An important attribute of tokenism is that many who acquiesce to it have a sincere wish that the issue in question could be addressed at a deeper level. They recognize the token for what it is, but they reassure themselves with the thought that at least it’s a first step in the right direction – that it’s “better than nothing.”
I believe, on the contrary, that this very predisposition is what makes tokenism worse than nothing – a step backward from goals that are widely desired. The token itself might be harmless or even positive. What makes it insidious is its framing, or the larger context in which it is put forward.
The image of a waterfall, a heron, or a sunset may remind us that nature offers us a wealth of inimitable wonder. Painted onto the back of an SUV, however, it’s the cynical expression of a posture in which everything in the universe has been tamed, packaged, and brought under control.
While most black people are offended by a white person saying “You’re different from other black people,” there’s always a minority of black people who actually enjoy hearing these words, who like feeling they are “different” from other black people because they have issues with black people, or even with being black themselves. Perhaps they felt they didn’t fit in very well or that old chestnut of being labeled as a “nerd” or accused of “acting white,” a common experience for certain pockets of those brought up in the black middleclass. But rather than seeing this for what it was – immaturity on the part of your peers and that they were the issue, not the entirety of the black race – they doubled down on it being black people’s fault for “rejecting” them. And so they bought into the beliefs that all black people are intolerant or ignorant or close-minded or uneducated. And then, by pre-rejecting black people before they could reject them, they over-compensated with desperately seeking the approval of white people. I’ve seen it happen. And it’s always disappointing because it ignores the reality that often being a token doesn’t mean that you’re “better” than other black people. It just means they found one acceptable black person then stopped looking. That they don’t actually really care about finding qualified people, that it’s about superficial nods to diversity while reinforcing the status quo where a white person can be average for a position, but a black person must be exceptional. Where George W. Bush could simply be a guy you wanted to have a beer with, but Barack Obama needed to be the second coming.
Seeing images of 'excellent' black people all over the media was relieving, but I wouldn’t say it’s liberating enough. Don’t get me wrong, I want to keep seeing us represented in the media and workplace because we are valuable and worth recognition. This representation continues to give me life. However, this 'excellence' title puts a pressure on me to prove something to the world. Yes, my blackness is amazing, great, beautiful and wonderful. But I'm beyond those words. I'm no longer comparing myself to those that don’t represent me. I am not better or less that anyone, and I don’t feel this desire to prove my beauty anymore. Instead, I am defining myself as Yvette and trying to find/create space to allow this current process to happen. What does it look like to be me? And is excellence constraining the dynamic ups and downs that I live?
Words like excellence don’t always give me that space. Excellence sees me as a high and mighty person who can do no wrong. I am up to date, I am in fashion and I’m doing it effortlessly. But I'm not top notch. I break down. I can be wrong. I make bad decisions. I don’t always fit what’s in fashion. I don’t deny the excellence of black people. But I can’t be branded with that word. I am a black woman with many other identities that twist and turn my habits. I am a black woman who has many ideas and no idea of what she’s doing in life. So give me space to break down and be a mess. Give me space to say the wrong thing and reflect.
The critical difference between a token and a legitimate representative of minorities, though, is that tokens are all hired or appointed by people who do not win many minority votes (or, in the case of [Herman] Cain, are elevated by white businesspeople). Unlike Senator-designate [Tim] Scott, [Michael] Steele, and Cain, Obama was elected by a coalition that included a large number of people of color. The notion that he represents people of color is not a fantasy presented by the racially dominant majority, driven by stereotypes and typecasting. Instead, it is rooted in the actions of everyday people, who actually voted for him. Another central feature of the dynamic of tokenism is the power disparity between the majority group and the minority individual. As the token is dependent on the majority group for his livelihood, he is required to reproduce the culture of the majority, not change it.