Nicole Bernhardt
Jun 17 · 5 min read
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What it’s like to be Your Only Black Friend Right Now

Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning and all of a sudden almost every dude in your life magically accepted that sexism exists and that it’s bad. What’s more, all these dudes are sorry. They are so sorry. They feel real bad. And they need you to know it. How would you respond? Would you criticize them for only acknowledging this now? Would you ask them where they were five years ago when you were in the streets protesting this exact thing? Would you be grateful that they finally tuned in? Would you prepare a reading list for them? Would you thank them?

As a light-skinned Black person who has spent most of her life living, working and learning in predominantly White spaces, my social circle reflects the spaces I inhabit. My Instagram is mostly White, my Facebook is mostly White and my mom groups are mostly White. Resultantly, for many people in my life I am their one Black friend. I doubt this experience is particularly unique for many Blacks in Canada.

My (isolated) presence within White institutions and White social circles offers an easy alibi against accusations of anti-Black racism and exclusion — “our department can’t be racist, Nicole is here.” Yet this racial exclusion is still operative and is now reflected in the fact that I’m your only Black friend.

And I know that I’m your only Black friend because you need me to know how bad you think racism is. But the thing is, I’ve been talking about how bad racism is. Professionally, academically, anecdotally — I’ve been talking about how bad racism is for years. Did you not believe me before now? Did it not seem pressing? Or was the conversation too ‘political’ or ‘combative’ or ‘difficult’ for you?

Are you ready now?

To my many White friends, newly (or more urgently) committed to combatting anti-Black racism, I have a few asks:

Will you notice Black absence?

To move in White spaces as a Black or racialized person in Canada is to be constantly aware of the absence of anyone else “like you.”

And by “racialized”, I mean those of us who by virtue of skin, hair and features are treated as “Other.” I was on a panel once where I was asked to explain the use of the term “racialized.” I suggested that if you came to this event and did a quick scan of the room to see if there was anyone present who looked like you, then you were probably racialized. If it had never occurred to you that there wouldn’t be, you were probably White.

If I’m right and I am your only Black friend, did you notice before now? Are there any Black families in the books you read to your kids? Are there any Black faculty in your department or in your firm or on your board of directors?

And if there are Black people in proximity to you, what role do they play in your world? During COVID-19, have you noticed Black presence amongst those on the frontlines?

Will you affirm the existence of anti-Black racism when it is less overt?

The traumatic images of anti-Black violence that have been circulating (despite pleas to exercise more care with respect to whose deaths we afford privacy) establish what ought to be an incontrovertible pattern of police brutality unleashed on Black bodies. Yet this extreme and inexcusable violence is just one expression of the anti-Black racism that permeates our schools, our workplaces and our communities.

In order to call something racist in Canada, we frequently hold out for direct evidence of racial discrimination (and even then we deny it when it is staring us in the blackface). And sometimes there is direct evidence of racism, like when a Peel Police officer referred to a Black woman as a “fucking foreigner” and asked if she was able to speak English. But even the courts increasingly recognize that racist treatment based on anti-Blackness occurs most commonly without any explicitly racist utterances . Instead, anti-Black racism can be inferred based on the disproportionate scrutiny and force applied to Black people under the pretence of safety and security. This excessive scrutiny and force comes into effect when shopping while Black, being in a library while Black, and delivering mail while Black. And heart-wrenchingly, this dehumanizing anti-Blackness gets applied even to 6- year old children.

Will you believe Black people when there isn’t direct video evidence to corroborate their truth?

Or will you believe the cops — still? Statistically speaking, it is incredibly unlikely that the (many) instances in which the police have been caught on film by bystanders represent the entirety of police attacks on Black people. An yet, this is what the bad apple argument would have you believe, that these are isolated events or outliers in an otherwise respectable police force.

But there is an abundance of evidence that far from being exceptional, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous police violence is deeply embedded within Canadian institutions. And Black and Indigenous communities have been persistently and actively calling for an end to this violence. And there are decades’ worth of reports capturing this anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence including the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s 2018 findings that despite making up only 8.8% of Toronto’s population, Black people were over-represented in Toronto Police Services’ use of force cases (28.8%), shootings (36%), deadly encounters (61.5%) and fatal shootings (70%).

Will you commit to anti-racism in the context of deep structural change (and not as a stepping stone along the path to your self-actualization)?

We cannot expect to self-reflect our way out of structural racism.

There is an abundance of anti-racist reading lists around. Many of these lists offer meaningful and challenging pathways into understanding how white supremacy operates and what systemic anti-Black racism looks like. But we should temper our expectations about what will be accomplished through this broad-scale awareness-building exercise. While reading can absolutely be transformative, it achieves this transformation one individual reader at a time. Our focus needs to shift from the ‘individual bias-to-wokeness’ pathway to dismantling oppressive institutions.

What we need right now is community mobilization and collective action. You are needed in the ongoing efforts to end police brutality and anti-Black violence. As Esi Edugyan recently expressed, “the weight of change should not rest on the shoulders of Black people.” At this moment, action entails supporting growing calls to defund the police and advocate for a more holistic understanding of public safety. Deep structural change necessitates reallocating public funds to social services — to people who are better equipped to respond to crises produced by the sustained divestment in health, education and housing.

As your Black friend, I am heartened that you care and genuinely excited to see how vocal about anti-Black racism you are (now). But, as your Black friend I am also tired. This battle is a long one — recognize that many Black people in your communities have been pushing for reform, in big ways and in small, for a very long time (so keep in mind your fight will also be a long one). To everyone, take breaks, rest when you need to, and when you wake up be ready to break shit.

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