How to be friends with bad friends?


Backstory: I live in Jamaica and there’s a great deal of homophobia and sexism and transphobia and really all the -phobias and -isms. Like you can hear it on the radio, in the music. As such it’s hard to make friends who not only have your interests but also don’t court bigotry. Eventually, I settled into a couple friends who either shared my views or respected them enough to not be shitlords in my presence.

Fast forward maybe two years. All of us are in a massive group chat with people from our high school year. As you no doubt all know, group chats represent the summit of hilarious and sometimes very uncomfortable conversation. In this group chat, some one will drop a slur as shorthand for bad (or longhand???). I tried to call it out when it happens, and sometimes I’d get backup, but a lot of times it was just unanswered bigotry. Eventually I became complacent myself and felt deeply uncomfortable talking to LGBTQ+ friends who were adamant that cis men especially needed to help more. After a year of calling out just general unpleasantness I left the group, beginning my first stage of isolation.

I do have some level of sympathy for people when it comes to calling out things. It can definitely make things uncomfortable and sometimes you don’t want to make waves. What I didn’t have sympathy for, being in a friend’s house, a formerly close friend, and hearing folk in his house just throwing around ugly words and thoughts. I couldn’t reconcile my ‘woke’ good friend, saying nothing in his own house, not wanting to stir the pot, just allowing this to happen.

Ever since I’ve been very distant from pretty much all my friends. They call me out on that (the irony), and point out that they’re growing. I’m not sure that’s a valid argument, I was raised to be just like them in many ways and had to do a lot of work to get where I am today (and I’m definitely still working).

So, friends, what limits exist or social math you do in your head before you are just done with a person? Can you balance problematic friends with your own ethics? Does seniority matter at all?


Hey @nykgordon

I’m sorry you had to go through that. What you are describing has a lot of thematical similarity being discussed in the following thread:


I have similar difficulties in workplaces and family gatherings. I guess one could say that I’m too complacent, but I just make my politics known and the group dismisses my views as Soros-funded or whatever. For me, the key is recognizing that I can’t force other folks to care about others, but I can make it known that I do.
It does have a small, positive effect in my experience. I’ve become a role for many of them, the person who they can mention a failure they’ve noticed in the racist/patriarchal hegemony they mostly believe in. Sometimes in a conversation of more than two, my opinion will be dismissed as “Well of course that’s what you would say” kinda thing when I say something anti-racist or feminist. It doesn’t really bother me when that happens because it expresses to me that in some way, mine is one of the perspectives they have internalized enough to consider (though I would say that their knowledge of that opinion is symbolic rather than experiential so it is just treated as a brand they don’t shop for).
All that said, I prefer to be around folks who would rather respect others rather than demean them to claim a higher step on the pyramid-scheme which is modern society. They know that I will leave as soon as I find a better job or a better family and they know why so that’s as much as I can do for people who are actively invested in maintaining the status-quo of oppression. Opportunities to explain systems of oppression come up every once in a while, but as soon as it becomes a debate I try to drop out because then it just becomes a team-sport and I don’t want to treat these issues as a game.
Ideally I would be able to initiate some awareness of class-consciousness so they could understand how capitalism is just dividing us; I could show that we can come together in solidarity as a solution to most of our problems. But I don’t think I am very good at doing that in these interpersonal, local interactions.


I went to a virtually all-white high school in suburban Maryland. (I hate writing this sentence, but this was over 25 years ago.) There were a few guys in my friend group that would drop the occasional racial slur - not to describe a specific person or group, but as a part of a joke or something. It made me very uncomfortable.

I was too much of a coward, and not nearly confident enough in myself, to say something. But one day, I was sitting alone with one of those guys, playing Mortal Kombat (Genesis version, obvs) and we had this conversation:

“You never say ‘[racial slur],’ do you?”
“Why not?”
“I just don’t think it’s right.”
“Hmm. Cool. You’re probably right.”

That was the last time he ever used those words around me.

At the time I was ridiculously proud of myself. Looking back, it’s obvious I should’ve been much more proactive. But still, you should know that even if some people are giving you a hard time, there are probably other people who see your example and are taking it to heart. It’s really a bare minimum, but it’s not nothing.

(Then there’s my wife, who once got an entire group of teenage boys playing Phantasy Star Universe on XBL to not only stop using homophobic and ableist slurs themselves, but they eventually started policing new players in their group, too. I still consider that one of the most miraculous things I’ve ever seen.)


Who is your wife, what other magical properties can she bestow?


I’m pathetically averse to conflict, so I should be a lot better about this in all regards, but I find it particularly difficult in real life. Online I can agonise how to properly phrase my objection (though I still think I do a pretty bad job when I actually do speak up), but in person I’m not able to marshal my thoughts well enough and then the moment passes. Occasionally I’ll muster some sort of non-specifically disapproving “oh come on now” kind of interjection, which is obviously pretty feeble.

What’s really disheartening is there’s someone I work with who has kind of mellowed a bit (though he’s still pretty bad), but occasionally he’ll say that he’s not going to say something because I’m around, which tells me that he hasn’t changed a bit, and he’s just putting on a performance for the irritating spoilsport.

(I should clarify: he was never openly using racial epithets or anything, but he does speak very carelessly and with no sensitivity to others around. And he has the gall to chastise others for discussing politics in the office. And he seems to genuinely believe himself to be sensitive and considerate.)

I ought to find a way to be better prepared to react in the moment.


Personally, I would consider this a success.