Although this article focuses on tokenization from a black person’s perspective, the reality is that every minority, at one point or another, will be tokenized. You will find that your experiences and identity will be seen as an overarching representation of your entire community, while being used to justify any discrimination that may occur in your presence.
Now, despite what some people might say, attending a predominately white high school has its perks – one of the biggest being that I can now easily recognize when I am being tokenized. Questions like “Is that your real hair?” and phrases such as “you’re so pretty for a black girl!” are immediate tell-tales. But, surprisingly I wasn’t always so alert. Yes, once upon a time, I, Ililli Ahmed, was the token black friend– and I had no idea! So, with my newfound knowledge and truckload of experiences, I’ve created a quick little guide on how to tell if you’re the token black friend of your group (please enjoy the scenarios and examples I have added to each):
Red-flag #1: You are expected to speak for the entire black community at any given moment.
Major red flag alert: let’s say that you’re talking with your non-black friends, and they suddenly decide to get political, mentioning the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. Next thing you know, all eyes are on you and it is now your responsibility to ease their guilt or discomfort on the subject. Now, I’ll admit, the weight of having to speak for the entire black community is crushing, but maybe not as crushing as the sad looks on your friends’ faces when you say that you disagree with their (unwanted) opinions.
Red-flag #2: You are the groups’ expert on black culture.
As if being a community spokesperson wasn’t hard enough, you are their Ph.D in black culture, and this job involves a lot of questions: “Why can’t non-black people use the N-word?,” “Can white people wear dreadlocks?,” “Is rap only for black people?.” Unfortunately, upon answering the curiosities of your group, you will likely find yourself in a heated debate…and to think, it’s all because your friends wanted to ask you, the expert, instead of simply googling their questions.
Red-flag #3: You are used as justification for your friend’s “casual” racism.
Did your non-black friend get called out for using the N-word? That’s really too bad, but what’s worse is knowing that, when defending themselves against claims of racism, your friend proudly exclaimed that they have black friends, and proceeded to list you as one of them. In their minds, they have been automatically cleared of any allegations made against them, while you swallow the fact that you have now joined the ranks of the many other token and passive black friends.
Red-flag #4: You feel forced to swallow your pride to keep your non-black friends comfortable.
Picture this: you’re grabbing lunch with your group, and a known anti-black racist is joining all of you. Now, you can object to being around this person and force your friends to leave them behind, thus thrusting your group’s privilege in their face, or you can sit tight, swallow your pride and eat your meal. Hopefully you can make a good impression, and blend in as best you can.
Red-flag #5: Yet despite it all, you are still the comic relief for when your friend’s inherent prejudice tires them out*
After a long day of pretending to be inclusive, your white friends are exhausted; thankfully, you can lighten the mood with some hilarious jokes and fun spins on your own traumatic stories! To think, what would your friend’s do without you, their perfect, token black friend?
* Note: This last red flag applies to black people who don’t know they’re being tokenized, and those who do.
P.S: If you’re a black person who thinks they’re laughing WITH as you share your traumatic experiences, I hate to tell you, but they’re actually laughing AT you.
In all seriousness though, if you recognize yourself or your friend group in this guide, know that you do not have to feel like a tag along amongst the people you surround yourself with. Being tokenized is extremely detrimental to one’s mental health, and it doesn’t justify the discomfort that comes as a result. Take some time to reflect on your relationships, and don’t be afraid to distance yourself from those who don’t appreciate you as an individual. You are not a manifestation of their prejudice, and should not be treated as such.
About the writer:
Ililli Ahmed is a 12th grade student who loves to write, read and watch Parks and Recreation. In the past, she’s written articles for Radio-Canada, and is a regular youth contributor for ‘Black Ottawa Scene.’ Ililli is also co-president of many clubs, such as her school’s Feminism and Black History Month Clubs. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.