Time for some real chats. Some not-so-comfy chats.
Let’s be honest. We all know what “the token black guy” is. You know… Winston Bishop in “New Girl”? Raj in “The Big Bang Theory”? Okay… Token Black, in “South Park”? Or every character to die first in all those horror movies?
It’s in politics (think Mmusi Maimane). It plays out in corporate boardrooms, in some friendship groups and even… you guessed it… in academia.
Let’s start by defining it in the context of television. TV is historically notorious for superficially incorporating diversity through tokenism, in which the “token” or diverse character is used purely to give support to a white main character, or being the sole representative of their entire race. What’s more, these characters never really have real story lines of their own. They exist either to crack jokes, give a line of ‘soulful’ advice, or do something stereotypical to support the main storyline of the leading white protagonist. Now let’s take it over to academia.
Token black guy (n.)–A black character deliberately featured in a show or movie for the sake of racial diversity.
Tokenism in academia
The University of Fort Hare, in the 1900s, was the first university in South Africa to accept black students. Some of our very first black elite scholars were fostered there: Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. My own parents went to Fort Hare, met there and graduated there in the midst of apartheid. The point is, more than decades after affirmative action started being implemented in tertiary institutions, faculty of colour are still significantly underrepresented in university faculty. And so we cried out for inclusion. Universities faced some heat, and some then rushed to include people of colour to appease the masses. The problem is, when they’re not sincerely invested in transformation, universities fall into the trap of hiring black faculty, or including black students in certain roles, for the sake of the performance of racial diversity – a perfect recipe for tokenism.
The idea of, and protest against, tokenism in academia is not new at all. Martin Luther King said it perfectly when he wrote about it in the 1960s:
We must remember that the university was developed with white males in mind as students, and people of color have only recently in our history been admitted to some universities. Tokenism has sufficed to appease the masses and prevent national revolt from people of color. If we are to have a truly integrated society, it will never develop through tokenism.Martin Luther King Jr., March 17, 1966
The problem with Tokenism
Where do we even begin? Sigh.. Alright, let’s go.
It furthers stereotypical narratives
Tokenism leads to a narrow representation of minority groups, and this trend often perpetuates negative stereotypes. When there’s one person of colour in a room of white people, there is less opportunity to understand the diversity of people of colour, and therefore more potential to make sweeping generalisations based on learned stereotypes. According to some research on token characters in TV, the representation of underrepresented ethnicities has grown in numbers, sure… But negative portrayals remain. Statistics still largely show, among other regressive stereotypes, toxic masculinity in black males, and the hypersexualisation of black women. For black womxn in academia, this leads to more issues, like trickling down to create everyday experiences in which they have to fight sexual harassment and the gross underestimation of their intellectual capacity. I know it. I’ve been there.
It robs us of ‘being’
And this is detrimental both for the ‘token’ black person, as well as for the business, academic, or social space they exist in. As mentioned in the TV example, the token character never really has a narrative of their own. Tokenism, used as a quick fix for the absence of representation, includes these characters to superficially support the main storyline or, in academia and other spaces, to ‘show off’ transformation and inclusivity efforts. This means that our ‘being’, our ‘story’, doesn’t really get to happen. Which is a huge loss to both parties because the truth is we strengthen any storyline, any team, any strategy, any curriculum…
Pressure to overstretch oneself
There is also a psychological effect when you’re ‘the only’ in a particular place. It comes with that sense of pressure that you cannot mess this opportunity up, as if being in said space as the first or as the only black person, makes you the representative of every black person to follow. It can be very exhausting, but this is the reality. Everyone slips up, but when a token slips up, that’s automatically attributed to their race. Which brings me to the next issue.
Pressure to represent
A lot of the time, being tokenised creates the expectation for you to be an authority on all black people, their lives, culture, and experiences. Because you’re black, you represent or understand everyone with a high dose of melanin. You may have heard or heard of comments like:
“We need to expand our market to appeal to the rising black middle class. Oh yeah, call Jabu in, he’ll tell us how!”
Excuse me: One person cannot represent an entire race.
Louder for the ones at the back: One person cannot represent an entire race!
The ‘better’ you perform, the farther you are from your race
Because of the negative blanketing of people of colour, the minute you do something great, there’s a notion that you’re ‘not like the rest of them’. We’ve all heard it. Something that alludes to ‘the good black’. The further your behaviour is from their stereotypical expectations, the less threatening you are to them. Joe Biden was quoted as saying Barack Obama is a “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”. Sure, he phrased it as a compliment, but you can see the insult in it, no? Mkay let me explain.
