Confession of a Token Negro

Hi, My name is Derrick…

…and I am a token.

(Hi, Derrick!)

I don’t remember exactly when I became a token, but I guess I would point to when my family moved us out into the suburbs. Pretty much from that point on, I have almost always been in situations where I am either the only black person in a room or one of a few. I’ve gone to white schools, white churches, white social gatherings… there were surprisingly few African Americans in my film studies program in college. Where were all the Spike Lee wannabes?

You can usually tell a token in a crowd. There’s the obvious complexion difference. We’re usually smiling (we’ve learned it’s easier). We’re the ones making broad generalizations about our race, usually because we’re asked to do so. We’re the one smiling awkwardly at your mildly racist jokes (FYI, nothing is ever “mildly” racist). We tend to be the first asked about our thoughts on the NBA draft, Beyonce’s new album, or that show you saw thirty seconds of on BET while you were flipping through the channels. We’re the ones trying not to show how much we’re enjoying the fried chicken you brought, not because we don’t enjoy fried chicken, but come on! We oftentimes are found in the back row of your pictures. On TV we tend to have catchphrases, but I have yet to develop one.

In professional settings, we’re either cracking wise or stoically sitting by, waiting to drop some ancient wisdom on you. The truly expert among us can shift seamlessly from one to the other. We test the waters before we say anything overly definitive about politics or religion. The last thing we need is for Ted from payroll to be concerned that we have extreme views. We’ve worked really hard on the professional identity and though there may be a piece of flair here or there, a pimped out tie or (God forbid) dreadlocks, we basically would like you to see us as equally engaged in the rat race, trying to climb the corporate ladder.

But here’s my confession. What you’re not seeing at either in the office or at the barbecue on the weekend is that we’re angry. Let me put that in more personal terms, because I really shouldn’t speak for all of us. I’m angry. I’m angry and weeks like last week are really hard for me to safely process while still maintaining my token status. You see, to be a token, one must be fully immersed in the waters of whiteness. I breathe white air. I eat white food, much of which is artisanal, I’m told. I know white music… you know I’m a token because my favorite groups are the Roots and the Red Hot Chili Peppers… it’s called balance. I speak white fluently.

And because I have learned to navigate the white world world so well, I am often seen as some sort of exceptional negro. “You’re so articulate!” “What a nice clean young man!” “What a charming young man you are!” I’ve heard these all my life and I also hear what is not being said. “You’re so articulate… unlike all of the other black people who can barely speak the language!” “What a nice clean young man you are… unlike the dirty, unkempt thugs I see on television with their pants sagging!” “What a charming young man you are… unlike the rude, loud, uncivilized people I have to deal with in the movie theater!” Don’t get me wrong, I’m awesome! But I’m not exceptional. Black excellence is everywhere, including in those ebonics speaking, pants sagging, loud talking, “thugs” that you’d rather not be seen with me. The fact that they haven’t learned to “be white” like I have doesn’t diminish their beauty or worth.

And yet when weeks like last week happen, and they seem to be happening more frequently, I am snapped back into the reality that as much assimilation as I have done, I am not white. To be clear, I don’t want to be white, though sometimes you guys make it look awesome, but the reminders that I am not white always come in harsh ways that remind me that to you, whether spoken or not, I am slightly “less than”.

Swim in these waters long enough, and you will have to deal with individualized racism on occasion. The awkward stereotype, the thoughtless drop of a slur, the repetition of an ill conceived joke. All part of the territory, usually requiring only a stern look to elicit an apology, even if only a half hearted one. But to discuss that whiteness is a system and that people like me are invariably on the underside of that system, that’s not something we can talk about during coffee hour or casually over a few beers. It gets uncomfortable and I really don’t like being uncomfortable. That said, I also don’t like having to pretend that the system doesn’t exist. I don’t like having to explain to people how the system works, especially not to the people who don’t want to admit that they benefit from it. I’m angry yet toeing the line so that I don’t come off as just another angry black guy. And let me tell you, suppressing anger is hard work. Exhausting, actually.

So not only am I angry, I’m tired. I’m tired of seeing people that look like me gunned down yet having to adjust my outrage to something more socially appropriate. I’m tired of having anything I said that my be “pro-black” interpreted as being “anti-white”. I’m tired of not being “really black” because I’ve learned how to play the rules of your game. I’m tired of feeling like all of my relationships are just a pulled thread away from unraveling because my anger isn’t as fun to be around as prodigious recall of 90’s rap lyrics.

And here’s the hardest part of this confession, the part that fully shows my token hand: I still want to be in relationship with you. I cherish my white friends. I’ve learned so much from them. Some of them have learned stuff from me too. Most of the people I spend time with are awesome people with good hearts trying as hard as I am to figure out this whole “life” thing. My life would be all the emptier with out them. And that’s what makes this all the more challenging. I sometimes worry that if I express my anger or my exhaustion that I will lose you. That’s a piece of the privilege pie that rarely gets discussed. You have the power to cut me off for being too angry. That sucks for me. I guess that’s my cross to bear.

I confess because I want you to know where my heart is. I want you to know that as much as I might try to fit in, we’re not all the same. And I really don’t want you to be “colorblind”… unless you actually are colorblind, then I want to hear all about that. That fascinates me… anyway. I just want to heard and seen for who I am and who I am has the complexity of blackness as a part of it. I know sometimes that makes things awkward for you, but imagine how it feels to be me…

6 thoughts on “Confession of a Token Negro

  1. I want you to know I am also angry. I want you to know I love you – in spite of and because of your anger. You should be angry. Even though I’m white, and privileged, I’m angry. Everyone in this country should be angry. I can’t ever understand your hurt or your tiredness or your anger, but I can empathize as one human being to another.

  2. I love you man, even from far away, your words, your transparency are challenging, thoughtful, and uncomfortable for me as one of those people who loves 90s rap and is also angry.

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