This response, usually said in defense of making a prejudicial remark, is enough to make the blood boil.
It’s such an empty and nauseating response of a person desperate to convince others that their comment wasn’t as despicable as claimed, because they are friends with the group in question. Really, we need a follow-up with these “friends” after said comment was made: Do they exist, and what do they make of the comment?
But the part that is most infuriating, is the happens to be section.
Happens to be implies some kind of accident or coincidence, as if the person making the comment was never really aware of the characteristic.
How could they be, they were too busy being their friend!
The only trouble is that this remark is usually said when somebody happens to be black, gay, female, or have a specific religious identification. There is nothing coincidental in these identifications. Being black and/or female is something present since birth (with the exception of rare skin disorders or the legitimate plight of the transsexual), and sexuality (again with rare exceptions) is perfectly apparent to prepubescents. Religious/faith convictions also tend to be with a person for long periods of time, only they can fluctuate with experienced levels of doubt.
So, this being said, what the person making this remark is really saying, is that they do not really know these friends, which seems a little antithetical to friendship.
The irony here, is that even though this was said as a defense, it only further elucidates the prejudice. When the person remarks happens to be, they are distancing themselves from the characteristic in question. They are ignoring that it is a prominent part of their friend’s identity, and are pushing it into the realm of this coincidence that they never really noticed, perhaps because they do not want to deal with it. Perhaps they don’t like it, and/or perhaps they don’t understand it.
Either way, this equivocation should set off alarm bells, at least until happens to be becomes are/is.
As usual, here is George Carlin putting things in perspective.