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).
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
Dear Tender-headed friends,
I remember when I first saw that picture on Unsplash, the stock photo website where I find pictures for my blog. I was drawn to it immediately, first to laugh and then to ponder. I remembered being asked “can you braid my hair?” from sixth grade and on. I remember the gentleness with which I would approach the scalps of tender-headed friends with straight hair. I remember how easily their hair would slip and fall, almost as impossibly resistant to my hands as white people tend to be with my words—the braids wouldn’t hold up.
And I’ve found that the friendships I made when I played this role don’t hold up either.
The phrase “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” comes to mind. I am thinking about how resistance I’ve had to build up from years of having my mother braid my hair to reach a point where simple cornrows do not hurt. The kind of resilience this represents is the resistance is a result of being able to withstand pain for a long period of time. Resilience is the kind of power you are both proud of and angry about. Getting my hair done was always dreadful but I was told that the pain was necessary in order to be seen as beautiful. Internalizing this message and finding places for my mind to go while I was getting my hair done made it possible to get through the yanking of the comb and the jerking of my head to whatever angle my mother needed it to be.
Resilience— is was also the quality that made it possible to put up with micro-aggressions from my white friends, who’s world I upheld by never challenging their racist ideas, mindsets and micro-aggressions. Even in my moments of waking up from being this kind of friend, I’ve used “grace” as an excuse to be careful while I braided…and I’ve found that the rationalization’s I’ve made for the comfort of my white friends haven’t held up, just like those cornrows that would fall apart after a day or two.
The point here is not to apologize for anything. I originally wrote this with the word “disclaimer” at the top. A disclaimer speaks to guilt and it speaks to that part of you that is as “tender-headed” as your scalp. The part of you that hasn’t built up a resistance that would allow you to confront the ways you operate in and contribute to a racist system.
I am not here to braid anybody’s hair. Cornrows are a protective style for black people: We have protective styles, yes protect our hair from the weather, the world and white hands—but protective styles are about health and growth. You will probably always be, literally, tender-headed and your braid will probably always fall out in less than a week’s time.
You will never need a protective style in the way we often do, literally and figuratively. But if you want anything to do with anti-racist work, you will need to be resilient: otherwise braids won’t be the only thing that won’t hold up.
A Former Token Black Friend
something serving to represent or indicate some fact, event, feeling, etc.; sign:
a memento; souvenir; keepsake:
something used to indicate authenticity, authority, etc.; emblem; badge:
an item, idea, person, etc., representing a group; a part as representing the whole; sample; indication.
Originally published on Medium.com on June 29, 2017. Revised June 26, 2019.