Let's talk about tokenism (Part 1)

Updated: Aug 27

NOUN: a thing serving as a visible or tangible representation of a fact, quality, feeling, etc.

ADJECTIVE: done for the sake of appearances or as a symbolic gesture.

These are exciting and scary times. So much change is underway on all levels of humanity right now: politically, sociologically, environmentally, and surely emotionally. In terms of sociologically, it's exciting to see that so many people are now more willing to give the subject of racism and culture its due. We can all wish that the early years after slavery were handled better, but they weren't and so now here we are. The purpose of Culture x Co is not just to educate ourselves through learning from historians and the like but also to share our own stories. So let's talk about tokenism. Maybe the first time you've heard of it is when Naomi Campbell spoke out about it last week. Probably not. Tokenism is reflected in your workspaces and definitely in your friend groups, whether you'd like to admit or not.

My name is Stacey and I'm a token. In my quest for adventure, education, and status, I have allowed myself to be used by others as a representation of their diversity. I have been enamored with white life since I received my first white doll in Jamaica and cracked open my first book featuring endless parades of white people doing exciting things. When we emigrated to Florida in the mid-80s, white American life seemed more special and interesting, not at all like my hot and monotonous days in Jamaica ; certainly better than the also endless parades of black people labeled criminals daily on my American TV. So I became the apt pupil of all things American and told myself that it wasn't my fault that there weren't many black faces in the spaces I frequented. Afterall, I was only striving for the best so how could I take the blame for others who didn't? In turn, America showed me that there were two camps of people: White people who had everything and everyone else who had less of everything.

When the Cosby Show and a Different World came out, I was hooked because I finally saw other brown people that were like me, but I was embarrassed that even those characters had more black and brown friends than I did. I wondered where were the other "good" Black people like me? Throughout it all, I knew the textbooks that barely spoke about people like me were wrong and wanted so badly to believe in the myth of American exceptionalism and racial unity. So I set about being the best Black person these white people knew, to be seen and therefore change their minds.

But that's the thing: even then I knew something was wrong. I knew it was wrong that my mother, the most educated and credentialed nurse at that time wasn't paid the same as her white counterparts who lived in fancier homes, I smelled something fishy when out of the blue someone in my friend group would randomly announce : "I wouldn't date a black person, I'm just not attracted to them", "she's too dark", "I love being white". When someone else would drop the "N" word and I would cringe. When it seemed like everything bad and crass was labeled Black but everything good, clean, and adventurous was White.

It continued when I was followed around in stores while my white friends were left alone. When my guidance counselor recommended that I go to community college despite my good grades and recommended that my white friends attend 4 year universities. Entering college, I was blind to the unspoken segregation between black and white sororities until realizing that my sorority had no other Black pledges . When my first boyfriend (who is white) wouldn't take me home to meet his parents. As I got older, I strived for the best education, the best place to live, and every time I arrived at my goal, I realized that those resources weren't necessarily built for me because I was again, the only Black person there.

Eventually, the luster of feeling up to the job of proving the worth of all Black people started to wear thin as I realized that this effort wasn't a two way street. My willful ignorance began to curdle, and I began to question everything: Why was I expected to answer all questions? How come this is supposed to be a melting pot, open to all but I am the only or one of maybe 3 Black people here? Why can there ONLY be 1 - 3 of us at time? Do you mean to tell me that not one more Black person can do this job or be your friend? Why aren't you more upset by the way things are? Why are strong and outspoken White women promoted and celebrated but Black women with the same characteristics are labeled aggressive and angry? Why do you need to crush me to stand tall? Why aren't you as eager to learn about me as I am you?

These thoughts started to get louder and louder as I left my 20s and into my 30s. The effect of tokenism on the Black community is painful to live with. Sure there may be polite hellos and smiles but what have we done to help others up? I didn't do much to investigate the pain of my heritage and went on expecting more Black people to want to prove themselves like I was used to doing. I cannot explain the pain of both being alone in places that you know weren't built for you and of seeing the blood effort of your ancestors reflected in your upward mobility at the same time. It's a duality every Black person in the world lives with no matter the tokens that deny it. In some of us it builds perseverance and in others it builds rage and hurt; in most of us it builds both.

Now here I am, married to a wonderful White, Jewish man and stepmom to two awesome White daughters. I am in love with my family but know that it was my years spent being a friend and ally to white people that allows me to be in this particular family space. My true rage is fairly new; around 4 years old. If it simmered below the surface before, it is bubbling up now and like author Ijeoma Oluo, I have reached a place with no more passes to give. Not to myself and definitely not to anyone else.

My youth spent understanding white culture and stubbornly insisting that we are all the same has led me to a place where I can say : tokenism is supremacy on one side and denial on the other.

Tokenism is assuming that the token in question should assimilate and learn about your culture but making no effort to reciprocate. Being a token is not asking questions about why you're the only one - not reaching back to help another like you.

Tokenism is shallow and only feeds the ego of the person or system using it to support their supremacy or self-worth. Being a token is suppressing parts of yourself and living with the disappointment of not being seen. Being a token is being complicit in your own demise as a whole person. It is giving the power to others instead of enacting your own.

So hi, my name is Stacey. I am sorry to every Black and Brown person I have skipped over and therefore devalued by not seeing them, seeing US. Also, I am sorry to every White person who I gave the impression that being equal means being just like them.