Reflections on Being a Reformed Token Black Friend

by Amber Dorsey In January, I received an invitation to a GALentine’s party from a Facebook friend from high school. When I first got the...


by Amber Dorsey


In January, I received an invitation to a GALentine’s party from a Facebook friend from high school. When I first got the Evite, I was admittedly a little shocked. While we keep up via social media, I hadn’t actually spoken to the host since she was pregnant the year before. How had I made it onto the list? Was it an oversight on her part due to using the list from the previous year? I was both confused and intrigued. I checked my calendar, replied “yes,” and waited to see if there would be an “Oh, dear, my bad…” sort of response.

There was none. So OK, I was in.

I read over the guest list and was delighted to see some ladies that I’ve known since our teenage years and have watched grow into women via social media over the last few years. My excitement at the thought of a night out amongst other women quickly began to wane as I scrolled the list further and realized that once again I would be the only black person in the room. While I was excited about the idea of a ladies night filled with laughter, bubbly, and a plethora of sweets, I was already beginning to feel a familiar social anxiety creep up.
All my life, I’ve had the pleasure of being the token black friend for many a white comrade. I was the one who validated their “down-ness,” or simply kept them in the loop of the world outside the bubble in which they comfortably resided. By being a suburbanite myself, I was often the “safe” choice as I represented those upwardly mobile-Cosby-esque black families of the 80’s, and attending a predominantly white Christian high school only cemented that idea. Even though I attended an HBCU and surround myself with a much more ethnically diverse group now, I still live the suburban life as a work-at-home mom, so I get it. But it’s exhausting being seen as the sole representative of my race at every social occasion.

For a while, I’d grown so tired of being the “only one” that I stopped going to a lot of things. I made conscious choices to not attend what sounded like otherwise fun events, simply because I wasn’t in the mood to be the cultural ambassador for black people. No matter how different we all are, whenever there is only one of us, all eyes are on us and all the non-black folks are silently judging our every move.

You tell yourself that this time is going to be different and that they will not see color, praying that you be will not be seen as a walking stereotype. You do your best to discount any negative images they might have of black people. But at some point in the evening, you do something that fits into one of these Black woman stereotypes (EX: being sassy, using slang, or throwing shade). Or maybe you end up explaining black hair care to women who most likely have no clue about the black experience.

This is the life of the token.

(Side note: One of my best friends is white and when I attend her family functions, I stand out like a sore thumb. Years ago, she came to visit me at college in the South and was blown away. All my friends were black. Everyone we hung out with was black and she was the the token friend for once. I remember her later telling me that she felt “SO WHITE!” and how weird it was for her. “Welcome to my life,” I said.)

As much as I love to reconnect and chat it up with folks I haven’t seen in a while, I had massive anxiety heading into this party. Coupled with no longer having my usual societal standard for protection (read: sleek and straight hair), I knew it would be harder to blend in, an art I’ve mastered over the years that somehow makes people not really see me as black. Well, at least not their preconceived notions of what blackness is. To them, I’m “different”: I speak well, and about a variety of topics. I am college educated and the daughter of a doctor. I am the the poster child for 80’s middle class black idealism.

So I went to the party filled with trepidation and a heightened sense of awareness. This was the first time I was going to be seeing a lot of these women in a long while. And given the current social and political atmosphere, I have been a bit vocal on social media regarding my feelings on #BlackLivesMatter, race relations, and the social climate of the world as a whole… and lost some followers/friends in the process.

Would these women harbor feelings of resentment against me because of my views? How would that affect the evening? Would it even be brought up? I had so many questions.

I arrived fashionably late and felt a subtle shift in the air when I arrived. I could feel all eyes on me and eyebrows rise with the thought of, “Who’s the black girl with the big hair?” as I made my way into the heart of the room and promptly began chatting with the first familiar faces I saw. I felt as though I was on display at first, but as I grabbed a glass of champagne and began to mingle more, I relaxed and settled into my role: not as “the token”; I was simply playing myself. The odd woman out in a sea of blonde hair and self-tanner, totally at ease with who she was for the first time—with my natural hair, melanin on fleek, and lipstick poppin’. I was going to own this party.

At one point I had a guest make a point of telling me about her very diverse group of core friends. As I was listening to her chatter on, I thought, “Why is she telling me this?” Even if we had been discussing our girlfriends, why did she feel it was important to let me know about the different types of women she supposedly hangs with, and from whom she “measures and learns about the outside world”? Was she trying to prove something to me? It was weird, but it made sense. These women knew about me. They’ve read my posts. And whether they agreed with my opinions or not, they too felt the need to walk on tip-toes, as I had done so many times at other social gatherings. Knowing that this was simply a time to mix and mingle while catching up with old friends, I avoided having serious conversations about race relations.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening—thanks in part to the flowing champagne and endless chatter about shoes and kids.

Navigating relationships between white and black women can be an uphill battle. But there is also solidarity between us as women, wives, mothers, and daughters that bind us deeply. While I don’t know that I’m ready to go back to being the token black friend on a regular basis, I am glad that I went to this event. We—both black and white women—are more than the limited portrayals of ourselves we see in the media. Together, as women, we need to bridge the race gap and have each other’s backs.

Photo: Shutterstock

Amber Dorsey is a Southern California writer, stylist and makeup artist living in Southern California with her husband and two crazy kids. When she’s not tapping away at the computer she can be found scouring the aisles of Michael’s plotting her next Pinspired project or in the kitchen perfecting her margarita making techniques. You can also find her on Instagram @fromcarpools2cocktails,or on her blog From Carpools to Cocktails.

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