White people are comfortable with Barack Obama because they see him differently from the way they see black people as a whole. Him being articulate, bright, and clean is the direct opposite of their expectation of black people, and how black people are portrayed in mainstream media. Loud. Angry. Violent. Lazy.
This portrayal of tokenism is a problematic cover-up, because it helps those on the other end of it feel and pretend that racism is not a problem. Instead of facing racism where it really exists, they believe that their association with their one, ‘good’, ‘bright’, ‘clean’, ‘well-spoken’, ‘hard-working’ (i.e. ‘palatable’) colleague/friend of colour makes them not racist.
The real problem with tokenism is that “complimenting” them like that is in fact placing that ‘good black’ over other people of the same race. Essentially saying that all black people, except the token of course, are the same. The psychological effect of this on me in particular as a ‘token’ in some spaces is that I love being black, and I love black people. But to be regarded highly in spaces where we’re not represented, there’s an expectation to move away from the identity and the people that I love. It’s messed up.
Pressure to regurgitate your trauma
Being ‘the only’ or ‘one of the only’ often means you have to deal with the ‘not so woke’ comments that get passed around in jest, most of which – if you have the energy and will – result in you having to share your trauma in order to educate colleagues and make them understand why what they are saying is offensive. This is especially true in a country like ours, that has a painful and still relevant history of racism and discrimination. So, what are some examples of these ‘not so woke’ comments?
Some are overtly racist (we won’t go into that) and some come in the form of microaggressions.
Not everything in this case is overt. In fact, most of the time, tokenism plays out in subtle ways; in the form of microaggressions. It can play out in the form of attributing mainstream stereotypes, phrasing it as a compliment (these are especially harmful because they’re insidious and patronising):
“You know, ever since you joined our department, there’s so much more ‘spunk’! We love it!”
In a suburban neighbourhood:
“Oh! You live here?”
I was at an international conference once, in which me and my two colleagues were the only people of colour. We had worn traditional elements in our outfits for all three days of the conference, so when we attended the closing night’s gala dinner in black lace dresses and tuxedos, we got these comments:
“Oh! Where’s the colour today?”, and “We expected more… life!”
Ummm… Ma’am/Sir? Black people do not exist for your consumption and entertainment. Louder now: Black people do not exist for your consumption or entertainment!
The biggest issue with microaggressions is that, because many are phrased as compliments, if you try to defend yourself against the insult, you’re only seen to perpetuate the stereotype of ‘unprovoked’ violence and anger. So in order to further protect your identity and race, you breathe deeply, suck it up, and walk away. Only to overhear:
“Oh she’s great. Calm, hey? Yeah, really approachable.”
Ohhhhh child! Let me stop it there, before you punch your screen. It’s tiring. And it’s everywhere. How do you fight something that’s everywhere, and so deeply entrenched, and so unseen by those who do it? (and I mean “unseen”, which really just means “unacknowledged”).
Tokenism vs Inclusion
Someone wise (who I’ll admit I am too lazy to look up) told us you can’t fight fire with fire. You fight it with the opposite element. So what’s the opposite of tokenism? It happens to be one of the buzzwords that it’s often confused with. Let’s distinguish between the two. One more time: Tokenism is ‘the deliberate act of recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups to create an appearance of racial or gender equality in the workplace’. Inclusion, in a professional context, is ‘the process of involving a diverse range of workers in the decision making process in the company, instead of just having them fill the seats as representatives’.
In academia, Tokenism would be to hire a black lecturer to put on the website and report as a statistic at the year-end’s diversity and inclusivity report. Inclusion in academia would be to hire a black lecturer in order to question whether Western practices are “all that”; in order to promote indigenous knowledge practices; in order to normalise the celebration of their intellectual contributions; in order to create robust curricula as opposed to the one-sided, narrow, Eurocentric curriculum we’re all used to.
Dealing with tokenism for yourself
There’s a long way to go before that real inclusivity is entrenched. So how do you maintain your mental sanity while waiting for society to change? Unfortunately, it still involves a lot of work. A lot of self-talk, and reminders of your worth, educating others. Sometimes it’s going as far as not being yourself because you will be misunderstood, seen as loud, angry, unruly, with negative consequences for your race. Which in my opinion is exhausting and completely unfair. But ke.
We have such a huge burden on us as black people to repaint the way society sees us; which is a result of the oppressions that the very same society imposed on us, that led to the frustrations in the generations before us, who fought for us to not to have to feel this very way. When will this cycle end?
I’d love to engage more with you on this topic; drop your thoughts in the comments section below and share your experiences. Let us have these conversations and help each other navigate our responses and also take steps towards ending the cycle.
Your in glamorous writing…