The Black Friend

"So can we talk about {insert current racial event}? You know you're my only black friend," she exclaimed, tossing her curly brown hair over her shoulder as she laughed.

And I used to join in. I used to laugh right along with statements like these because I thought they were saying something about me. I thought it indicated I was doing a great job at this racial reconciliation thing. I thought it meant others considered me to be a safe person. I thought it meant my perspective, thoughts, and opinions were valued on hot topics. So I laughed. At this and all the variations:

"I'm so glad to have a black friend." "What would I do if you weren't here to explain this to me?" "Thank you for being my one black friend." "You're going to be the diversity in the pictures."  Statements like these are (almost) always made sarcastically, and yet its usually true. Since I appreciate a bit of sarcasm, statements like these made me smile, roll my eyes and move on.

But I have been at this long enough to have made a decision. I don't want to be your one black friend (OBF). At some point I realized that being your OBF says a lot more about you than it does about me. It usually indicates a certain level of cultural immaturity that doesn't run deep enough for us to develop an equal friendship. Here is how it often feels to be the OBF:  

Its an extraordinarily taxing relationship. There will be many occasions when I'm expected to explain blackness… answer questions, talk about current events, teach history, etc. rather than experiencing and enjoying blackness. 

2. It usually indicates that you believe a relationship with me will teach you everything about black people. I cannot speak for all black people. My experiences in life are not representative of all black people. Looking to me to bridge you and a community containing millions of people is a recipe for disaster for our relationship. In this scenario I am not really an individual in your eyes, with personal thoughts, feelings, opinions, background and baggage. I am just a representative for all black folks. Thats not healthy.

3. It indicates a limit of how cross-cultural you really want your life to be. I cannot be your token into a progressive lifestyle. If you have an OBF, you have work to do. Most people of color (though I realize not all) have friends who are also people of color. To become friends with one, could easily lead to becoming friends with others. But comfort with referring to me as the OBF of your wedding, housewarming, baby shower, small group, or you know, life denotes a certain amount of control. Surely if you met my girlfriends, you'd fall in love with them, too, but you might have to be willing to be the OWF (only white friend) at the dinner table, wedding, shower, small group, etc!   

Once upon a time, I thought it was laughable to be the OBF. Now I realize its actually a red flag. It tells me that our relationship needs to move slowly. Sometimes I am the OBF because you're new to the area or just changed churches. There is some grace and understanding here. But if this continues to be the case year after year, don't be surprised if your OBF is not referring to you as friend, but rather an acquaintance. A friendship might just be too dangerous.