On Tokenism

Token. Noun. "An item, idea, person, etc., representing a group; a part as representing the whole; sample; indication" [4].

Tokenism. Noun. "The policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate)" [5]; "the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly" [5].


This post talks about my experiences with tokenism as it pertains to race. It does not reflect gender identity, sexuality, or orientation. I may write about those aspects of being a token in a later post.


As far back as I can remember, I have often been the token member of a group. Not always, but often. When I was five, the parents of the rich kid at school wanted him to have a Black friend, and I was elected - he was a jerk to me, and I hated him for being a jerk. I never really thought about it again until high school - that's when I noticed that I was one of the very few persons of color at my school [Note 1] and started noticing the racial disparities in my life. Things that didn't occur to me when I was younger started becoming easier to recognize.

Some time later, while I was working for Minneapolis Parks [Note 2], it became even more apparent - the director at my park retired, and a new director came in. The new director brought her staff with her [Note 3], and alienated the kids, families, and the old staff - it got to be the point where I was the only member left from the previous staff, and the only person of color. In the community paper, the new director would wax about "our diverse staff" - I was the diversity up until I finally left.

I mention these things from my educational and professional life because of the symbolic effort that was given to show that there was social inclusiveness in those circles, but I often was not fully accepted. Sometimes I was the tool to try to generate a certain view, and sometimes I was the expert on how all African Americans view certain things, and usually either (or both) of these overshadowed me as a person.

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura on the set of Star Trek: The Original Series
By NASA (Great Images in NASA Description) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And then there were the stories and adventures that I enjoyed - Dick Tracy, Batman, Star Trek [Note 4], Sherlock Holmes... all stories with either predominately white or entirely white casts and characters. I had grown up watching these stories, but seeing very few people who looked like me, except maybe background characters. There were characters such as Lieutenants Uhura and Sulu, of course, and one-off characters such as Commodore Stone, but there were very few leading stories with persons of color that captured the attention of a young geek. And so I played along, and wished that there were characters out there who resembled me.

George Takei as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, from Star Trek (1966)
By NBC Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As I got older, I felt more and more isolated: at jobs, I started to feel that I could not get any further because I had a certain role to play; in social situations, I became hyper-vigilant of my actions, for I was the representative of my entire race; in public, I was on the defense, because I was often contrasted against others of my race. Though I cannot say for certain that I was held back at any jobs because I am African American, I have been passed over for promotion a number of times in favor of white colleagues who were less than qualified [Note 5], and then offered a lower pay raise after finally achieving the promotions that it took longer for me to earn. It is pretty clear to me that I was held back because I am African American, but I did not have any solid proof of it.

Percy Rodriguez as Commodore Stone, from TOS: "Court Martial" (1966)
By Paramount Pictures and/or CBS Studios [Fair Use], via Memory Alpha

In public, I am seen as the representative of my entire race. The first time I noticed this was in high school - one of my religion teachers asked for me to be the one to give the Black perspective of things in my class. There was only me and a Latinx as the persons of color in that particular class. Outside of school, at social gatherings, I always have to be extra respectful and extra polite.  When one is a token, one "may feel they are constantly being examined or evaluated" [6], which I often am, while perceiving "that others pay a disproportionate amount of attention to people who feel like tokens and are hypervigilant concerning their actions and behaviors" [6]. At many social gatherings, I am held to a higher standard than the guests around me - my actions are under the watchful eye of those around me.

Stories are becoming more diverse now, but it is a slow process. And people are starting to see that we are not a monolithic group, but it is still a slow process. I still get the offensive "you are so well-spoken" or "you are so articulate" - someone is amazed, even bewildered that an African American can speak in the Standard American English dialect [7] instead of AAVE or Ebonics [Note 6]. Just never say that (along with these 11 Things White People Should Stop Saying to Black People Immediately). But, as I said, it is a slow process, and it sometimes reinforces the idea that "a person is forced to play a role based on stereotypes of their group" [6] - it is painfully slow.

I'd like to be beyond it already. We're not there yet. Perhaps we'll be there in time for the next generation, or the one after.

 


Notes:

1. I went to Saint Thomas Academy for high school (9 - 12). Saint Thomas Academy is 88.9% - 91.5% white [1] [2] [3]. As I recall, I was 1 of 3 African-Americans, and 1 of 5 persons of color, in my graduating class.

2. I only worked at Painter Park specifically, and not at MPRB in general. 

3. The new director and her staff came from Lynnhurst Park, which has a very different demographic than Painter Park.

4. I had initially known only Star Trek and Star Trek: The Animated Series, as Star Trek: The Next Generation did not premiere until after I was a toddler and into the beginning of my primary education years.

5. When I say "less than qualified," I mean either their training was incomplete or they were fired for either being grossly incompetent or stealing from the company.

6. AAVE, or African American Vernacular English, and Ebonics were once considered the same dialect of American English, and then for a period considered two different dialects, and now is considered the same dialect again. However, there are many negative connotations with the term Ebonics [8], and should be avoided.


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References:

1. Rate Limited. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2017. <http://private-schools.startclass.com/l/120188/St-Thomas-Academy>.

2. "St Thomas Academy." N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2017. <https://www.greatschools.org/minnesota/mendota-heights/2399-St-Thomas-Academy/>.

3. USASchoolInfo.com. "St Thomas Academy Mendota Heights, MN Enrollment & Demographics." USASchoolInfo. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2017. <http://www.usaschoolinfo.com/school/st-thomas-academy-mendota-heights-minnesota.108527/enrollment>.

4. "Token." Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 04 July 2017.

5. "Tokenism." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 04 July 2017.

6. "Tokenism." Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 July 2017. <https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/counseling-psychology/multicultural-counseling/tokenism/>.

7. Clemetson, Lynette. "The Racial Politics of Speaking Well." The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Feb. 2007. Web. 05 July 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/04/weekinreview/04clemetson.html>.

8. Green, Lisa J. African American English: a linguistic introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2009. PDF.