I Am Not Your Token Friend

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Ales-A / iStock / Getty Images Plus

I have always had an overwhelming majority of white friends. Growing up, I was often the minority in my friend circles. But even at ten, my friends never made me feel like I was the minority. We were friends. It’s not that they didn’t acknowledge my skin color, but they never made it a reason to treat me differently. So it was easy for me to tell when someone was only being my friend because I was black.

As I’ve gotten older, experienced more of the world, and watched as society and culture has shifted in the last handful of years, I have become even more aware of who my true friends are. So this essay isn’t for them or about them. This is for all of those people who have gone out of their way to be my friend because I’m black.

I’ll never forget the first time I became friendly with a girl who had clearly never had black friends before. I was in a band program with kids from all over town, and struck up a friendship with the girl who sat next to me in the second clarinet section. Her name was Christina. One day she rubbed the back of my hair (the part we black folks call “the kitchen”) and giggled. “It feels kind of like Brillo!” she exclaimed as I sat there, laughing awkwardly.

I didn’t even know how to properly respond to something like that, because at 10, who’s ever heard of the word microaggression, much less knows what it means? I don’t even know if the phrase existed in 1996. Once the band program was over, I never saw Christina again, but occasionally I think of her and wonder if she ever had any other black friends after me. It’s a special honor to be someone’s first black friend — maybe I should have gotten a plaque or trophy or something.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s a difference between being the only black girl in a group of white friends and being the “token” black girl. When you’re the only, it usually works to your advantage, or at very least, you’re in on the joke. When you’re the token, you are the joke.

For instance, I had always been the only black girl in my dance class. You could spot me easily; that’s what happens when you’re a black girl who is a good three inches taller than everyone. When I was 18, we were doing a dance routine based on the movie musical Chicago. Half of the group was dressed in white like Roxie Hart and the other half in black like Velma Kelly. I was fine wearing black, since I would have looked absurd with a blonde wig. But one day, someone made a joke about “the whites, and the blacks.” I cracked up and welcomed my friends to my special club, albeit temporarily. No one singled me out, and because I had never felt alienated because of my race, I was able to turn a simple blunder into a good natured joke.

Sa’iyda Shabazz

Conversely, feeling like the token is when you’re sitting among a group of your white friends and you suggest watching a Def Comedy Jam special that you found hilarious. After about 20 minutes, you realize that you’re the only one who’s really laughing, and one of your friends says, “Can we put on something actually funny?” Then you’re forced to watched comedy by yet another awkward, average white guy that suddenly everyone finds hilarious.

I can suss out pretty quickly the people who will treat me like the token, rather than treating me like their friend. I don’t advertise this special skill because then no one would want to be my friend, and I need these “friends” around for an assortment of reasons. One, because they’re not inherently bad people. Two, because I genuinely do like them and I want to give them a chance to realize what they’re doing. And three, I need to keep track of the latest white nonsense right from the source.

As a black woman who has taken a strong stance on social issues, especially race, I have encountered my fair share of white feminists. I may consider them my “friends,” but I always keep one eye on them. Because at the first sign of tomfoolery, I know that they will be front and center, showing that they were never a true friend or ally.

They’re the ones wearing pink pussy hats while failing to acknowledge the inherent damage of the image. They’re the ones who will post a dozen Martin Luther King Jr. quotes on MLK day about love and peace, and fail to understand, or even know what his message was really about. They’re the ones who will feel personally “attacked” by something that you as a black woman have written, but won’t have the balls big enough to confront you about it.


Being the token is when someone uses you to ask a million questions about how to be a better ally. They will inundate you with messages, asking all kinds of questions about your opinions on things like Charlottesville, or the NFL players taking a knee, or whatever other hot button topic is making headlines.

You will, of course, offer your opinion because you consider them a friend, and you’re happy to help them understand. But then you realize that your blackness and what you can offer them is the extent of your relationship. When every conversation you have is about your race, either explicitly or implied, you begin to wonder. You begin to feel as if your entire friendship — if you can even call it that — revolves around your brown skin and their white guilt.

To those “friends” this is what I will say: My blackness is not the only thing I have to offer you as a friend. I am passionate about a lot of other things. I am one of the best cheerleaders to have in your corner, because I will always support you, as long as I know your intentions are deeper than proving how “woke” you are. I am happy to offer you insight, but it’s not really a friendship if that’s all I’m offering you. I will not hold your hand and walk you through your white tears because you just can’t understand. And I won’t pat you on the back for doing the right thing.

A friend doesn’t look at you like you’re the answer to their diversity problem. A friend doesn’t forget to invite you to be a part of a group that they’ve included literally all of your other friends in.

I am not an afterthought because suddenly I have something that is of use to you. If you were really my friend, you wouldn’t whine about me behind my back because I called you out on your bullshit. My skin color and experience is not your ticket to the “woke” show. I won’t be the one to absolve you of your missteps; I will be the one demanding you do better. I will not be the black friend you can point to when you say, “Well, my black friend says…” Nope. I will not be a part of that. And I will not be friends with someone who would use me that way.

And if you’re reading this, and think this is about you…well, it probably is.