Thought provoking and germane. So many of us whites have multiple contexts where there is one black person who’s part of the group. What are they thinking? What should we be doing as decent human beings to recognize that their lives differ from ours — and that those differences often shouldn’t exist?
Reflections from a Token Black Friend
I am regularly the only black kid in the photo. I have mastered the well-timed black joke, fit to induce a guilty, “you thought it but couldn’t say it”, laugh from my white peers. I know all the words to Mr. Brightside by the Killers. I am a token black friend. The black one in the group of white people. This title is not at all a comment on the depth of my relationships. I certainly am blessed to have the friends that I do. But by all definitions of the term, I am in many ways its poster child. And given the many conversations occurring right now considering systemic racism, it would feel wrong to not use my position as a respected friend within a multitude of different white communities to contribute to the current dialogue. In fact, I believe my story in many ways speaks directly to the covert nature of the new breed of racism — its structural side and in consideration of implicit bias — so it may prove helpful to the many I know seeking a better understanding.
Growing up, I lived in the inner city of Boston, in Roxbury. I went through all of my schooling years in the suburbs outside the city through a program called METCO — the longest continuously running voluntary school desegregation program in the country, which began in the late 60’s. My two siblings and I attended school in Weston, MA, one of the nation’s wealthiest towns. The place quickly became our second home, and I would count it equally as the place I was raised alongside Boston. All three of us did very well by all standards upon graduation from high school. We had all been co-presidents of the school, my brother and I were both football captains, and all three of us went on to top-end universities.
For those wondering about the structural side of systemic racism, I’d ask you to consider a few questions. First, why does METCO still exist? Segregation ended more than 60 years ago, yet there is a still an integration program fully functioning in our state. We haven’t come very far at all. And many of our schools remain nearly as segregated as they were back then. Second, what is the point? Weston improves its diversity. Most of its students otherwise may have gone through all those years with possibly three or four local black faces in the school (and think about that for many white people in this country, that is the reality). And for the Boston students, most of whom are black, they receive an opportunity for a much higher quality education. Property taxes, a structural form of racism meant to allow segregation to endure, has ensured that while schools have grown increasingly better in our suburbs, the inner city schools continue to struggle with resources, attendance, and graduation rates. Lastly, why was I able to be so successful? A major criticism of the METCO program is that it doesn’t produce better outcomes for its students than the city schools, so it otherwise just acts as a brain drain from the city. I am an exception. I led in the school, was an accomplished athlete and student, and went on to what was at the time, the best public university in the country. What is overlooked though is how my circumstances differed so greatly from the average student of color coming from the city. I had both parents in the household. My mother was able to work from home our entire life, so she could take us places when we needed. We were relatively well-off financially compared to other black families, which afforded me a car in high school and thus allowed me to be highly involved. I had a stable church and home life, and food security. This combination is uncommon for a young black kid in America.
In a piece my brother wrote reflecting on the current situation, he considered whether black privilege was real. He and I both have considered how our differences from the common story of black people made us “privileged”. For instance, our immersion into the white community, our success in school and now in the workforce, or that we grew up in middle class black household (highly uncommon in Boston), led us to believe that we had somehow transcended the plight of the black man. Yet, what scared us both so much watching the videos of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, is that we clearly had not. In both cases, it could have been us. There is no escape. There is no level of success that will spare you. We are black men, and that is all that matters to some.
In the past, I usually stayed quiet on these issues. Often, the pain of diving deep into them was too much to regularly confront. College changed many attitudes for me, but none more so than me fully accepting that racism is alive and well around me. I sought out more black friends, choosing to room with three other people of color because I wanted to grow more connected with that side of my identity. The room afforded me a space to appreciate aspects of black culture, and share stories of anger with people who looked like me. Many of my most clear interactions with racism occurred in college. And it was there that I began to confront knowledge that roused more frustration within me, such as the War on Drugs and its history as a weapon against black communities, although on every visit to a different college I watched more drugs ingested and smoked with impunity than I ever saw in the hood. The length of my journey makes me inclined to be more patient with others in this process, as it took me this much time to wake up. We should all be reasonably patient with one another, but I would encourage individuals to not be patient with themselves, and to treat these issues with the urgency they deserve. The anger on display the past week should exhibit the need for change.
