State of the Internet

The Primary Task of the Tokenizer

by Shiraz Gallab

A few months ago, I found a video of a skateboarder in Portland being targeted by a visibly intoxicated man who claimed that he and his friends were not allowed to skate in the park. The skater was a young black man—the only black person filmed in the entire video—and the perpetrator was a middle-aged white man who stumbled throughout the six minute clip. Unarmed and sloppy, the drunk man attempted to lodge a few punches before throwing the victim’s skateboard at him and missing. Even though plenty of other skaters were present, the black skateboarder was the only person targeted by the older man.

The police eventually intervened and handcuffed the assailant, leaving the skaters to continue shredding in the park. Near the end of the video, the man hears the group laughing at him and responds, “I’ll remember you motherfuckers, especially the black kid.”

Despite being published in 2014, this video caught my attention a few months ago due to its relationship to recently published footage of white people targeting and policing innocent black people in public places. Although the consequences were not nearly as serious, the altercation also brings to mind Trayvon Martin, Jordan Edwards, and Antwon Rose: boys who were found guilty of living, breathing, and walking in spaces that failed to protect them. These incidents begin to document Black America’s pervasive state of anxiety—something that has existed long before smartphone technology made it accessible to the rest of the country. But in the case of the skateboarder video, a layer of comedic relief has been sprinkled throughout the footage, and neither the drunk man nor the police officers are the most threatening people involved.

The video is titled, “Drunk guy vs skateboarder,” and its description reads, “One of the funniest things i have ever filmed. Drunk guy goes after skateboarder.” Even though the perpetrator makes it clear that his behavior is racially motivated, the person who published the video has decided to neutralize the conversation from the jump. Both the title and description fail to acknowledge race as an important variable in the altercation.

Alongside the faulty rhetoric are flawed actions that may appear benign at first glance. About ten seconds in, someone tells the black skateboarder to “relax!” and encourages him to walk away. The same person yells “walk away!” once more, urging the black skater to be the bigger person and turn the other cheek. This is echoed in the comments section of the video, where the person who uploaded the clip writes, “The cops wanted us to press charges but we didn’t.” These words and actions wouldn’t be a problem if they were authored by the black skater, but the video’s entire narrative is dictated by a group of white guys who naïvely assume that they can speak for their black friend.

As the perpetrator is handcuffed, the white skaters rejoice, laugh, and smile into the camera. They scoff at the man’s racist remarks, but do so amicably and at a comfortable distance from him. The black skater isn’t seen, save for a few shots of him talking to the police. Is he laughing along? It’s unclear; he was visibly frustrated at the start of the video and is out of reach at the end. Moreover, the subject of the video has become the object of the people around him, and his thoughts on what happened are less important than the passive laughter that is heard throughout the last half of the video.

By my definition, the black skater is a token—not out of choice, but out of circumstance. And while his friends are not necessarily ill-intended, their actions impair what is already a volatile relationship between races in this country. The video documents a problem that is often ignored when race is critically discussed in America: that it is the tokenizer, not the token, who perpetuates racial stereotypes and injustice. More dangerous than the silly drunk man are the white skateboarders standing idly by, using humor to diffuse the racial tension that they aren’t ready to face.

Still image from the film Afro-Punk (2003).

Traditionally, a token is an individual who has been recruited to symbolize efforts of inclusion in the workplace. Today, however, tokens can be found in both professional and personal environments. They not only exist in the office, but also in social circles, scenes, and spaces that are mostly white.

Despite its problematic history in the United States, black tokenism tends to be dismissed as something that is less pressing than overt acts of hatred. In the eyes of the unassuming, tokenism is understood to be “a first step in the right direction,” because it alludes to the possibility of increased opportunity for Black Americans overall.1 Such an argument is naïve at best and manipulative at its core, since tokenism is nothing greater than an optical illusion and a convenient “hiding place” for the tokenizer’s deepest and darkest forms of racial antipathy.2

In all cases, the token is determined from an external condition. He or she does not self-identify as a token, nor does the idea of being a token present itself as a personal or professional goal. Rather, tokenism occurs only when a tokenizer is present, and it is further exacerbated by the divisive strategies that are employed by that tokenizer.

An example of this might include the tokenizer stating that his or her token is “not like other black people,” thus driving a wedge between the elevated token and more “thuggish” black community. Plenty of tokenizers are smart enough to avoid uttering such words, but their actions speak for themselves. They invest their energy and resources into the one black person that they are comfortable aligning with, and when confronted with examples of racial inequality, they turn to their token in relief, thinking, “It can’t be that bad.” Surely, it can’t be, since tokenizers are the first to claim that they “don’t see color.”

Tokenizers are particularly notorious when it comes to conversations on race, because they desperately try to dart from the topic altogether. For that reason, tokens are expected to speak up quietly, to stand up slowly, and to push for change patiently. Tokenizers prefer that their tokens discuss racial injustice without using language that is deemed threatening. They are essentially telling the token to “do you, but don’t.”

A classic example took place in 2009 following the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr at his Cambridge residence. During a press conference on the incident, Former President Barack Obama said the police “acted stupidly” and cited the disproportionate arrest of Blacks and Latinos as a historical fact. In response to his remarks, several law enforcement groups expressed dismay, Glenn Beck argued that the president had a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” and Obama’s approval rating with white voters dropped by seven points. The president then crafted a more sanitized statement to the press and coordinated the infamous “Beer Summit” with Gates and Sergeant Crowley3 in an attempt to minimize the growing backlash. And just like that, the most powerful person in the country was disempowered to speak on an incident that resonated with him and other black people in the United States.

It’s important to note that in this case, the tokenizer was not a specific person but instead a body of people who deflected attention from the core issue of race in America. Much like “Drunk guy vs skateboarder,” the Beer Summit can be summarized as a comical and distracting response to an act of racial injustice. Both events leave us with the same unsettling conclusion—that something is missing from the story that’s being told.

The so-called “Beer Summit” with former president Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and Sergeant James Crowley in 2009.

Tokenizers reach the peak of their success when their tokens live through them. A few highly publicized examples include Stacey Dash calling for an end to Black History MonthLil Wayne claiming that he has never experienced racismRaven-Symoné outright stating that she is not an African American, and John Ridley arguing for a blunt separation between “niggers” and what he calls “New Black Americans.” These bizarre statements are certainly worth challenging, but I’d like to argue that they are secondary to the behavior exhibited by tokenizers, in part because they are words that the tokenizer has fed the token at the onset of the relationship. As Ishmael Reed put it, “the primary task of the token is to mine the intellectual obsessions of his or her sponsors.”4

The language surrounding black tokenism typically points the finger at the token and leaves the tokenizer unscathed. The token’s authorship is toyed with bit by bit, and any attempt at establishing an authentic identity is met with dismissive laughter, or worse, silence. The token is therefore accessible but out of focus; visible but unrecognized; subject turned object; misunderstood. It’s about time that we shift our gaze, rethink our rhetoric, and observe the tokenizer’s tasks before the token’s.

[1.] Victor Wallis, “The Plague of Tokenism.” (2014)

[2.] bell hooks, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. (1997)

[3.] One of the officers involved in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

[4.] Ishmael Reed, “Ralph Ellison and the Agony of the Token,” The Black Scholar. (2008)

Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab is a designer based in Chicago. She is interested in language, form, and the human condition.