntie!

I have a friend (let’s call him Tommy) and I think he might be a bit racist, or the very least, extremely ignorant. For some background, I should tell you that I’m a non-black POC who goes to a school where the student body is pretty racially diverse.

Tommy has been in my friend group for a year now, and some of the comments he makes are beginning to rub a lot of our friends the wrong way. One friend—we’ll call her Beth—tried confronting him about this and he brushed it off saying that she “shouldn’t be so sensitive” and should “learn to take a joke once in a while.” I’ve also met his family and they were very nice (well, his mom and his sisters were), but his dad was acting slightly hostile towards me until he found out that I wasn’t Tommy’s girlfriend.

At this point, I’m Tommy’s closest friend and I have found that he is someone who likes to say things for the shock value. However, recently Tommy confided in me that it annoyed him how so many people in our friend group were so touchy on the subject of race, and some of the things he said about this were very troubling. The gist of it was that he thought racism isn’t a problem because he has never experienced any type of discrimination (he is white) and our friends are “trying to make a big deal out of something that isn’t.”

I feel partially responsible for this whole situation because I was the one who brought him into the friend group. Some of our friends are starting to distance themselves from him and he can feel it. I know that if I cut him off, most of our friends will also do the same, and I’m not sure if I would be okay with being part of the reason why he would have no friends. A part of me wants to educate him, but another part thinks that someone shouldn’t need to be told why certain jokes are not funny. Seeing how dismissive he was when Beth tried to confront him makes me not even want to try. Overall, I do not find him to be a malicious person (besides this issue), but it’s so exhausting to talk to him sometimes and I don’t know what to do anymore.

Ugh, me neither.

And I’m sorry, Sparkler, because I think you were probably hoping I’d tell you to cut Tommy off, full stop. And not only that, but that you shouldn’t feel bad about it, because he’s a big yucky racist and nobody should ever feel guilty about kicking one of those to the curb.

Unfortunately, darling, I can’t draw that conclusion for you when you haven’t drawn it yourself—and especially when your letter is so vague on the question of what the guy has actually done. In the absence of any direct quotes or examples of behavior from him, it’s impossible to know anything about this situation… except, of course, that he disagrees with your friends when it comes to treating the issue of race with deference. But no surprise there, right? After all, deference isn’t really part of his makeup; like you said, he’s more of the “say outrageous things just to get a reaction” type.

The thing is, that doesn’t necessarily make him racist, and whether or not he’s prejudiced or ignorant is beside the point, anyway. The real problem here is that he’s a bad fit for this group—and hey, that’s plenty on its own. He says things for shock value when everyone else expects sensitivity. He makes light of the stuff that your friends find deadly serious. He’s utterly misaligned with the norms of your social circle. And because you brought him into the group, everybody kinda looks at you when he does something obnoxious, putting you in the miserable position of feeling like you have to pick sides.

Here’s what confuses me: as his closest friend, why haven’t you told him—in the way that friends do — that he’s being a douchebag? I mean, when he confided in you about his annoyance that race was such a touchy subject with your friends, that would’ve been a primo opportunity to say it: “Dude, you really need to learn to read the room. I know you think you’re being funny, but nobody else does, and you’re alienating the entire group.”

Because that’s your point, and vitally, it’s not a point your friend can argue with. Forget the exhausting and futile idea of trying to “educate” him (pro tip: nobody in the history of the human race has ever been successfully lectured into having a different sense of humor, anyway), and just give him the facts about the impact his behavior is having on the group. When he does X, people feel Y, the inevitable outcome being Z—with Z in this case being that nobody wants to hang out with him anymore. And if he thinks they’re being a bunch of oversensitive pearl-clutching offense-seekers, then hey, that’s fine; he’s allowed to think what he wants. But your friends are similarly entitled to be offended by whatever they want—and if he wants to keep spending time with them, then he’s just gonna have to stop doing and saying stuff that upsets them. Their group, their rules. Whether they’re being reasonable or not is entirely beside the point.

If you want to talk to Tommy, this is going to be your best approach… and honestly, even if you don’t want to talk to him, you might want to at least consider doing so before you ice him out. Maybe you shouldn’t have to explain to him what seems obvious to you, but when you’re talking about cutting someone off, especially someone who considers you his closest pal and will be left virtually friendless after you end things, “I shouldn’t have to” is a pretty weak excuse for doing it without warning or explanation—and if you were about to lose an important friendship over your social missteps, you would want to know why, right? So regardless of your next move—to end the friendship, or try to save it—don’t do it without a conversation.

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