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DEAR TOKEN: Sometimes I notice myself over-thinking interactions with black people. I can become self-conscious of my word choice, inflection, and body language, so as not to offend them, and to be perceived as cool and as understanding of their experience as possible (and I recognize there is so much I can just never understand). I want to discuss this phenomenon with my black friends, but I don't want them to feel like I perceive them any differently, because my own weird self-consciousness aside, I love and respect them exactly like I do anybody I meet regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation: based on their words and actions, and the content of their character. Do you think it's appropriate to discuss these feelings? Do you think I'm ignorant or racist for feeling self-conscious? Do you ever have similar thoughts or feelings when you're around white people?

-Melanin-deficient Human


DEAR MELANIN (which, ironically, sounds like a black-girl name): First, let's be clear: you are never ignorant or racist for how you feel. What you do with those feelings determines your level of ignorance or racism. If being around black people makes you a little self-conscious, good! It's one of the side effects of being white.

Let me speak for all Black people and say that Black people hate having to speak for all Black people. This is one of our biggest pet peeves. Black people -- really all minorities -- end up having to represent their entire identity group in justification of some action in a way that white people almost never do. (This is why when Leroy shoots Jamal, black on black crime is a rampant problem; but when Taylor shoots Preston, it's just an unfortunate child gone rogue).

Should you discuss your feelings with your black friends? No!

One of two things are true: either you're code-switching well enough to where they don't notice or care, or you're black like Eminem. Either way, please don't impose any more of your white burden on your friends of color.

If you have been fortunate enough to build meaningful relationships with black people, be grateful. And if you have enough black friends to not actually know how many black friends you have, you're really on your way to something special!

But I realize that race is an ever-present force in our society. There are times when you want to be able to have a candid discussion and not sound like a racist goober. Respect. Just treat your black friends as friends first and as negro behaviorists second.

I have had the privilege(?) of spending a lot of time around white people. You don't earn the moniker "Token" without putting in work. I've been the odd man out for so long in so many ways that I've had to make an existence out of being able to code-switch (I won't back link it again but, seriously, check out that NPR podcast).

So, no, I don't really overthink my interactions with white people because of their whiteness. It's enough work for me just trying not to be awkward around other people in any setting where there's not a microphone in my face.

At this point in my life, I am more interested in being my boldest, realest self and having people adjust to me instead of worrying about how I need to adjust to make them more comfortable.

MDH, I've had decades of experience learning to treat white people as individuals. Interestingly enough, black people work the same way. Your friendship should vibe to its own natural rhythm - complete with inside jokes, shared experience, borrowed customs, and permissions to push boundaries that have been earned with trust.

Trust that your friends like you as earnestly as you like them. And then relax!

What do you think?

Julian Michael aka "Token" is a former guidance counselor turned comedian, writer, and radio host. Take what he says with a grain of salt, because your food is probably bland anyway. Got a question? Need advice? Write to #DearToken here!

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