There are so many experiences I can point to while growing up that speak to the implicit biases against black people that exist around us. I think of how quickly other’s in my school community assumed that I had a single mother, simply because my father, much like many of theirs, didn’t visit the school often. Or the number of times I have been “you are so articulate” in a conversation where all I have shared is my name and other small personal details. Standing alone, each instance may seem insignificant, or merely a compliment to my upbringing and education, however, the frequency with which I have had that same response tells otherwise. It reveals how a black kid speaking properly is surprising, and further, now makes me worthy to share the person’s company.
Another important realization is that the token black friend is not spared from the realities facing a black kid from the hood. One morning, while getting ready for school, and I heard a scream from my mother outside, following by my brother sprinting down our stairs. In our 150 year old home, every quick step down the stairs resembled a drum beating. I followed my brother to find my mom standing at her car, visibly shaken up, telling us “he’s running up the street, he took my phone”. My brother and I, both barefoot, sprinted up our street and two others until we had caught the culprit. I jumped on his back to stop him until my brother caught up, upon which Raj chewed him out and we took our stuff back — both too young and inexperienced in the ways of the streets to know we probably should have beat him up. The point is though, we still had to go to school that day. And I remember being too embarrassed to tell any of my friends about what occurred that morning, thinking it would change the way they thought about me or where I came from every day for the worse.
I had started carrying a knife my junior year of high school. It quickly became a running joke among my core group of friends that whenever someone would say something out of pocket or stupid, we’d say “get the knife” and I’d lay it on the table comedically. What those friends definitely didn’t know is that I carried the knife because I was afraid I might get jumped making my daily walk from the train station to my house late most evenings. How could my white friends from suburbia ever understand that?
In the wake of the past week’s events, I’ve reflected on interactions with the police where part of that veil of black privilege I thought existed, but likely was only afforded to me because of my military affiliation. I was pulled over in a cemetery, less than one minute after getting back in my car after visiting a friend’s grave, only to be asked “what are you doing here?” The cop had been parked right by me the entire time, so he obviously had just seen me out at a gravestone alone. “Visiting my friend’s grave before heading back to school tomorrow, sir.” The officer’s aggressive demeanor only changed after I told him I went to the Naval Academy, upon which we entered a friendly conversation about his days at Norwich. What stuck with me is what he could’ve done in those backroads of cemetery without another living person in sight — no witnesses, no cameras. Or another time when I had walked back to my best friend’s empty house after a party, and accidentally set off the alarm, bringing the cops buzzing to his door. I wonder if the only reason it went so smoothly is because I quickly identified myself as a member of the military, opening their ears to hear the full story of what was happening. Thinking of what might’ve happened if they mistook me holding my military ID in my hand as I walked out the door, for something else.
Another tough thing about looking at all of this is realizing how little of it actively occurred to me when I was younger. When I was pulled over numerous times, often without cause, driving to a hockey game in Weston, or parked talking to my white girlfriend, I didn’t consider that the cops might have had it against me. Or when these biases did occur to me, how quickly I brushed them off as insignificant.
I can remember being in early middle school arriving to our high school’s football game with a group of friends, all white, to find three or four policemen standing by the entrance. I greeted them with a “good evening officers”, then quietly said to my friends, “you gotta befriend them so they are on your side later.” My buddies thought it was hilarious, and I had succeeded in making the boys laugh. Looking back, I realize that they really didn’t understand that I was speaking to something legitimate. I was no older than twelve or thirteen, and I already understood that the police would be inclined to be against me. It was funny to my friends because they had never had those sort of conversations.
I think back to when my friends never understood why I wasn’t allowed to play with water guns or any toy guns for that matter when I was a boy. I would be so excited to be visiting a friend’s house and getting to use their airsoft gun in their backyard. I used to be so frustrated when my mom wouldn’t let us because it was “too dangerous” for black boys to do that, and someone would mistake it for a real gun. When I was sixteen Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old boy was shot and killed while playing with a replica toy airsoft gun. I realized my mom was right.
