A Letter to all my Tokens
Let's start claiming our prizes.
I know it's hard.
Being the only shade of anything darker than beige in a room can be daunting, despite how familiar you are to it.
Your color has become your first impression, and anything you say or do will always be second.
Even now, in 2019, you still make eye contact with stares at your hair, the patterns you wear, or the foods you bring that remind you of home.
You're constantly expected to be a voice for a culture and represent an entire perspective, all on your own.
As a "token black girl," I know it's hard.
I'm a first-generation American, daughter of academic African immigrants, and I grew up like many like me in multicultural white suburbia. I was practically born into this token world: from kindergarten, I was immediately surrounded by "Rachels" and "Ashleys" struggling to say my name, with certain teachers and peers using nicknames less out of affection and more by necessity. The kids I looked like shunned me, for in their eyes I was a traitor. I was denying my skin by "talking white," and being a part of "white people programs" when I opted for gifted educations; further segregating myself from them in ways that were physically and mentally constructed by insidious institutions and systems I was too oblivious to recognize.
Within my friend groups, I was expected to know certain things, move in certain ways, like certain people and explain certain matters based on reasons so trivial, they passed over my head until someone grabbed one and threw it into my face.
Through college and beyond, I navigated spaces as an "only" or in some cases a "one of," where a quick head count showed that while I wasn't alone in a situation, I was nowhere near being close to understood.
And as I spoke with other women and people of color, I felt the overwhelming knowledge that this was a norm; that I wasn't alone. And that bothered me.
So, I began to ask myself: "Am I choosing to exist within this 'token syndrome'? Can I overcome it?"
Honestly, I don't know. But here's a few ways I'm beginning to:
Expect it. "Expectation" has to be my #1 nemesis, as it cultivates space for assumption, and if there is anything I have learned in my 24 years, it is to assume nothing. But here, on my career journey, it helps. Knowing I may very well be the only WOC or POC in a professional setting, I create a safe haven within my mind that immediately blocks out negative thoughts. That initial outlier feeling doesn't sting as much, and I can then focus on showing exactly why I am there in the first place.
Use it. Yes, as I have mentioned previously, it can be annoying to be a constant default for representation. Sometimes, as a token, I am expected (grrr) to be this beacon of "woke" for an entire organization, even when resources such as Google are alive and well. But I'm all about turning negatives into positives and shifting my uncomfortable situations from spotlights to platforms. Every moment is a teachable moment. When I see these instances, not as nuisances but small steps for POC-kind, I'm less likely to brush them off as yet another "ignorant statement," and can better educate and eliminate certain generalizations that would continue to exist if I didn't open my mouth and use my voice.
And lastly (for now),
Change it. Just because I expect it, and have found ways to use it to my advantage, doesn't mean I'm going to continue to accept being a token anything for much longer. I'm fortunate to work within companies and organizations where my opinions matter, but that doesn't mean they're always sought out. So I worked to place myself in rooms where I could give my thoughts as candidly as professionally possible. I sat in on group interviews and screenings; I called out benevolent prejudices as they arose; I coached up peers in the skillsets I have while advocating to assign them more responsibilities.
The physical absence of working with and seeing people that look or resemble me can take its toll mentally. With words like "inclusion," "diversity," and "affirmative action" tossed around somewhat nonchalantly, I sometimes question my seat at the table. It's easy to slip into the mindset of being a percentage point or a photo-op, but that line of thinking helps no one, and it pushes me nowhere. By adopting these three simple notions, I immediately take control of my situation, mold it in ways that are productive, and strive to continue its advancement.
Our world is changing–for good or bad has yet to be determined, but it is changing. I will add as many adjustments to it so that I am comfortable however it chooses to settle, and I'd love to see you right there with me.
Do your beast,