The Black Friend: On Being A Better White Person by Frederick Joseph

The Blurb On The Back:

”We don’t see color.”

“I didn’t know Black people liked Star Wars.”

When Frederick Joseph was a Black student in a largely white high school there were many hurtful comments that he often just let go.  Now he and fourteen other prominent artists and activists discuss their experiences of racism in their teenage years and beyond.

Offering himself as a friend to the reader, Joseph explores everything from cultural appropriation to “reverse racism” and white privilege. 

Both a conversation starter and a tool kit, this is an essential read for committed anti-racists and newcomers to the cause of racial justice alike.

You can buy THE BLACK FRIEND: ON BEING A BETTER WHITE PERSON by Frederick Joseph from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Frederick Joseph is a writer, award-winning activist, philanthropist and marketing professional.  This YA book draws on Joseph’s and 14 other contributors’ teen experiences to provide teaching moments to white people about the Black experience while also offering people of colour affirmation.  It’s a difficult read at times albeit a necessary one and the start of a conversation but it is short and at times I thought it needed a bit more depth.

Over the last few years I’ve been trying to educate myself outside my cis, white, middle-aged straight bubble so that I have more understanding of the experiences of people of colour and those in the LGBTQ+ community.  As such, I’ve been looking for books like Joseph’s because although they are very uncomfortable reading at times, they make me confront my bubble and think about my behaviour.  

It does also mean, however, that it can be difficult to write a review – especially for a book like this where Joseph and his contributors draw on their own experience – because as Joseph points out, there is no obligation on him to do this and he is essentially making a gift to the reader in the hope that by showing them how they hurt others, they may be willing to change.  As a result, I recognise that it is ungracious to raise questions or potential issues with the book but there were a couple of points where I did think a white reader (which is who this is aimed at) could have benefited from a little more information to help to shine a light on their behaviour and the system of white privilege that exists in the west.

To start with though I should say that I got an awful lot from this book.  Joseph structures each chapter around an experience he had as a Black teenager in the US so the reader understands why it is not acceptable.  These experiences are all negative and all horrifying to greater or lesser degrees as he covers outright racism and micro-aggressions, e.g. when the white students at his school assumed that because he was Black he couldn’t enjoy rock music or Star Wars.  I have to say that his experience with a substitute teacher who was convinced that he and his classmate were cheating on a test and made them resit it really raised my hackles because it’s just so horrifying and prejudiced.

There are 14 contributors to the book, including best selling author Angie Thomas, lawyer Rabia Chaudry, activist Jamira Burley and playwright and Oscar winning screenwriter Tarrell Alvin MccRaney.  Only one of the contributors – Toni Adenle (aka Toni Tone) – is British, which makes sense because this is a book about the Black American experience, but I think that British readers will empathise a lot with what she has to say so it gives it appeal this side of the Atlantic.  (Note this is not to say that the experiences in the book will be alien to British Black people – clearly there’s a lot of commonality in the way white people behave and a lot that white people can take from it no matter where they are).  The way Joseph integrates the conversations he has with the contributors is very neatly done, developing the themes and ideas and expanding on the experiences and what their effect is.  I genuinely found it very moving and very helpful (albeit difficult to read at times).

For all the excellent things about this book I did have two comments.  Firstly, although I acknowledge that this is the start of a conversation this is a short book (and very tightly written) and because it focuses on Joseph’s experiences I think that there were a couple of areas where I would have welcomed more from Joseph.  In particular, he touches in a couple of places on Black people who effectively support white people who are racist who exhibit racist behaviour, including someone he knew from school who supported two white racist friends who in turn, threw him under a metaphorical bus.  I would have been interested in Joseph’s thoughts about where white people can help Black people in those situations and whether they is a way to raise this with the Black people concerned or whether it’s something for the Black community to deal with.  (And again, I know that Joseph does not owe any reader that, but given the topic comes up, then I would have liked to see it expanded upon).

Secondly, there’s an experience in the book where Joseph recounts how on a road trip he took with some friends, a Chinese American girl who was dating a Black boy was called out after using the ’n’ word when singing a rap.  Joseph and his friends called her out on her behaviour and she said that she didn’t think there was anything wrong with it because her boyfriend was fine with it.  The episode ends with the friends turning the car around and going home and not speaking to either the girl or her boyfriend again.  I completely understood the reaction to the word but I was interested in knowing whether Joseph would have handled the situation in the same way now that he’s older.  The reason for that is because in the same chapter, he has a conversation with Tarrell Alvin MccRaney about the use of the ’n’ word and also realises that he was wrong in who he thought MccRaney’s award-winning play MOONLIGHT was aimed at and whether that made him re-evaluate how he handled that situation.  Again, I’m not saying that he should have handled it differently – if anything, I completely understood what and why they did what they did – but I did wonder if he would make different choices these days and if he would recommend other people doing the same.  I also wonder whether his views on intersectionality would impact on his reactions now.

These two comments aside, I think this is a really interesting, important and useful book.  I hope that white teens are more aware of diversity than I was at their age but I still think that they can take a lot from it and it’s certainly one that older people like myself can learn from.

THE BLACK FRIEND: ON BEING A BETTER WHITE PERSON was released in the United Kingdom on 1st April 2021.   Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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