There are many key phrases that foreshadow the tragedy that is sure to come. These key phrases allow us to brace ourselves for impact.  For example, when Trinidad James leads with “I’m releasing new music”, we can all prepare ourselves for the greatest assault to our eardrums since his previous release.   If your significant other leads with “We need to talk”, chances are, you can assume that you’ve earned a coveted spot in the proverbial doghouse.  And of course, the granddaddy of all lead-ins, the age–old, “I’m not racist but–”.  Upon hearing such a phrase, you can most certainly brace yourself in preparation to hear what is sure to be a most egregiously racist comment.  

As handy as the phrase might be for those who wish to rid themselves of the guilt associated with heinously racist comments, “I’m not racist but” can be lengthy and cumbersome. Your precious word should be saved for the offensive, not the absolution.  Thus, the astute individual who wishes to engage in casual racism without having to invoke “I’m not racist but….” time after time should seek a permanent solution.   Naturally, the simple and elegant solution to this quandary is to employ a token black friend.  It is common knowledge that one cannot be racist whilst simultaneously having “black friends” on retainer.  Once a token black friend has been obtained, you can simply absolve yourself of any racist indiscretion on the grounds of having “black friends”.  

Conveniently enough, the qualifications for token black friendship are quite forgiving such that “the one black kid in my high school class”, “my bank teller”, “the black family that visited my church last month that I avoided eye contact with”, “my bi-racial distant cousin that I’ve never met” all count as “black friends” that you can invoke when you are accused of making racist comments.  

Since the “token minority friend” criterion casts such a wide net, I’m sure all of my readers of color are wondering if they too fit that bill.  The fear of being the token black friend others invoke when they wish to utter racist comments is a fear that is not at all uncommon.  Thus, I’m going to lay out some qualifications to help you determine if you are indeed a “token black friend”.

  1. If you have been asked by a white friend to comment on another instance of racism you are most certainly a token black friend.  We are a monolithic people.  We can speak on behalf of an entire race and thus can speak on behalf of another black person’s feelings.  So, it is only natural that as a token black friend you have been asked about something that offended another black person because you are qualified to speak on behalf of black people everywhere.  The archetypical use pattern is quite simple.  Person A says something racist and offends person B.  Person B finds it offensive and confronts person A.  Person A chooses to dismiss person B as being overly sensitive and thus decides to invoke you, the token black friend to offer a second opinion.  ‘There are a few intricacies about this usage pattern that I should mention.  In particular, as people of color, we don’t speak on behalf of our entire race unless we have corroborated our inquirer’s opinion.  Thus, it is prudent for the inquirer to have more than one token black friend at their disposal as several iterations may be required prior to finding a friend qualified to corroborate one’s own racist opinion.  
  1. If you’ve ever been told you’re not “really black” you are most certainly a token black friend.  Sure, you count as black when it’s time to validate your friend’s racism, but other times you just don’t make the cut.  If you don’t carry around a 40 in a brown bag, wear a grill, and have a port installed for intravenous chicken and watermelon level replenishment, your anomalous behavior can only be explained by the fact that you are “white washed”, an “Oreo”, a disciple of the church of Carlton Banks, or simply “not black black”.  While you may not make the black cut under classical standards, you can still be the “token black friend”.  Bully for you, in the land of tokenism, the one-drop rule still applies, whether you’re Carlton Banks or Allen Iverson.
  1. If you find yourself in many uncomfortable “hairy” situations, chances are you are a token black friend.  Nothing alerts me to my token black friend status quite like a friend’s attempt to pet me like a zoo animal (before you ask, no you may not touch my hair, not now, not ever).  Another telltale sign is a friend’s inability to fathom that I managed to have hair down my back that wasn’t shipped from South America or East Asia (Folks have gone as far as to employ their petting zoo tactics to check for tracks). Oh, and my favorite, the time when a friend asked me “how did you get hair like that?” upon seeing my hair revert to a curly state after I jumped in a pool.  This one was really confusing to me, because my inquirer literally witnessed the process in real time.  Clearly the answer to “how I got my hair like that” was water and Jesus.  
  1. If you are a terrible dancer and your friends think you are a Michael Jackson reincarnate, you are more than likely a token black friend.  I really think that black people can get away with dancing like drunk penguins if we want to simply because it’s assumed that by virtue of melanin content, we’re all qualified to appear as backup dancers in a Beyonce video.  People will assume we’re dancing well when we’re not. That’s why Drake got away with Hotline Bling.  He didn’t get hardly as much flack as I would have expected considering the fact that he was dancing like a middle-aged father who drives a 2001 Ford Windstar Minivan (By the way…shoutout to the dad’s rocking the rusted minivans, yall are the real MVPs).
  2. If your friend has told you that you don’t see color, you are more than likely a token black friend.  This one is pretty obvious.  You have to have at least one token black friend in order to pretend that you don’t see them.  The first time someone told me they didn’t see color, I assumed it was a medical problem.  I was utterly confused when I later discovered that there was nothing wrong with their eyes and that they were simply lying since there was no underlying medical condition barring them from seeing the beautiful diversity in God’s creation. I know I’m going to get hammered for this one because folks love feeling warm and fuzzy about being colorblind.  However, I’d like to suggest that when we habitually ignore the elephant in the room instead of seeking to understand and ultimately celebrate our differences, we are seeking superficial friendships. (Look at me getting all insightful and serious) For more on the topic, please check out my friend Judy’s blog.  She has a much more insightful approach to the subject than I could ever offer.
  1. If your friends are speaking to you in trap music lyrics and are regurgitating phrases they found on Urban Dictionary, you are more than likely a token black friend.  Whether they’re trying to test out their newly discovered hip lingo in what they assume to be its natural habitat or are trying to convince you they are hip enough to receive a waiver to join “Black Twitter”, the common thread is that you are most certainly a token black friend.
  1. If you are breathing, there is a good chance that you are a token black friend. If you are a persona of color that has had casual contact with a person outside of your race be this contact real or imaginary, you just might be a token friend that is absolving another of their casual racism.  I know this is a great burden to bear, but know that you are not alone.  To put things in perspective, a third of the US population is not racist by virtue of owning a Beyonce album. 

In addition to the anecdotal evidence of your Facebook friend who invoked the transracially (yes transracial is a thing, it’s just not what Rachel Dolezal claims) adopted Ethiopian kid at his church in order to justify his Facebook post about why we should replace MLK Day with Jefferson Davis Appreciation Day, there is science to back up the token black friend phenomenon.  According to a recent study, “the mere mention of minority friends can reduce how racist a person seems to be toward that minority group”.  

Who would have thought there would be a Scientific method behind the madness of my Jefferson Davis-loving acquaintances?  That begs the question, how do I avoid being utilized as the “token black friend” by a random dude that I may have lent an eraser to in 9th grade English class as he embarks upon his journey to crafting a culturally insensitive manifesto via Facebook Status update? Alas, I’ve resigned to the fact there is really nothing I can do to avoid my fate.  I suppose that’s what the unfriend/hide buttons are for.  Besides, perhaps I can pick my battles.  Perhaps I can have the tough and awkward conversations necessary to transform some of my superficial relationships riddled with cringe-worthy micro-aggressions (If I’ve ever had an awkward race conversation with you, know that it’s because I care and deeply value your friendship) to something more meaningful and leave the Jefferson Davis aficionados to their own devices.