I think of the way the black girls were treated as second-rate in high school. Guys rarely tried to talk to them romantically, and if they did it was discussed by others with an undertone of comedy. I never felt this way personally, but didn’t realize until college that in this area my “silence was compliance”. I was participating in denying dignity to the black women around me. This attitude from my white friends didn’t end in high school either. This past year, I was at a bar in Narragansett, RI, where I had quickly befriended one the guys my friend had brought with him, and at one point expressed my interest in a girl who had just entered the bar. He asked me to point her out, so I did, also noting that she was black. He responded, “yeah bro she’s cute, but you could have one of the white girls here!” I questioned his statement and he realized it didn’t fly with me. We eventually moved on and continued the night, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. He truly didn’t think anything of it when he said it. And he assumed that I would agree with him. To him, the preference for white women was undisputed, so he suggested it unapologetically. It was especially hard for me because outside of that statement, there was nothing to suggest he was racist. He had treated me with nothing but love and admiration, and accepted me into his crew. It was simply ignorance, which had probably been reinforced countless times, and that was difficult to wrestle with.
These stories of implicit bias on display matter because these attitudes directly contribute and maintain systemic racism within our society. The differences in our understandings of our relationship with the police speak exactly to why there is so much controversy right now. The messages sent to the black males when they speak properly, or black girls about their inferiority (spoken or unspoken), help to build an inaccurate picture of what a black person is supposed to be. These attitudes are what foster the ignorance and apathy that is so rightly being called out right now. Their existence in any form ensures the survival of this corrupt system.
I think of times where my own ignorance let me I buy into the insensitivity shown towards the black struggle, often just to induce laughs. Most notably, during a visit to a Louisiana plantation during my sophomore year of high school, I shamefully recall posing for a picture with a noose around my neck. I remember walking around downtown New Orleans later that evening with it around my friend’s neck, me jokingly walking him like a dog. Two black guys on the street, a bit older than us, said to me “that’s not fucking funny bro”. I immediately filled with guilt upon recognizing my stupidity, and struggle even today to understand what made me think either were permissible at the time. Sharing that story relieves some of that guilt, yes, but I think it speaks perfectly to how being wrapped up in white teen culture led me to buy into, and even spearhead, the insensitivity that is often exhibited towards issues of the black struggle that have been incorrectly categorized as “in the past”. If you don’t agree, why did none of my white friends call me out for it? We were young at the time, but I’d ask why didn’t we know any better? To us, we assumed the pain of that type of racism was dead, but we all just witnessed a modern day lynching on camera.
Then there are the instances that most white people have experienced, and probably never knew how damaging their words were. As every token black friend can recall, there are the times a white friend chooses to dub you “the whitest black kid I know.” It is based on the way I speak or dress, or the things I’m into, but it is only a comment on me not fitting the image they have of a black person. But when I exhibit resistance to accept such a title, the white person exclaims it as a compliment — as if the inherent superiority of whiteness should leave me honored to be counted among their ranks. And more impactfully, it suggests that my blackness is something that can be taken from me. That my identity as a black man fades because I am into John Mayer or I’ve visited the Hamptons. And further, that that identity is not something I am proud of, disconnecting from my choice to keep white company. It ignores that the acculturation and assimilation that occurs with growing up with all white friends was not voluntary. It suggests that my blackness is a burden, when in fact, minimizing my blackness was most often my burden. Or when I am criticized by my white friends for code-switching when I am with my black friends, just because they don’t understand the slang and how it connects black people to a common culture. The biases are evident, you just need to pay attention. Believe me, because I wasn’t spared from buying into them myself. It wasn’t until I got to college that I began to realize how much of my subconscious effort had gone into being as un-stereotypically black as possible. Whether in the choices concerning the way I dress, speak, or even dance, I noticed that, without realizing it, I habitually quelled aspects of my black identity and based on that ability, consistently inflated my self-worth as superior to my fellow black brothers. I had unknowingly bought into advancing the very biases set out against me.
I‘d emphasize that most white people do not understand their level of ignorance — especially the good ones, who mean well, and that negligence is part of the problem. Many of the white people I know have no concept of the role they have, passively or actively, played in perpetuating these conditions. They have no idea how much we long to hear them speak up for us, and to embrace some of the discomfort around these issues with us. Furthermore, the good ones are oblivious to the level of overt racism that is still out there. I have been among my white friends in all the times I’ve been called nigger by a stranger. In all these situations, my white friends seemed shocked. They had been misled to believe that that situation only occurred in the past, and when reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Comfortingly, they always leaped to me defense verbally, and the savior complex within them encouraged them to seek retribution. In one vivid case, at a bar in Cape Cod having just finished a conversation with a friend, one guy, not realizing I was still in earshot nor aware of my relationship with the friend, came over and asked “you really talking to that nigger?” My friend was stunned, but immediately came back at the guy, his anger for me visible. He then came to me boasting that he has black friends as if that should warrant him a pass. As much as each situation ruined my night, everything after went well, and I was embraced by a group of allies who wanted to fight for me when they heard that word. I had no further reason to be upset. Yet, probably only the friend who walked ahead of the group with me knows that I cried my eyes out the entire walk home; unable to explain how that word garnered so much control over me.
