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Token-Hunters: Your Friendship Is Not a Gift

Their search for non-white arm candy becomes your time-sucking chore
Art for Token-Hunters: Your Friendship Is Not a Gift.

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected]

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

I’ve come to suspect that a friend of mine is only interested in me because I’m not white. We met back when I worked in media, which is a predominantly white industry that has recently started paying more attention to its lack of diversity. This has resulted in a bunch of well-intentioned but nevertheless annoying white media people constantly trying to display their ally bona fides and stockpile non-white friends.

I’m starting to think my friend might be one of them. On social media she tends to get a little ostentatious about “checking her privilege” and “signal boosting” young women of color. In terms of our friendship, she sought me out first and is usually the one to initiate contact, but whenever we actually hang out, she seems sort of bored and anxious, and doesn’t remember basic facts about me or conversations we’ve had in the past. I’d be happy to move on, but for some reason she keeps pursuing me.

This has kind of messed with me. I don’t work in media anymore, but I’m still an occasional writer, and now every time I’m asked to contribute to a magazine or read at an event, I become paranoid that the person inviting me is just trying to fill some POC window-dressing head-count.

I grew up in a pretty rural place where I was more likely to encounter racists looking at me sideways and asking me where I was from, so being the potential target of media tokenism is new to me. How do I weed out legitimate interest from creepy white guilt?

Non-White Plight


Dear Non-White Plight,

Ah media, where your identity is your brand! Unfortunately, most of the time you will never know exactly why someone is commissioning work from you. They may think you’re talented; they may think you’re marketable; they might think featuring your work makes them look “diverse”; or they could just think you’re sexy. And these things aren’t even mutually exclusive! But how many great books, articles, and essays were commissioned by dumb clods with ulterior motives and/or an eye for PR?

It sounds like you have good instincts, so follow them. If they’re professional, and if they “get” your writing and know what to do with it, try not to rack your brain too much over the intentions of editors and colleagues (usually you can never know for sure), and take the opportunities that look promising to you. Whatever anyone’s motivation for pursuing you may be, your best bet is always to keep doing work you’re proud of. Turn down things that give you a weird vibe, pursue the projects that interest you, and work with people who treat you well.

The shock and betrayal of being reduced to a novelty by an actual friend though—that’s a far more difficult matter.

Woe to the recipient of fraudulent friendship. It’s one of those tragic social afflictions that can be incredibly hard to shake. I would liken it to being given an unattractive, high-maintenance houseplant as a “present.” Your first impulse is to care for it, hoping that it will grow on you in time, even if you have no idea why anyone would ever want, say, a potted banana tree. After a while though, the work becomes tiresome—a tedious chore you grow to resent—and you realize this absurd addition to your life that has been thrust upon you is all wrong, and it doesn’t even bear any goddamn bananas.

So, what the hell do you do with this banana tree? You could chuck it entirely, severing your good will with the person, perhaps through the use of brutal honesty. But this was a “gift,” after all, and no matter how shitty a gift is—even if you believe it was given with ulterior motives—it can be difficult to break with a cautious impulse towards kindness (not to mention good manners) and just say, “Look banana tree, I don’t want to be your friend anymore.” A conversation like that would likely end in injured feelings, teaching your faux-friend nothing at all. “Say it to my face” may sound righteous and brave, but the smug boors who shout that slogan the loudest are often the ones least prepared to listen. If you try to tell this person how her tokenism makes you feel, it could mean a lot of work for you. Do you really have time to be handing out hankies?

You could try to pawn her off on someone who might be a better match, but not only is rehoming a friend hard to do, but you might accidentally saddle someone else with with the same insulting relationship you’re dealing with right now. And then you would be the banana-plant giver, a faux friend in your own right.

And then there is the most organic way, which it appears you’re trying! If you stop nurturing a friendship—especially if it was never strong to begin with, it will eventually die. Some consider this approach passive aggressive, but there’s really no need to be actively aggressive toward a person who seems as clueless as this one.

As you have already discovered, some banana trees just will not quit, and sit there haunting you in the corner, wilted and unsightly, asking you to brunch every Sunday. Jettisoning this Woman of Duller may take some time, but you will succeed in the end. And as crude as it sounds, she will be able to replace you easily enough—because she doesn’t really know who you are. That’s what happens when the weekend warriors of social justice reduce people to stripes in their corny Rainbow Coalition of Woke Twitter. I’m sorry you got blind-sided, reader, but you’re on to bigger and better things, and friendships that bear fruit.

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