Lessons on Tokenism From A Retired Token Black Friend

Nappy Head Club
Oct 21, 2020 · 6 min read

By Cherith King for Nappy Head Club

What is the black race to society?

Our contributions have often gone unrecognized, with little appreciation and negligible focus on our strengths as a people and as individuals. I’ve found that the black experience, specifically in America, is often filtered to fit into a dehumanizing social construct. It seems that black people are often subjected to stereotypes, to perpetuate concepts that minimize our diversity as a race, and our depth as a people. This cycle I’m describing is tokenism, and you most likely have experienced it.

The general definition for tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality and equity within a specific societal system (workforce, school, university, movie, tv-show etc.)

Why is tokenism bad? Tokenism belittles minorities and ostracizes them as “others” to mainstream society. It maintains the false narrative that every minority is the same, acts the same, talks the same, and only serves to aid the development of or benefit their white counterparts. Tokenism is diversity without inclusion or representation, it doesn’t intend to implement methods that recognize minorities and the issues we face. More often than not, this practice is used as a way to ‘save face’, and give the false depiction of representation in a predominantly homogenous white society.

Being the only black kid in my class, third wheel of all my friend groups, and appointed representative of all things black I was what you’d consider the “token black friend.” My friend groups lacked melanin, and I didn’t have many people to share my experiences with, resulting in the expectation of others that I would fit into certain black stereotypes. Oftentimes, I was used as a check mark, and a free pass, to excuse the behavior of others. I knew something was ‘off’ about my situation, but I didn’t know what to call it.

If you find yourself often seen as a color instead of an individual, here are some of my experiences as the token black friend, and some advice to help you navigate your own journey:

We’ve all been there before: you’re talking to a friend and they insist you like fried chicken and watermelon (or insert stereotype of your choice), and when you don’t laugh or call them out, they mention that their brother’s-ex-girlfriend’s-cousin’s-sister is black so they’re not stereotyping.

WHAT I LEARNED: You will be asked out-of-pocket, inappropriate, uncomfortable questions on a regular basis. Generally, people will see you as a representation of the entire black population. The labels often assigned to black people will be plastered onto you and held there, whether you fit into them or not, and most of the time you’re used to fulfill the tropes involved in the systemic savior complex. In my situation, I was used as the tour guide for the black experience in America. If people had questions or blanket statements they came to me, ignorance and all.

“Wow, look at that (my hair)! Can I touch it? How do you get it to stand up all weird like that? Do you use a normal comb?”

WHAT I LEARNED: There are moments when questions like these are asked and you wonder to yourself, how could someone possess the audacity to come to you with such a strong lack of awareness? I’ve learned to turn those questions back onto them. If someone asks you if they can touch your hair, ask if you can touch theirs. If someone asks if you use a normal comb, shampoo, conditioner, etc. ask them to define what they mean by “normal.” Turn their ignorance back onto them, and sometimes the gears will start to turn. The people that do ask you those questions, and use generalizations are simply regurgitating the stereotypes they ingest on a day-to-day basis. So to show them that you don’t fit into the faulty pre-made molds used to label black people in a predominantly white society means you educate others on our diversity as a race. Being proud of your blackness, and expressive of your identity are some of the most radical acts you could ever make in a world where the suppression of black empowerment in the forms of stereotypes and biases is so heavily apparent.

“You’re so different from them! You talk so white, it’s hard to believe you’re black!”

WHAT I LEARNED: You are not an oreo, you are not whitewashed, you’re just as black as the rest of us. If you’re like me, you’ve been told continuously that you’re one of the “different ones,” that you “talk white” and deny your culture. I felt like I didn’t belong in either mix, and that I somehow got ‘whitewashed,’ or maybe I did lose some of my blackness along the way. None of that is true. In the past, I’ve been separated from my black counterparts, and treated differently, yet still belittled and ignored by certain people around me because at the end of the day, I’m still a black woman in America. Also — and I’m talking to my black brothers and sisters here — it’s not cute to make fun or criticize your black friends if they don’t know Swahili (true story), or shame black girls for wearing weave or straightening their hair when you understand that she hides her curls because she’s been taught all her life that her hair was ugly (…another true story… don’t ask). We have to uplift each other, not tear each other down.

P.S. You won’t lose your “Black card” if you listen to indie music, and hate the taste of collard greens (speaking from personal experience).

“Why would anyone want to be Black, it just makes no sense to me.”

WHAT I LEARNED: In this world, comments like those are pretty common. We’ve been seen and labeled as inferior for centuries, so loving yourself, and loving your melanin in present day times is laughable to those on the outside looking in. It can be hard. I know it can be hard. You can’t let the ignorance of others ruin your vibe like that. I won’t tell you it’ll be easy, because most things in life worth experiencing never are. You will be misunderstood, you will struggle a bit, feel alone at times, or feel unwanted at times, but I promise, you will get through it. Fall in love with yourself, uplift yourself, hype yourself up! You are powerful, you are strong, and you are special. Being black in this world is a superpower. The talent and intelligence that we possess is a gift to the world. We are literal living breathing masterpieces. We’re the creators of art, and music, trailblazers in literature, film, and media, scientists and mathematicians with monumental ideas and knowledge, titans in politics and movements. What we are not, are comical relief sidekicks, loud angry messy women, stupid and unquallified, or societal completion guides whose sole purpose is to perpetuate the existing cultural narrative. We are our own people, our stories matter, our dreams matter, our ideas matter, and most importantly our lives matter.

If you take anything away from my journey leave with this:

  1. Tokenization does not equal inclusion.
  2. Tokenization involves generalization and stereotypes, which do not represent the entirety of a minority population.
  3. Black people and other minorities are all different and special in their own right, we are non-monolithic, we have likes and dislikes, talents and skills, and we’re just as important as everyone and anyone else.
  4. When people ask you inappropriate questions, reverse the question back onto them (it really does work, trust me).
  5. Last of all but most importantly, love yourself, love your skin, love your hair, love your body, love your personality, love who you are, and especially love all people. At the end of the day, it is crucial to know for yourself that you are not a stereotype, you are an individual with great purpose.

About the Author:
Cherith King is a highschool senior and writer located in South Florida.

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