It’s supposed to be the triumphal moment in the argument. Backed into a bit of a corner, the person in the wrong finally musters the argument-killing blow: “Well, one of my best friends is [a member of a minority group], and ou says…” After this statement is pronounced, the person who is wrong sits back, puffed up with self pleasure, and dares you to top that. Even if you are also a member of said minority group, you must be wrong, because the best friend has been dragged out.
“Well, one of my best friends is a woman, and she loves Tucker Max, so obviously he’s not degrading women!” “One of my best friends is Black, and he says it’s fine to call him ‘coloured’!” “One of my best friends is a wheelchair user, and she doesn’t mind at all when you push her chair!” “One of my best friends is gay, and he doesn’t think that ‘faggot’ is an offensive word.” It always follows this formula: “One of my best friends is/my best friend is/some of my best friends are [member/s of minority group] and [they/she/he/ou] say/s that [your point] is wrong.”
This is called “tokenizing.” When you represent the point of view of a minority group through a “best friend” who is not present to use it to prop up your argument, you are invoking that person as a token. And this is not cool, for a number of reasons, among which is that fact that it alerts the person you are arguing with to the fact that you do not care about that minority group. As soon as the “my best friend is…” argument gets hauled out, I know it’s pointless to continue the discussion, because the person I am talking with is not willing to engage.
So, there are a couple of reasons why tokenizing is not cool. In the first sense, it’s a poor rhetorical tactic, because it focuses on individual experiences and anecdotal evidence, rather than regarding a group as a whole. The thing is, minority groups are not uniform. Women, for example. A pretty big percentage of the planet’s population, in fact, is female, and women do not think in lockstep. There are, in fact, women that like Tucker Max. However, their like of Tucker Max does not invalidate critiques of him which suggest that he is offensive and degrading to women.
Anecdotal evidence is dangerous. People tend to think of anecdotal evidence before they think of actual evidence, and that creates faulty logic and a cognitive bias. There’s actually a term for this: “the availability heuristic.” The more easily an example of something can be mustered, the more likely someone is to view that example as the truth and as the deciding factor in the matter. So, if one happens to know a gay man who doesn’t have a problem with “faggot,” one is going to reject the evidence from gay men one does not know, or from gay allies, which indicates that “faggot” is actually an offensive word which should not be used.
People are different. Everyone experiences the world in a unique way. Advocates for minority groups try to be aware of this, and try to point out that they are making generalizations, and that individual people within a group may feel differently. And, furthermore, that these feelings are valid, that individual experience and beliefs matter, even when they seem to conflict with the whole. When one tries to advocate for an entire group, one speaks in general terms to accomplish a goal which will do the most good. And individual people rarely suggest that they are speaking on behalf of their entire group, because they know they can’t. If one knows a Muslim and one asks that Muslim questions about Islam, ou is not speaking for all Muslims, but rather for ouself, and ou own experiences with Islam. That means that one can’t turn around and take what that person says as evidence of “what Muslims do.”
It’s also possible that a “best friend” is actually just humoring someone. Kind of like how the Obama Administration recently released a statement saying that the dangerous rhetoric in this country is not racially motivated. They knew full well that race is a factor, but they also knew that to say that would incite ugliness. Just like a wheelchair using acquaintance actually hates it when people push her chair, but doesn’t want to make a big production of it, so grins and bears it. Members of minority groups appease people with privilege all the time, for a variety of reasons, and that’s something to be aware of when you are in a position of privilege and people without privilege assure you that your privilege doesn’t bother them. Newsflash: it does, they just don’t feel like having A Discussion about it.
Knowing a single member of a minority group does not make one an expert on that group. It also doesn’t mean that one is not racist/sexist/ableist/heterosexist/cissexist/etc. It may mean that one has been exposed to one person’s knowledge and experiences, that one has been given a glimpse of a very large whole, but that’s about it.
The other thing about tokenizing is that the token usually is not a “best friend.” It’s someone known casually, or maybe it’s someone one doesn’t even know, like that Black man overheard at a party last week. Possibly, it’s someone invented out of whole cloth (like Sarah Palin’s “gay best friend”). If this person was actually a friend, ou would probably not appreciate being cited as an argument-killer, and one would probably know that. Most people don’t enjoy being used as tokens. People who are advocating for social justice and genuinely willing to engage with social justice issues should know better than to engage in tokenization.
Tokenizing is also offensive because, in the cases when the person being cited is actually known to the person doing the citing and might even be ok with being cited, the person doing the citing often gets it wrong. Or takes a comment out of context. Or deliberately misrepresents. Unless the best friend is there, saying “oh, yes, I love it when you call me a ‘faggot,'” I am going to be extremely skeptical. I’ve have my own views misrepresented or grossly exaggerated for the benefit of someone with privilege who wants to win an argument, which means that when I hear someone citing a “best friend,” I am immediately suspicious.
When people tokenize, it’s yet another example of how people with privilege use people in minority groups for their convenience. And, when one with privilege is having a discussion with someone who belongs to a group without privilege about a matter relating to privilege, if tokenizing is used, it serves as an immediate alert. When the person a tokenizer is talking to walks away or ends the conversation, it doesn’t mean the tokenizer won. The tokenizer lost, and just hasn’t been informed of it.