The token Black friend

You’re not the ally you think you are

Clanny recalls her experience in high school.
Photo: 

I’ve found that white people are often more worried about being called racist than they are about actually being racist. 

I’ve known white people who throw fits at the mere suggestion of being labelled racist—‘allies’ who flip out without addressing the racist thing they said or did. To them, the label is more offensive and damaging than the actual harm they caused. 
 
These white allies are the kind of people who unironically post “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend!” and make a point to exploit said Black friend until they’re no longer useful to them. 
 
I’ve been that Black friend. 
 
*** 
 
For most of high school, I felt like someone’s accessory—someone’s shield from racism. I was in a friendship, then friend group, where I was the only one who seemed to care about racism at all. 
 
Being the ‘token Black friend’ means you’re always trying to find a balance between educating your friends on topics of race and protecting their fragile feelings. If you’re too harsh or too openly critical of their ignorance, they push back. If you dare suggest they behaved in a way that’s racist, they shut down the conversation, shut you out, and flip the script to accuse you of being too cruel or too critical. 
 
In high school, I had to coddle my friends' feelings more than I could protect my own. I couldn’t express myself in a politically turbulent time because I became too angry and aggressive for them to talk to me, because my opinions offended them. 
 
I couldn’t be myself because my Blackness offended them. 
 
In that battle between catering to white people’s feelings and being true to my own experience, I was the one who lost. 
 
I was too afraid of losing the few friends I had. I was too afraid of the backlash of seeming too radical, too aggressive. I was painfully aware of how I looked when I became upset—a disagreement could turn into an argument, and an argument could turn into a situation where I became the angry Black woman that I always tried to avoid being stereotyped as. 
 
I spent most of high school silent when I shouldn’t have had to be. I dealt with each microaggression with a smile, even though they stung. 
 
On its own, a microaggression could be as insignificant as a paper cut. But over time they sting more and more, and the cuts never seem to heal. 
 
*** 
 
It's difficult to look back on those years I spent dealing with and accepting ignorance. It’s been two years since I graduated high school, and those people who hurt me have moved on. I haven’t. 
 
Despite my fading memory, I can still recall the pent-up anger, still feel the ache that came with not being able to say anything. I can still remember the way each comment—each cut—chipped away at my sense of self and the trust I had in my ‘friends.’ They crossed so many lines and didn’t consider for a second that they might be doing something wrong. 
 
They invaded my space and touched my hair without permission. They spoke about other people of colour in derogatory ways. 
 
They had conversations about my own people, not to defend my right to exist, but to debate my right to exist—like it’s something up for debate—right in front of me, as if I wasn't there to listen to them dehumanize me. 
 
They rolled their eyes when I talked about my culture. They rolled their eyes when I talked about my anger. 
 
I can't always remember the exact words they said to me, or every micro and macroaggression, but I remember the hurt, and I remember the alienation. Despite being their ‘friend,’ those people from high school never made me feel safe. 
 
I know that my ‘friends’ didn’t think they were racist people, and they never pretended to be activists—some shared some anti-Black Lives Matter sentiments—but they genuinely thought they were progressive and stood for civil rights, simply because they accepted the presence of Black people around them. 
 
I wouldn’t even say they were malicious—just deliberately ignorant. 
 
By choosing to be ignorant, their true intentions were made clear to me: they were happy with the status quo and didn’t care about the issues Black people face today. 
 
*** 
 
I’ve become exhausted with white allies. 
 
In my experience, the recent trend of speaking out against racism is just that: a trend. For them, it’s just a way to get likes and retweets, to appear like you care about the pertinent issues that are discussed today. 
 
But none of those online statements matter if you don’t bother to care about the Black people around you. 
 
Racism takes many more forms than saying slurs. Our society is built on a strong foundation of bigotry, and the things we consume has been and continues to be bigoted and spread bigoted messages. White people are particularly susceptible to this, because the society we live in caters to them and validates their existence at the expense of people of colour. 
 
To be truly anti-racist, you have to do more than just play lip service to the cause. You have to do more than befriending Black people. 
 
Chances are, if you surround yourself with people of colour but refuse to acknowledge your biases and your racist actions, all you are doing is creating an unsafe and uncomfortable environment for them. 
 
If you’re quick to call out racism online but can’t handle the suggestion that you might have internalized racism as well, then you’re not the ally you think you are. 

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