How The Pandemic Made Me Realise I’m The Token Brown Friend

The Covid-19 pandemic has been brimming with revelations for many individuals, all around the world, irrespective of gender, age and race. Like many others, the pandemic has unearthed aspects of myself that I didn’t acknowledge the existence of earlier.

Before face masks, social distancing and permanently dry hands (as a result of too much hand sanitiser) became the new normal, I had a thriving friendship circle. We giggled until our eyes streamed with salty tears and mascara trickled down our cheeks. We bonded by whining over trivial matters such as missing the train or quarreling with parents. We spoke of the future and where we envisioned ourselves in 10 years.

As the PM’s press conferences continued to invade our television screens, the connection with my so-called ride-or-die friends dwindled. This unique situation has allowed every one of us to pause, reflect and reset. On a smaller scale, I have tried to use this time wisely to confront issues I’d actively dodged in the past, amid fear of misinterpretation and cruel judgement.

The pandemic made me realise I’m the token brown friend. In our group, I was the expert on tan maintenance, shops to buy henna and bindis from and the one to turn to for tedious lessons about race. It all originated when I found myself constantly second-guessing my friends’ intentions when they made references to race.

Tokenism occurs to this day – within the fashion industry, in workplaces, in gigantic corporations and even in supposedly tight-knit friend groups.

When the Black Lives Matter movement escalated and the murder of George Floyd was shared on social media, our group chat lit up. The injustice suffered by George Floyd ignited a spark and my friends rushed to gain my ‘approval’ of their drafted tweets, Instagram captions and Facebook posts. Before this, I was ostracised. My texts, phone calls and DM’s were met with silence. An act of racism, bias and white supremacy in America was required to get my friends to reach out to me after months of nothing.

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve belatedly realised I wasn’t at fault. And neither are you, my fellow brown friend. My white friends were gradually shedding their memories of me, whilst I desperately sought to be their carbon copy.

One of the biggest truths I uncovered was that whilst my white friends were comfortable with me, they weren’t comfortable with my community and the acknowledgment of our different cultural experiences. In a world of smartphones and search engines, there was no reason why my white friends should have felt that their sole source for Black and brown history (and present for that matter) was me, their only brown friend. I am not a representative for POC so I loathe the fact I was unwillingly assigned such a role.

I observed myself biting my tongue, especially when talking about stereotypes throughout our friendship. I have learned that the stereotypes people choose to believe in, say a lot about their character. I can let an uneducated question like “will you have an arranged marriage? I thought all Indians do” slip because sometimes other races genuinely don’t know. But if they are not making an effort to educate themselves, it could be because they don’t want to know. And I had to endure a pandemic to understand this.

Upon educating myself, I recalled that many of our earlier conversations were laced with some kind of microaggression such as “your English is so good”, “where are you actually from?” or the practically archetypal “your name is so hard to pronounce”, which is routinely followed with the suggestion of an English sounding nickname. My name isn’t hard to pronounce. You’re insinuating that I don’t fit in culturally and that my identity is not worth taking the time to learn about. If you can’t pronounce our names, just ask us how to say it. There is no need to point out that it’s unaccustomed to you.

My ‘woke’ friends may stumble across this and deny the existence of these words, brush them aside and continue sharing aesthetic Instagram posts about equality that conveniently match their feeds – don’t be that ‘woke’ friend. To truly show solidarity with your BIPOC friends, educate yourself and most importantly listen to our experiences. They may not be shared experiences but they most definitely are real and our feelings are valid and justified.

To white allies, I am not your token brown friend/girl crush/partner so don’t ask me where I’m from (“no, like where are you really from?”), don’t call me exotic (“you’re too exotic to be from…”) and don’t add me to your dating preferences list (“you’re the first brown girl I’ve fancied”). We’re worth infinitely more.

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