Review: The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person

Title: The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person
Author: Frederick Joseph
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Availability: December 1, 2020
Review copy: ARC via publisher

Summary: “We don’t see color.” “I didn’t know Black people liked Star Wars!” “What hood are you from?” For Frederick Joseph, life in a mostly white high school as a smart and increasingly popular transfer student was full of wince-worthy moments that he often simply let go. As he grew older, however, he saw these as missed opportunities not only to stand up for himself, but to spread awareness to the white friends and acquaintances who didn’t see the negative impact they were having and who would change if they knew how.

Speaking directly to the reader, The Black Friend calls up race-related anecdotes from the author’s past, weaving in his thoughts on why they were hurtful and how he might handle things differently now. Each chapter includes the voice of at least one artist or activist, including Tarell Alvin McCraney, screenwriter of Moonlight; April Reign, creator of #OscarsSoWhite; Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give; and eleven others. Touching on everything from cultural appropriation to power dynamics, “reverse racism” to white privilege, microaggressions to the tragic results of overt racism, this book serves as conversation starter, tool kit, and invaluable window into the life of a former “token Black kid” who now presents himself as the friend many of us need. Back matter includes an encyclopedia of racism, providing details on relevant historical events, terminology, and more.

The title really does explain the contents. It’s meant to be a how-to guide for being a better white person. Frederick Joseph has volunteered to be the Black friend for white readers. He’s taken on the job of educating folks, but does remind readers that this is his choice and that Black folks are have no obligation to be teaching white people what they need to know about racism and how to be a better human. He also has a secondary purpose of providing affirmation for people of color. There is an acknowledgment of the trauma and pain that he and the other participants have experienced, and he also points to the beauty of the differences in people.

The whole book is written in a very conversational manner and he did succeed in making it feel like sitting down to chat with someone about their experiences. There is a bonus of brief interviews with other people so it wasn’t only his voice. During these chats, the reader witnesses many situations and can see the humanity in folks and how to act and/or speak in respectful ways–or not. The information is accompanied with asides pointing readers to Google to get a little background or context or sometimes pointing to Youtube or music streaming services. The media isn’t included, though it would be amazing to have those things embedded or linked in a digital book. I found myself setting aside the book over and over again to satisfy my curiosity. I listened to a lot of music and even saw an incredible slam dunk. It was a bit distracting, but also added a lot to the experience.

The conversational style makes this an easy read in one way, but there is no avoiding discomfort. Frederick Joseph shares stories that cannot have been easy to revisit with the intensity it takes to write down in a book. It’s hard to sit with some of the emotions he clearly experienced. Another layer of difficulty is that white folks are forced to look in the mirror and think about how some of our beliefs and the way we move through the world have contributed to creating or maintaining the white power structures and the racism in our culture. We are called to hold ourselves accountable and to also actively disrupt racism.

Recommendation: Get it soon. This will be a helpful book for many white people who are on the path of antiracism. It’s engaging and Joseph shares stories that include examples of his own problematic thinking and behavior so it doesn’t feel like he’s talking down. It could also be helpful for people of color to see the experiences and situations and know that they are not alone.