The Token Black Friend: An Owner’s Manual
So you’ve finally made your first black friend! Now, there are tons of responsibilities that come with having a token black friend…but luckily, those responsibilities are not for you, it’s for them! Here’s a list of things you can begin demanding of your token black friend (TBF).
1. something serving to represent or indicate some fact, event, feeling, etc.; sign:
“I’m friends with you — I can’t be racist.”
Your TBF, by association only, exonerates any idea that you have a racist bone in your body. How can you be prejudice if this single friendship shows your kindness and goodwill towards people of all races? Take a deep, guilt-free breath.
2. a characteristic indication or mark of something; evidence or proof:
“Would I even be having this conversation if I was racist?”
I must reiterate this, because it’s the most important point: You’re not a racist. You have no racist ideas running around in your mind. Racists don’t have black friends. Racists don’t work in black neighborhoods. Racists don’t talk to their black caregivers. Being racist means you’re mean to black people, and you’re not. You aren’t mean to the black people you know, in fact, one of your good friends is black!
Here’s where you get to point at your TBF as proof of your complete and perfect morality.
3. a memento; souvenir; keepsake:
“Wow, your hair is so different — can I touch it?”
Think of your memories of that vacation or missions trip you went on last spring. They represent a brief and momentary adventure into another world. There were things that you found uncomfortable and even a little strange! — but ultimately it was fascinating. Since your trip was temporary, the people you met were welcoming and always eager to explain their world to you.
Remember when you went into that gift shop? You got to walk around and touch souvenirs and think about what you’d fill your suitcase with on the way back. Maybe a t-shirt that said the name of the place you were at.
You can always look back at that one week you spent there, which points to your fluency with cultures and people. In the same way, your TBF points to your fluency with black culture and people. It’s basically the same thing.
If your TBF doesn’t receive you with full hospitality as you experience their culture, it’s okay to be upset. Your eagerness and curiosity should always be welcomed. And yes, you can touch their hair, it’s all part of the experience.
4. something used to indicate authenticity, authority, etc.; emblem; badge:
“I have a black friend who agrees that all lives matter.”
Now that you have a TBF, your experience with black people makes you prejudice-free, bias-free, and exempt from blame or cause whenever the conversation of racism comes up. Quite obviously, if you’re able to have conversations with your TBF about anything, than you should be able to have those conversations with any other black person.
Other black people should see your TBF as a sign of your authority to ask, seek and demand similar hospitality and care from them. If they don’t welcome you into their world, then they must be racist, not you.
You’ve got a TBF, where’s their token white friend? It may even seem like they don’t even care about your experiences and struggles.
You’ve got opinions too, and your opinions matter. Your TBF’s experiences allow you to speak in all matters of black life and experience — because of course, all lives matter. Let them know that your TBF agrees that all lives matter, too, because everything your TBF says should represent how all black people should think.
5. an item, idea, person, etc., representing a group; a part as representing the whole; sample; indication.
“But you’re black, how can you not know what ____ is or how to ____?”
You can depend on your black friend to act as a window into a culture you see as not representing your idea of normal.
If there’s anything you don’t understanding, your black friend can clear up any confusion about the customs and practices of other black people. They should have the answers to everything. When your friend fails to come up with satisfying answers, or says, “I don’t know” — I know, crazy — you can say, “But you’re black.”
At all times you can depend on your TBF to help you communicate with other black people. They might not be aware of it, but it’s up to them to be the ambassador or translator of their culture. After all, it’s their responsibility.
“Our friendship is proof that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream became a reality!”
Your token black friendship is proof that slavery and racism aren’t a problem in America anymore. Jim Crow laws? A thing of the past!
Sure, there are innocent black men and women being killed by law enforcement, but that’s not your fault. It’s sad, but it doesn’t mean you should be screaming “black lives matter.” I mean, how can you even really be sure they were killed because they were black? There’s no way to prove that.
Remember, when your family members and friends say racist things about black people? They are not talking about your TBF. Anyways, you’re nothing like them because you actually have a black friend — you’re much more enlightened; you after all don’t see color.
Thanks for reading.
One last tip: Your TBF isn’t like other black people — be sure to remind them of this, constantly. That’s probably the best compliment you can give. You’re letting them know that you don’t find them threatening and their intelligence is unusual, yet refreshing. They are so relatable, which is surprising. Not at all what you were expecting!
You’re embarking on an incredible journey. It should be fun, thrilling, exciting, and never uncomfortable. If you’re uncomfortable, your TBF is doing something wrong. If they are challenging your understanding of your place in the world or making you question whether or not you’e part of some systematic injustice, abort friendship.
There will be plenty of other opportunities to befriend black people who will allow you to have the carefree, responsibility-free friendship you want and need. There will be tons of people who would be willing to allow you to ride the coattails of their culture and walk through the museums of their lives. When one door closes, another will open — and a good token black friend’s door should always be open to you.
Providing a disclaimer would be like apologizing for the countless experiences of black people who are always translating. People who know what it’s like to stand as a bridge between cultures and take on the full responsibility of navigating blackness while conforming to cultural whiteness.
People who care deeply for their white friends, and desperately want them to see the complexity and full humanity of black and brown people. People who have lived their lives “on display” for the curiosity of people who surround them. People who have been told that not answering certain questions is mean or rude.
Much of this post is a based of general stereotypical ideas of “what it means to be white,” which can be actively rejected by the reader. But there are specific attributes of this manual that are often communicated subconsciously, or embedded in rhetoric that is innocent and harmless. Such rhetoric is known as a “micro-aggression.”
The real disclaimer is this is not about making you feel guilt. But also, no one should have to live their lives in constant attentiveness to your guilt. No one should have to nurse and feed your guiltlessness. That would be adding more responsibility on all the black people in your life…and if they are anything like a “good token black friend,” they are already doing too much.
But if you feel guilty, know that it’s only a step in a multi-step process and you have to get past it if change is ever going to occur. Guilt, my friend, is just as unhelpful as ignorance.
The expensive price of staying guilty (or ignorant) is the cost of true conviction that actually affects change.
A Former Token Black Friend
Originally published on Medium.com on June 29, 2917.