Dear Token Black Person,
I am not writing to chide you nor to call your blackness into question. The truth is, I don’t know all of your story, though I’m sure that I could probably guess some details. Whether by choice or by happenstance, you find yourself in predominantly white contexts.
You might have chosen to be there because, for whatever reason, you feel that you don’t quite fit in with other Black folks, whether that be because of where you grew up, your speech, your taste in music, or something else. Maybe you’re there because you feel that it is a marker of success and “doing better” that you found your way out of The Hood or out of the type of poverty found in rural Black America. Maybe you’re there because of who you married, your job, or your preference for a place of worship. Like I said, I don’t know all of your story.
Maybe you are like me and have always ended up in spaces that are full of white folks. You might’ve grown up in a small white town or the suburbs. Maybe you are a transracial adoptee. Maybe you went to high school or college in a predominantly white city, and you never left. Maybe you’re a biracial person who was raised by your white family but always aware of your difference. Again, I don’t know your story.
What I do know about you, however, is that you are a weapon.
You might think of yourself as an “independent thinker” or even a contrarian. You might see the mean estate in which other Black folks live and say to yourself, “We need to do better.” You might get frustrated with people who are “loud” and “ghetto.” Your elders might have instructed you on how to “speak with good diction” and what to do if you wanted to get ahead in life. You might take pride in the fact that you’re “not like these others…” You might see yourself as a “victor and not a victim.” You might even be a Republican.
I’m not faulting you for any of these things (even your Republicanism). I’m sure that if we sat down and talked, we would have way more in common than what you would expect. We probably even agree on a lot of stuff, though we might come at it from different perspectives.
I know that you have probably had a lot of frustrating and hurtful experiences with both Black and white people who have made you feel less than. It’s not okay. Maybe you’ve even found some type of solace among white people because it’s easier to deal with the occasional occurrence of overt racism than the ever-present feeling of not being Black enough. I’m not mad at you for getting in where you fit in, but I seriously question if you really fit in.
A few paragraphs ago, I said that you are a weapon. You might not realize it, but you are being used. When you stand up in predominantly white contexts and talk about how the Black community needs to do better, you are being used to further armful narratives about our community. When you talk about how “All Lives Matter” and show your support for law enforcement, you are giving white supremacy a golden ticket to continue to oppress Black folks because “even a Black person agrees” with them.
I’m not saying that there aren’t problems in the Black community, because there are. We can disagree about the source of those issues. My problem isn’t with your assessment; it is with how you make that assessment. When the main people who are agreeing with you don’t look like you, the problem might not be with the people you think you’re targeting but with your message. Does it really build up our community to stand up and belittle us?
Can we have a more nuanced discussion and not just blame Black men for not being in the home, hip-hop music, and whatever else certain folks seem to think contributes to the issues in our community? Can we talk about the school to prison pipeline? Can we talk about mandatory minimums? Can we talk about community divestment and gentrification?
If you must show support for people and causes that do harm to Black people by silencing our pleas for justice and killing us in the street, can you at least make your arguments in our spaces to our people rather than constantly pivoting to the white gaze?
I am concerned for you. Not because of your personal stances, but because of the way that people who don’t really care about Black folks use you. I’m concerned because I don’t think that the people who give you the most approval actually care about your humanity and dignity. The same folks who stay smiling in your face will talk greasy about you the minute you decide to take up for yourself and your people. A lot of the same people who say they “just love” you will have something slick to say about you and/or Black people when you’re not in the room. The same people who are repeating what you—their “Black Friend”—says will denigrate the humanity of other Black people in a heartbeat.
I’m concerned that you are playing a losing game in which you trade your dignity for a few crumbs of approval. The game dictates that you trade parts of yourself, your identity, and your culture for a set of fringe benefits. The problem is that these benefits (such as access to networks and opportunities) require you to continue to give these parts of yourself away until you are molded into the image of the Model Negro.
There is so much more that I can say. I don’t feel that I’ve adequately made my point, so I will cut my losses at this point and stop. What I hope you will do is to read the words of our ancestors found in The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson.