The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person

Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person Book Poster Image
Caring, funny, compelling call to be anti-racist.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will get up to speed with terms, concepts, and critical events in American racism. Black music history and culture are covered as well.

Positive Messages

For readers of color: There are many, many ways to be a person of color; you don't have to be like anyone else in your racial/ethnic group. You are seen, understood, and loved. You are not alone. For White readers: Black culture is rich, layered, and diverse; this is true for other communities of color, too. Learn to see the trauma, struggle and beauty of those who are not like you. Be an accomplice: Friends don't let friends (and strangers) be racist without calling it out or stepping in to stop harm. 

Positive Role Models

The author takes on the "The Black Friend" role. This is the Black friend who will teach White friends and hold them accountable when it comes to white supremacy and racism. The Black Friend is a firm, truth-telling, self-loving, caring role model for all readers. Actors, writers, activists, lawyers, music industry execs, and others interviewed come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds: Black, Latinx, Pakistani, White, Indian, and more.

Violence

Killings of black people by police and others are mentioned, but not described in detail. Situations from the author's life, including angry White boys or men and police, are tense and scary, but void of graphic violence.

Sex
Language

The "N" word is spelled out several times, to represent real-life experiences of the author and his interviewees, not used gratuitously and consequences are explained.

Consumerism

"Google it" is used many times. Other products mentioned as just a part of life/not promotionally (e.g. Facebook, iPod, Xbox, etc.), including TV shows (Friends, Living Single, etc.), musicians, songs, and book titles. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Mention of some people's interest in drinking alcohol in college, and of addiction to drugs, though no drug or alcohol use is described.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Black Friend, by Frederick Joseph, speaks directly to young White people to show them how racism and mircoraggressions feel, and how they can be anti-racist. Even though it's addressed to White people, that shouldn't deter readers of color. There's a lot of affirmation and "you are not alone" camaraderie here as well. Joseph reflects on his own experiences with racism and White supremacy from childhood to college and shares conversations on the topic with a diverse group of well-known figures including YA author Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give), sports journalist Jemele Hill, and social activist Xorje Olivares. Murders of unarmed Black people by police and others are referenced, and some situations the author describes are tense and scary. Though the "N" word is spelled out several times, its use is contextualized by the author and consequences are explained. The serious topic is relayed with care and gentle humor, making this a great pick to encourage tweens and teens to kick-start their anti-racism efforts.

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What's the story?

Author Frederick Joseph begins THE BLACK FRIEND with a heart-wrenching letter to his 8-year-old brother that establishes the stakes and creates a space of empathy. Each chapter includes experiences from Joseph's life and his reflections, progressing from elementary school, through middle and high school, and into college. Text boxes throughout provide context, explain cultural touchstones, and direct readers to the Encyclopedia of Racism at the end of the book. Toward the middle or end of each chapter, the author shares excerpts of conversations with prominent artists, activists, writers, etc. that reinforce the author's main themes. Back-of-the-book matter includes the Encyclopedia of Racism, a list of people and things to know, a playlist, source notes, and an index.

Is it any good?

This book is a powerful enticement to change, even as it alternately relies on gentle humor and emotional truth-telling to help young folks wake up to the imperative of racial justice. In The Black Friend, author Frederick Joseph speaks directly to young White readers as their new Black friend -- a clever device that might just manage to keep them engaged until the very last page. The racist situations faced by the author and those he interviews are by all accounts traumatic, but the willingness, trust, and hope inherent in these people of color sharing them with a wide audience creates a sense of intimacy between book and reader. It's a rough translation of what it's like to have a meaningful relationship with someone across a line of difference, and wanting to fight for that person because you love them. Though some readers may object to the overall premise of this book, in a world where racial injustice is an ever-present reality, young people in search of a book to get them started on their anti-racism journey will find much to move and inspire them to action here.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the author of The Black Friend  says he hopes that by showing White people how they’re hurting others, some of them will be willing to change. Do you think some people will be willing to change? Why or why not?

  • What was it like to read about the experiences the author and his interviewees faced? What feelings did it bring up? How might you respond if you witness a microagression or see something racist happen?

  • Talk about the character strengths the author showed. Can you talk about a time he showed courage or empathy? What strengths do you need to foster to become a better person?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories of racism and social justice

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