Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Black Tokenism & The PWI Experience
Most Black folks have experienced being the token at some point in their life. Especially if they are accustomed to inhabiting majority white spaces.
Predominantly White Institutions (PWI's) in particular are notorious for forcing the token identity on unsuspecting Black college students.
Being the token can be intimidating if you're shy and like to keep to yourself. It's a way of highlighting you for no other reason other than the fact that you're the only Black person in the vicinity. So now it is you who must speak on behalf of your race. It is you who must know everything about Black issues and hold all of the answers. Your classmates and even your professors will be looking to you.
This is a very common phenomenon that Black people, to a certain extent, have come to expect. But the emotional and psychological costs of tokenism are not often considered.
As I prepare to finish college, I am now more aware of all of the ways tokenism has been a detriment.
1) Tokenism pits Black people against each other.
Under the rule of tokenism, there is only room for a few successful Black people. Maybe only room for one successful Black woman. Is it any surprise then that the internalization of tokenism makes us hostile towards one another? The person who under normal circumstances could have been our partner, is transformed into our enemy due to the underhanded nature of tokenism and white supremacy.
Tokenism creates a double bind. The real fact of racism makes it so that once a few talented (well-positioned and "good") Black people are given opportunities all other Black people are shut out.
A large scale example of this can be seen in what occurred post-Civil Rights. A small group of privileged Black Americans disproportionately reaped the benefits of increased opportunity, while everybody else remained in the ghetto. Their lives did not substantially change due to new legislation.
The other side of tokenism is that we internalize the mentality. Even if there is an opportunity to build community and uplift one another, if we are permanently stuck in the frame of mind that there is only room for one person then we will not be receptive to those opportunities.
2) Tokenism encourages us to value ourselves based on what we do and what we produce rather than who we are.
Another word for this is perfectionism. The fact of tokenism makes perfectionism hard to avoid for Black people in majority white environments. No matter what we do our race is on trial. If I am ten minutes late to class with Starbucks it would be a funny but benignly sexist joke if I was a white girl, but because I'm a Black girl then it means that I don't take my education seriously and maybe do not deserve my academic scholarship.
If my grammar in a paper is not impeccable then it's because I can't speak "proper" English and maybe I should be in a remedial class. If I am struggling in a class then instead of being directed towards a tutor, I will be encouraged to drop the course.
If I do not have a flawless transcript and academic record then I am unlikely to be encouraged to apply for prestigious fellowships and scholarships, even while non-Black classmates who have the same transcript will be funneled into these programs.
To a non-Black person all of this might sound highly improbable or exaggerated. And yet, this is my life. And it's the life of many other Black students at PWI's.
And so it's no wonder that many Black students at PWI's learn to over-compensate by attempting to excel beyond their classmates. It is no coincidence that many Black students cannot relate to the hegemonic narrative of college in which students party and occasionally attend class all while being largely being protected from the "real world."
College is a microcosm of the real world for Black students who deal with the omnipresent threat of being viewed as not good enough. And even when we excel beyond our classmates, at the end of the day we will be followed by police and harassed and questioned about whether we're even students.
The scrutiny encourages unhealthy coping mechanisms. Tokenism after all is cumulative of what occurs when white supremacy, perfectionism, and capitalist notions of individualism and the need to be productive all collide and pressure Black folks to forget they're human like everybody else.
3) Tokenism discourages us from seeing ourselves as individuals, but rather as mantels to either forward or reverse the interests of the race.
I police myself. For the purposes of my safety, but also because I'm so used to policing myself around non-Black people that I have to consciously remember to drop the facade when I know that I can afford to.
I alter the way I speak. I consider how I dress. I am extra meticulous in my interactions with faculty and staff. All because a small (to large) part of me is aware that I AM the race. In many classes and in many meetings, I will be the only Black person present. And no matter how much I resent it, I am aware that people are using me to judge Black people as a whole.
It's a weird kind of pressure that many Black people are taught from childhood. It starts with the first subtle message from a parent to not be so loud because people will think you're that way because you're Black. Or when you get the subtle hint to avoid the fried chicken at the lunch line because you're concerned somebody will think you're just taking it because you're Black.
These little things accumulate until next thing we know we're habituated to living for the white gaze. Even me as somebody very knowledgeable about race issues, sometimes falls prey to privileging the white gaze before my own subjectivity as an individual.
So what is the answer?
After four years of dealing with being the token, I am still trying to figure it out. But perhaps the first and most meaningful step is awareness.