/tōkən/ n: an item, idea, person, etc., representing a group; a part as representing the whole; sample; indication.
Issa Rae’s new hit series Insecure on HBO is a fan favorite among black millennials because of how closely Issa’s adventures and mishaps seem to mirror real life. At work, Issa is the sole black person at a non-profit organization with a mission to expose underserved minority youth to the world outside of their neighborhood. She finds herself being looked at as the “urban encyclopedia” who her co-workers go to for all the black answers. Issa is undoubtedly the token black girl. Issa’s best friend, Molly, is a successful third year associate at a well-known law firm. We’re led to the deduce that Molly is also the only black female associate at the firm, but is wildly successful at her job and admired by all, both black and non-black colleagues. Molly does not seem to be having the same “token black” experience as Issa until BOOM! Enter summer intern, black loud and proud, Rasheeda, “…but you can call me Dada, girl”.
Dada’s overt and unapologetic displays of blackness ring throughout the halls of the firm. During one scene, Molly in a sisterly gesture, suggests to Rasheeda that she should tone it down a bit and learn how to switch it up around white people. Dada responds with flippant appreciation but tells Molly she can save that tired ass house negro rhetoric; she didn’t switch it up when she got the internship and she doesn’t plan on switching it up now.
Now, if your’e anything like me you felt a couple of ways during that scene. On the one hand, Molly was trying to look out, and Rasheeda was being extra as F***. But you couldn’t help but wonder if a little piece of her felt threatened by Dada. Who did she think she was, Walking up in here, laughing all loud and being all herself and what not? So you might have felt a slight sense of celebration when Dada read Molly with the “thanks, but no thanks”, “sorry, not sorry”, and a “who gone check me, boo?” response. Alas, her celebration would be short-lived, when one of the senior partners asks Molly to talk to Rasheeda about adjusting to the culture of the firm.
This is where it gets dicey.
Molly recoils at the thought of having yet another conversation with Dada about her behavior. But when she expresses her discontent at the thought, she doesn’t cite the fact that she’d already tried once with no luck. Instead, she complains that the white people at her job were looking at her as some Uncle Tom to do their bidding. She jokes with her date (played by singer, Jidenna) that they want her to be Sam Jackson’s character in D’Jango Unchained when she herself is supposed to be D’Jango. Molly opts not to have the conversation with Dada, and leaves the tough talk to the partners, to ensure the message comes through loud and clear. As Molly leaves the office in the following scene, she sees the senior partners gathered around Rasheeda in the conference room – all older white men and one white woman – delivering what looks to be a very direct message. Dada’s face is smothered in defeat and embarrassment.
When we think of think of the phrase “token black person”, we immediately associate negativity. This stems from the historical practice of companies aiming to fill racial quotas as a response to affirmative action, then displaying their new hire as a certificate of completion. But as we move further away from a time where discriminatory hiring practices are the norm, the term “token black” has taken on new meaning; one more closely connected to Issa’s experience at her job. This is the “I know you, so I can now connect to the entire black experience” sense of tokenism or the token black friend. Neither of these examples is okay, but is there ever a time when being the token is all in our head?
Although Molly was seemingly the only black associate at her firm, she did not feel a sense of tokenism until Rasheeda was brought into the picture. Was this because she was succeeding at her job based on her own merit? Or because she was well-liked for her God-given wit and charisma? It seems that before Dada came onto the scene, all white signs pointed towards Molly being equal. However, when the senior partners thought it was best that Molly connect with Rasheeda, somehow, Molly’s self-perceived value plummeted. Approaching Rasheeda when it was her idea was okay because it allowed her to continue feeling superior to Rasheeda and equal to the white folks. However, when the white folks suggest that Molly connect with Rasheeda, this implied that Molly and Rasheeda were the same.
Token mode: ON.
The conclusion we draw from Molly and Rasheeda’s brief relationship is this; feeling like we are the “token” stems from a perceived lack of control confidence in our position. However, being a token feels okay when it serves our own agenda, e.g; “ my difference contributes to my success”. For example, when Issa started excelling at her job, her confidence was boosted and she stopped shying away from “black” answers. “why don't more of them swim?” “Slavery ”. Molly feels this lack of confidence when asked to speak to Rasheeda, but feels that she has regained control after placing that task back onto the senior partners. The truth is that Molly was slightly threatened by Dada’s confidence, and even more so when Dada was unapologetic for it. But as Molly walked past Rasheeda being confronted by the senior partners, it’s obvious that she was experiencing feelings of guilt. Molly was so worried about maintaining her status as D’Jango, she inadvertently became Sam Jackson.
If you find yourself feeling like the token of a group, be confident in your position and in your agenda. As we navigate the challenges of leveraging our differences, we must remember that uniting with and supporting one another is a powerful thing. You’re not selling out by sharing information about your culture or reaching out to the other black people at work, in fact, you’ve worked hard to get to a place where you can do those things. It’s 2016 and you can either view yourself as a token or as a leader. Your choice.