In this excerpt from his memoir How to Be Black, comedian and The Root 100 honoree Baratunde Thurston offers rules for those who find themselves being the only black friend in a group. Read and learn.
You won't be of much value to black people or anyone else if you don't maintain a cultural connection to black experiences. Like a reporter who clings to the newsroom rather than step outside and actually walk his beat, you will lose your effectiveness. In a practical sense, this means you need to maintain a baseline level of black cultural currency by being familiar with at least some of the history of black people, of trends in black entertainment — this goes for music, film, sports, et cetera — as well as language and style. You don't need to overdo it by trying to be "too black," but if you're not seen as black enough, no one will buy your story, and you won't get the inside access that makes your role so valuable.
This is not about how you look. It's about how you act. Intellectual knowledge of black culture will only get you so far in your service. You must also be able to do black things. Ideally, you will be fairly competent in at least one of the following areas: rapping, dancing, grilling or frying meats, running or other stereotypically black sports. If you can back up your mental knowledge of blackness with an occasional Moon (or Crip) Walk and a semiannual freestyle rhyme, your value is assured. Again, this is about appearances to maintain your cover.
A Sense of Humor
A good Black Friend doesn't take any remark or experience too seriously, but remember that balance is key. There is a risk associated with not taking things seriously enough. Your effectiveness depends on your ability to make nonblack people feel comfortable. You can't go flying off the handle every time something potentially racist goes down. If you do that, you risk losing the privileged position of Black Friend and sliding into the much less useful role of Angry Negro (see "How to Be the Angry Negro"). Angry Negroes have a role in our society, but they have much less freedom of mobility, and this chapter is about the diplomatic art of Black Friendship, so let's stay true to that mission.
Just because you're an uncelebrated secret agent and diplomat doesn't mean you can't have fun. One entertaining way to keep your friends on their toes is to occasionally play the race card for fun. For example, if you're getting in the car with them and you end up being directed to the backseat, you can yell, "Why do I have to sit in the back? Is it because I'm black!?" They'll be nervous for a moment, but then you'll laugh, and they'll laugh, and oh, the fun times you can have being the Black Friend.
You're going to get a lot of questions. Many of them will be dumb. Most will be some variation on "Is this racist?" Maintain your cool, and focus on listening to your friends. When they ask, "Why don't more black people work hard, like immigrants?" don't assume bad intentions on their part. Stop. Breathe. Think. What are they really saying with this question?
They are doing a surface-level comparison. They see Group A and Group B. To them, both groups have experienced similar setbacks, but Group B doesn't seem to have made nearly as much progress as Group A in the recovery. This is not automatically racist. They're asking you because they trust you, because they need you to help them understand. If you scare them away, you encourage a troubling alternative.
Instead of taking that seemingly dumb question to you, their trusted Black Friend, they will continue to live with their ignorance, which will eventually find its way into the news segments they produce at their television network jobs or into legislation they pass. A healthy amount of patience as the Black Friend can go a long way toward helping all black people in unseen ways.
Access to White People
You can't very well be a good Black Friend if you don't have access to nonblack, and especially white, people. This should go without saying, but I can't tell you the number of black folks I've met who want nothing to do with white people and yet complain nonstop about how white people do this or white people think that. Be the change you want to see. Go make some white friends. If you don't know where to start, I recommend checking out Stuff White People Like, the website or book. It's all right there for the understanding.
Reprinted from How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston © 2012. Published by HarperCollins Publishers.
Thurston will participate in a presentation and reading at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 13, followed by an after-party at Blackbyrd. Click here for more information.