Want to Talk About Racism? Sit Next to Frederick Joseph

VOICE OF EXPERIENCE Frederick Joseph realized he wanted — and needed — to write “The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person” when he was riding the New York City subway on his way to work. “I sat next to a white woman in one of the available seats and she clutched her purse, looked at me as if she was deathly afraid, got up and walked to another seat to sit next to a white man,” recalls the philanthropist and marketing guru who, according to Forbes’s 30 Under 30, “raised nearly $1 million to send some 73,000 children” to see “Black Panther.”

In a phone interview, Joseph explains, “Instances like this are not rare for me. I live in a high-rise building and most people won’t even take the elevator with me because we’re one of the only black families in the building.” When he tweeted about his experience on the subway, he got pushback from people attempting to justify the woman’s decision to relocate. He says, “This helped me realize that we’re not having nuanced and critical conversations about the daily manifestation of racism and white supremacy. We talk about systems — police, education, the justice system — but we don’t actually talk about how the conditioning within them manifests in daily interactions that are traumatizing for Black and brown people.”

Joseph finished writing “The Black Friend” in 2019, before 2020 had what he describes in the preface as “a historic impact on the entire world.” The book debuted at No. 3 on the young adult hardcover list — but it feels relevant to an adult audience, leaving one with the sense of having been grabbed by the shoulders and talked sense into by a trusted confidant who does not mince words (nor should he). Joseph also shares the perspectives of Angie Thomas, Tarell Alvin McCraney and Jemele Hill; and he concludes with an Encyclopedia of Racism, running the gamut from “Affirmative Action” to “Xenophobia.” He writes, “I’ve saved you the hassle of googling. You’re welcome.”

Reception of “The Black Friend” has been warm but disheartening. Joseph says, “We pitched various outlets to let me speak about the book and people are like, ‘Well, we just had a Black guy on. We’ve maxed our quota of Black for the next few months.’ But you’ve had 25 white guys!” To date, he has revamped his next book proposal five times: “Every single white editor said they couldn’t figure out how to sell it and it would probably be better someplace else. But the writing is electric!”

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