This Is Us

Reflections From a Token Black Friend

On structural racism, implicit bias, and what white people do (and don’t) say

Ramesh A Nagarajah
Human Parts
Published in
16 min readJun 4, 2020

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Photo courtesy of the author.

I am regularly the only black kid in the photo. I have mastered the well-timed black joke, fit to induce a guilty “you thought it but couldn’t say it” laugh from my white peers. I know all the words to “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers.

I am a token black friend. The black one in the group of white people. This title is not at all a comment on the depth of my relationships; I certainly am blessed to have the friends that I do. But by all definitions of the term, I am in many ways its poster child. And given the many conversations occurring right now around systemic racism, it would feel wrong not to use my position as a respected friend within a multitude of different white communities to contribute to the current dialogue. I believe my story speaks directly to the covert nature of the new breed of racism — its structural side, along with implicit bias — and may prove helpful to many I know who seek a better understanding.

Growing up, I lived in the inner city of Boston, in Roxbury. I attended school in the suburbs through a program called METCO — the longest continuously running voluntary school desegregation program in the country, which began in the late 1960s. My two siblings and I attended school in Weston, Massachusetts, one of the nation’s wealthiest towns. The place quickly became our second home, and alongside Boston, I would count it equally as the place I was raised. All three of us did very well by all standards. We had all been co-presidents of the school, my brother and I were both football captains, and all three of us went on to top-end universities.

For those wondering about the structural side of systemic racism, I’d ask you to consider a few questions. First: Why does METCO still exist? Segregation ended more than 60 years ago, yet there is a still a fully functioning integration program in our state. We haven’t come very far at all. Many of our schools remain nearly as segregated as they were in the 1960s.

Second: What is the point? Weston improves its diversity. Without us, most of Weston’s students would go through all those years seeing possibly three or four local…

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