The Mental Load of Being a Token
I didn’t find tokenism. Tokenism found me. Growing up, I tried to label myself as a carefree, creative spirit. That was the identity I wanted. I didn’t want to shoulder being a role model for others. I just wanted to create and be happy.
Why can’t I wear two different colored socks? They’re both socks. I don’t have time to find the matching sock. I’m wearing pants; who cares? Ok, I’m being laughed at. I don’t “care about my appearance.” I can’t convince others that life is too short to worry about if your socks match.
I don’t want to be even weirder than being black. I get it. Mom, I know you said I should wait because they are toxic, but can I get a perm now? I want to fit in.
Why am I one of a couple of black kids in all my honors classes? Am I gifted despite being black? That’s what I was told. After all, even famous black thinkers like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois believed in a “Talented Tenth.” So are black kids not as focused, not as talented, not as inherently smart? Is that why I’m “not like other blacks”? We’re intellectually inferior as a group? I’m the exception to the rule?
Is that why I’m here in Honors English and more black kids aren’t? Because I believed in hard work? Or was it because my family can afford books and computers? Or is it because I was taught never to speak AAVE in front of whites. It’s not like it’s a real language, even if I have to “translate” some phrases for my grandparents from time to time. No, I speak correct English.
Now I’m all grown up. I wasn’t special. I wasn’t unique. I was just hand-picked. I acknowledge that I can come off as “smart,” but that’s because I read anything I can. I make the mistake in assuming others find “being smart” to be interesting. No one wants to feel dumb.
Am I making this group of people feel dumb? Here I am at another networking event at some art space in a gentrified part of town. I don’t see anyone else that looks like me. It’s going to be a lonely night.
Why am I included and excluded at the same time? I’m in the room, but I’m not part of your inner circle. Are you intimidated by me? Why? I’m not as confident as I pretend to be. It’s just a mask I wear. I just want to make friends and be myself for once.
I want to laugh at the joke you just told, but I feel hurt by it. It’s no big deal. I’m not offended. But I am and I don’t want to bring the mood in the room down. That’s why no one invites me to anything else.
I wanted it too badly. I laughed too hard. I didn’t smile enough. I overtalked again. Am I an introvert or an extrovert? Does it matter? I don’t think that joke landed well. I blame any erratic behavior on the alcohol I’m not drinking.
I see another black person. They see me. We walk toward each other. I want to say something universally black, but I’m also waiting for them to say something as well. “It’s nice to see another one of us here.” Phew!
We may have nothing else in common but we are forced to comfort each other. We know we can’t leave each other stranded for the rest of the night. Once people stop talking to us, we’ll have to find each other again, laugh uncomfortably, and pray that our black experiences are similar enough to make small talk about Kanye West. But deep in our hearts, we empathize with Kanye’s descent into madness. Is that what’s gonna happen to us?
I’m black, but I’m not black, black, they tell me. After all, I’m a creative professional. Not a lot of black people are creative professionals, right? They are talking about me as if I’m a unicorn. I don’t want to tell them that several creative black people exist. I don’t want to tell them that black creativity is suppressed on an elementary school level. I don’t want to tell them that black creatives give up because no one reads their books, listens to their music, showcases their art, or listens to their podcasts because even we blacks subconsciously think that black art is inferior. I don’t want to tell them that another minority creative professional and I were just having a discussion about whether its worth the mental load to continue to push our own narratives, or whether we should cave to white expectations of our contributions. To be used as props in a white person’s narrative.
Someone mentions Black Lives Matter and “the protests.” Soon they realize they are having this discussion without black people. They openly debate what “the line” is. Someone spots me and asks what my opinion is as if to ask me if I prefer Coke or Pepsi. I keep my mouth shut about my husband’s, my brother’s, my male friends’ encounters with the police. I keep quiet about my own encounters with the police.
I don’t want to tell them that I’m two generations from the cotton, pecan, sugar, peanut, and cucumber fields and my family is still figuring out this whole middle-class thing. And I don’t want to tell them I still know people in those proverbial fields who think I’m a success and that my family is a success because we “talk good.”
And now I feel trapped. Some days I want to change careers. But I’m trapped in my token role. You’re proud of me? Why are you proud of me? I’ve just been rejected from a gallery show, a proposal, a grant, a teaching position, and that in-house creative position I wanted. For the fourteenth time. I was just told that I was talented, but not what they were looking for. That I wouldn’t be a good fit. And from looking at the headshots on their website, I guess I wouldn’t be. I was making the mistake of wanting what white people already have.
“Wow, that’s impressive! You’re from Alabama? How did you get to go to college in California? That must have been difficult for you!” They want to hear some story about me being the sole smart kid in a failing school who was destined for greatness. They don’t want to hear the real story: that my high school home had an in-ground pool. That my father ran his own mental health facility, but he also owned an independent recording label where I cut my entertainment industry teeth. That I was in a social and community service club that I can only describe to those not familiar with the black upper-middle class or cotillion culture as “country club-like.” That I went to one of the best high schools in my state and did well enough to luck into a USC admission. So I say, “it was my first choice school.” That’s not a lie, but it satisfies their fantasies of anyone being able to do anything if they tried hard enough.
Some guy starts talking about the time he was the only white person while he was volunteering at some soup kitchen in the ghetto. Now he understands racism. We were talking about the Fast and Furious series. He looks to me as I if I “get” him. What do you want from me? To say you’re a good person because you cared about someone else for five minutes?
“I know what you mean. When I was a freshman in college, I lived on a special floor that was designed for a group of black freshmen to get them used to college life. It was called Somerville and it helped me with the culture shock.”
“USC had a floor just for black students? That sounds racist.”
I made the mistake of opening up. I don’t feel like explaining why Somerville, the El Sol and La Luna floors, or the Rainbow floors at USC were desperately needed safe spaces. I don’t feel like explaining that safe space doesn’t mean sheltering us from “reality.” It just means we can take off the mask occasionally.
I disengage to check Facebook. I have a direct message. An old acquaintance from back home wants me to give their child words of encouragement. You see, the little girl likes to draw, write stories, and take pictures. She’s a creative thinker with a curious mind. What do I tell her? That she will feel alone? That she will be made to feel unworthy? That she will have to work harder to achieve the same level of results, both as a woman and as a minority? That once she finally alienates all her colleagues after complaining about the lack of diversity, that she’ll be at the mercy of others to look for work?
Now that this event is over, I can go home. I’m sitting in a dark room, unloading my thoughts. I’m stress-eating because I’m too chickenshit to pick up a substance abuse habit. If I do, I’ll just be another shiftless negro. No, I can’t drink too heavily or do drugs. Those are bad things. I’m One of the Good Ones™. People are cheering for me.
So I just stare at the wall for the next five hours.