Token Black Friends, Now is the Time To Speak Up
Recently a White former co-worker at my old real estate firm sent me a video of looters fleeing a smashed Nike store, their hands filled with shoe boxes. His attached message read: Did you get Nikes, too, babe? (smileyface) When I replied that I felt hurt by his insinuation that I was a thief and that the incendiary event leading up to the looting was no laughing matter, he replied, patronizingly: “Dont get triggered by what you see in the media. You’re better than that.”
In the ashes of the bonfires of protests that have raged in cities across America, and as this country reckons with its centuries-long pile of dirty laundry, I, too, have been forced to face a sobering reality: I am a Token Black Friend.
We all have seen the Token Black Friend. That lone brown face swimming in a sea of beige at that boozy birthday brunch. That sassy co-worker that you name drop every time you meet another non-threatening African-American: “I have a Black friend — you should meet her…you totally remind me of her!” That one girlfriend that’s expected to know how to melodically and hypnotically bust a move at the drop of any beat.
Urban Dictionary defines Token Black Friend as:
…the only African-American in a group of white people. Being the Token Black Friend is similar to being an Oreo, white on the inside yet black on the outside, which is why white people love their Token Black Friend. The token black friend is relatable to them and they feel safe around him or her.
For me, the grooming began early in life when my ambitious Nigerian immigrant parents lied about our address on elementary school forms so my siblings and I could be bussed farther to a predominantly White school district. Naturally, most of my friends were White. In second grade during a history class whilst we were making DIY bonnets and learning about slavery, I got into a little argument with my best friend at the time, a White girl named Diane. She turned to me and said: “If this was the 1800s, you’d be my slave.” We were 7 years old and I’ve never forgotten that moment. My high school years were filled with volleyball lessons, swimming club, track & field meets and advanced placement classes, in which the only other African-American kid in my class was my older brother.
After graduating university, I moved to Washington, D.C., for an internship at a very prestigious worldwide consultancy. I was the only African-American intern and when an Indian-American manager made what I believed to be a racially disparaging comment toward me, I reacted defensively. The situation was mediated by higher-ups, but I was passed up for the full-time position offered at the end of the summer, which I so coveted. I learned my lesson: Lock up your rage, babygirl, and throw away the key.
I went on to work for a wonderful international wildlife conservation NGO in Georgetown. I’ll never forget the moment a White colleague dragged an African-American female colleague to my desk and said, seemingly innocently: “See there’s another Black person with an afro in the office, now!” I said nothing.
For many African-Americans who go from predominantly White educational institutions to similarly homogeneous work environments, our social circles have come to reflect our tokenism. Void of people who look like us. So perhaps we feel insulated from the discrimination and turmoil others endure daily. I admit, I’ve been groomed for so long, I sometimes became uncomfortable when I was in a room of predominantly Black people, like a fish out of water. And I even stopped noticing when I was the only African-American woman in at all-White functions.
Occasionally, my White friends forgot, too. Once, I was at a bar in midtown having drinks with a Russian friend, who was crashing on my couch after losing his apartment, and his White friend, who boasted of doing time in prison. My friend told him matter-of-factly: “Don’t say that. Jail is for nigg*rs.” I gave him until the weekend to find new accommodations.
Recently, the doors to my pandora’s box of pain flung open. All those years of subtle racist incidents and humiliating displays of discrimination that I’ve kept bottled up and locked away, seeped out in a painful yet cathartic wave. That racism touches and impacts every African-American in this country regardless of class or creed, criminality or lawfulness, is America’s worst kept secret.
Days after the video of a White police officer kneeling on the neck of a groveling, defenseless African American man — slowly and deliberately killing him in broad daylight — went viral, I began finally having some uncomfortable and necessary conversations with my non-Black friends, about systemic racism that is so ingrained in American life it feels…all too mundane. Blink and you may miss it. But I won’t. I’ve had to explain why, after being passed by yellow taxis since I’ve moved to New York City 10 years ago, I was grateful for the advent of Uber and Lyft. Finally I could book a car without being judged by the color of my skin.
I’ve had to explain how I’ve acted un-bothered while being perpetually followed in stores by security like a thief. How I’ve maintained my grace and composure despite being blatantly ignored or given below average service at upscale restaurants and bars — because servers think people who look like me don’t tip. I’ve had to explain to friends why a White woman calling the police to report a false crime against a man versus an African-American man, could mean life or death for him. Criminalizing Black skin is the new noose. Is this what it means to be “Better than that?” I have been for so long, yet nothing changes.
A friend last week posted on her Facebook status update: “Who the F*ck is George Floyd, Anyway?!” along with links to articles of his criminal history. I replied, “He is a Human Being.” My friend later privately messaged me to apologize and iterate how much our friendship meant to her. I felt the same. Now is not the time to block friends who do not understand the injustice toward African-Americans in America.
Sometimes, I feel that I’ve wasted my tokenism. If after all these years of friendship, you can look at me and think I don’t experience harassment and hurt because I am a confident, educated, social, attractive African-American woman, are we really friends? Do you really know me, your Token Black Friend? Have I honestly shared with you this burden of stealth racism that weighs upon my conscious? This paranoia of discrimination that I have inherited from this country merely because of my skin color? Am I so good a liar that I have convinced you that discrimination does not exist and I am not emotionally scarred and weary from it? Do you watch the news of protesters and think, “My Black friend Jaja is better than those Black people because she is well-behaved and doesn’t complain.” If so, I’ve been a horrible Token Black Friend.
Now is the time for Token Black Friends to speak up. When you silence your Black voice of reason and reality, you fail your non-Black friends. You miss a moment to educate and enrich your relationship. I realize now that by always “being better than that,” by ignoring the problem, by quietly settling into the role of the non-threatening Black friend and by not having these discussions that make everyone shifty and “uncomfortable,” I have facilitated relationships built partly on lies. It’s time to remedy this. It’s time to talk about it. We don’t have to all see eye to eye, but now is the time to use our Token Black Friend status and access to White people for the greater good. Share your experiences. Speak up. True friends will listen.