But the problematic result of these situations of overt racism is that it leaves the good white people to feel liberated from any responsibility concerning any type of racism. It makes it difficult to accept the reality of privilege, structural racism, and implicit biases they hold that do not make them racist themselves, but they do benefit from. This is one of the first times I have felt it was not only okay, but promoted to share these things. If there is one thing every token black friend knows, it is that we are not to provoke serious discussions of racial issues among our white crowd. We should only offer an opinion on such matters when invited to do so by our white peers. But we should ensure that the opinion is in line enough with the shared opinion of our white friends, as to not make it too awkward or ostracizing. It doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be this way. Many of us are eager to share our stories and we have only been waiting for the invitation to do so.
I am comforted when I see white people call things out for what they are. When my friends and I rented a 16 passenger van for a New Year’s Eve trip to Montreal, we found ourselves held up at the border coming back. The older agent, surveying the passengers, asked how we all knew each other, to which we answered, “we all went to high school together” then followed up by singling me out, “and how do you fit in here?” What he was suggesting about my place in the group of all white guys was telling enough, and the guys I was with were quick to support me, and point it out to their parents when debriefing the trip once we arrived home. If only they knew how often I’d experienced situations like that one. They should know that conversations about little things like this instance are what we need more of because they get the ball rolling. It is not our job to heal the world, but if we can start by just getting people to question small interactions and beliefs, we can start moving towards progress.
My white friends that I grew up with have shared with me how thankful they are to have had me in their lives during their developmental years. They wonder what attitudes they might have if they didn’t have a black best friend their entire lives. They arrived at college to befriend kids who had never met another black person in their lives, and encountered countless out of pocket statements from those individuals. I am constantly thankful that I grew up with genuine white friends, unlike many of my extended family members. My cousin said to me once, “I don’t like being around white people…I always feel like they hate me.” I was able to learn that more often than not, that isn’t the case. But what she points to is the overwhelming sentiment of feeling like black lives are not accepted or celebrated by white people. The events of recent have presented a unique time to begin conversations that have been waiting to happen for far too long. To both black and white people, I’d write that understanding is a two way street. To my white friends, I’d tell you that while that’s true, white people have a longer journey to get to where we need to meet. It is time for white people to muster the courage to call out those comments you hear from your parents or uncles and aunts. The pass has been given for far too long, and every time you don’t speak up, you enable the far worse words and behaviors that we are trying to fight. For those of you who think an old dog can’t learn new tricks, I’d point you to the numerous white adults who have texted me this week noting that they have been in their bubble for too long, asking me to keep sending them content. It’s time to pop the bubble.
My experience as the token black friend for my entire life has allowed me a unique lens into many of the gaps that are currently preventing mutual understanding between white and black people. I have spent so much time in the white community, and enjoyed the privileges that come with that, yet still I am affected by all these issues. Despite the obvious differences in my story to that of the average young black man, I believe my story can still speak to the immediacy of the need for change. Additionally, it can serve as an example of a genuinely meaningful relationship between a black person and white people, emphasizing the ability of white people to be either allies or enemies.
I will never turn my back on the black community. You’ll bump our music and rep our athletes, but will you stand with us when it’s not convenient? The pain is real. The stories are real. Our call for help is real. My uncle posted on Facebook yesterday, “when the dust settles, I wonder if anything will actually change?” To be honest, I’m not sure how quickly or how much things will change. But I know that one area of all of this is directly within each of our personal control. The celebration of black lives is evident through a choice to inquire about them, to educate yourselves, and to question many of the norms around us. The excuse of not being aware of your level of ignorance is now out the window. I’d reword my uncle’s post to a question that we should all be asking ourselves: “When the dust settles, I wonder if I will actually change?”
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom