7 things black people want their well-meaning white friends to know

I grew up black in a very white neighborhood in a very white city in a very white state.

As such, I am a lot of people's only black friend.

Being the only black friend is a gift and a curse. I am black and I love having friends. But I am also, at any given moment, expected to be a translator, an ambassador, a history teacher, and/or a walking, talking invitation into "I am not racist" territory. It's a lot to handle. See what I mean about that curse?


Don't get me wrong, my friends are awesome, just very white. Here are me and a few of my pixelated pals before a high school dance in the early 2000s. Photo courtesy of the author.

So when I saw the animated short-film "Your Black Friend," I felt so seen. Clearly, I am not alone.

The film, which was written, designed, and narrated by Ben Passmore and is based on his mini-comic of the same name, is a brilliant, refreshing way to examine whiteness and racism. The comic and animated short are an open-letter from "your black friend" to you, their well-meaning white friend, about bias, alienation, and what it means to be a good ally and friend.

It's funny, honest, and heartbreaking in equal measure. And speaking from personal experience, it captures the experience of being a black friend to white people pretty much perfectly.

So if you're a "woke" friend and ally, here are some things your black friend wants you to know.

1. You're going to have to get uncomfortable.

It could be something as obvious and upsetting as a racist joke. Or something as "benign" as your aunt suggesting you cross the street when she sees a group of black kids walking by. But either way, if you want to be a good friend and a real ally, you're going to have to speak up. You're going to have to have those tough conversations with people you care about.

It's not easy to confront strangers or people you love, but if you don't do it, you are part of the problem. Sitting out isn't an option. No one said being an ally is easy.

All GIFs Silver Sprocket/YouTube.

2. "Your black friend would like to say something to the racist lady, but doesn't want to appear to be that 'angry black man.'"

"He knows this type of person expects that from him, and he will lose before he begins," Passmore says.

Black people can't always react or respond the way we want to. When I am followed in a department store, pulled over for no reason, or stared at while picking up dinner at the fancy grocery store, I can't stop what I'm doing and yell, "YES, I AM BLACK. NO, I AM NOT A CRIMINAL YOU SMALL-MINDED, BIASED ASSHOLES." Trust me, I want to. But especially when police are involved, I have to be calm, respectful, and obedient.

That's where you come in. You, white friend, need to speak up and say something when I can't. If you are not at risk, nor considered a threat, you have a certain amount of privilege in these situations. Use it to demand answers, speak to supervisors, or if things really get dicey, pull out your phone and hit record.

3. We are constantly monitoring our surroundings and adjusting our clothes, hair, speed, and speech to maintain white comfort.

We don't like it, but one small choice — like deciding whether or not to wear a hood, or the speed at which we reach into our glove box — can be the difference between life and death.

When I am in a parking garage and walking behind a white woman, I intentionally cough or walk a little louder so she turns and notices me.

Why? Because when I don't, that same white woman will often clutch her purse and occasionally let out an audible gasp as I pass her. This is something my white friends likely don't realize I have to do. Some of them may even be the pearl-clutchers in the parking lot.

But to maintain white comfort and to avoid having the cops called on us, we often have to tamp down clothes, modify our speech and volume, even do our hair differently. We have to have "the talk" with our kids about how the world sees them, and how act in order to make sure they come home alive.

No, it's not fair. No, we don't like it. But so long as this country and its institutions are built on a solid foundation of white supremacy, it's a grim reality. You need to know that, and take it up with your fellow white people about how to dismantle it.

4. "Your black friend wishes you'd play more than Beyoncé. There are more black performers than Beyoncé."

"Lemonade" was awesome. There is no denying it. And yes, I love seeing her iconic looks on Instagram too. But there is more to black music and black art than Beyoncé. Dip a toe outside your comfort zone and try new new artists and genres you may not be familiar with. Go listen, see it, and experience it for yourself.

And while we're here, you can't say the n-word when you sing along. Nope. You just can't.

5. Speaking of which, performative blackness is really uncomfortable.

When you wear that braided wig on Halloween, or use your "blaccent" when you're around me or other black people, it hurts. It's not cute or charming, and it definitely doesn't make you seem cool.

Our culture and heritage are not costumes you can slide on and off at your convenience. We don't get to be black only when it suits us. Neither do you.

6. "Your black friend feels like a man without a country."

Having white friends and seeming to "fit in" with the majority can feel really alienating. You can feel too "white" for black people, and too "black" for white people when all you want to do is find people to eat pizza with. As Passmore wrote, "He is lost in this contradiction, and held responsible for it."

7. We would love it if we could stop talking about our anxiety and frustrations regarding racism. But right now, that's impossible.

Our concerns are urgent and real. We're getting subpar health care. We're disenfranchised. We're over-policed. We're thrown in jail. We're killed by people sworn to protect us. It's exhausting, but we have to keep talking about it. So do you.

We can't be expected to dismantle white supremacy on our own.

Our white friends and allies need to step up and gather their people. Have the tough conversations. Speak up when you see racism, discrimination, and microaggressions. The time to talk about it is done. Be about it, or find yourself a new black friend.

Watch "Your Black Friend" in full and check out Passmore's book, "Your Black Friend And Other Strangers," coming in March.

This article was originally published on January 30, 2018.

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Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


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Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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