token – [n] a person – typically belonging to a subaltern group — whose perfunctory inclusion into a social group or organization is meant to create the illusion of inclusivity and social progress.
I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort. My purpose in life is not to teach White Americans the ills of their barren culture, to present in a respectable, palpable way the values of my own. As easy as it is for me to draw a neat line between these two worlds, I do not walk the earth in order to dispel or embolden that line of color, to make my racial existence into a neat presentation for white ears and eyes. When you look at me, you see an amalgamation of what White America expects of Black America. You see education, you see sophistication, you see around me a shell of whiteness into which all of my kind can and should crawl, even if that shell has the potential and the desire to crush us all therein. I do not exist to tell you this, but I am doing it because I have given up on the idea of the residents of the Other side figuring it out for themselves.
A professor of history at Swarthmore once told me that it was not my duty as a Black person to explain my marginalization to White people. Of course I rejected the idea, because I understood, somehow, that white people did not know that they were guilty of marginalization. In my heart it was apparent that the average White person was morally good, yet was nonetheless taught, like me, both explicitly and implicitly, to equate everything about life in the Other’s skin with inferiority. As we progress through the 20th century, the dominant narrative which proclaims Black inferiority seems to transition from being about genetics to being about choice. Black people have chosen to hate themselves, have chosen violence instead of progress, drugs and criminality instead of peace and the American dream. The rhetoric of the choice of Black marginalization, and conversely of bootstrap resuscitation, became the dominant narrative in the mind of millions of Americans, post-Civil Rights Movement, and so began the process of alleviating the wounded white conscience, racked and bewildered by guilt, by shifting the blame of racism completely onto the Other.
“It is not your duty as a Black person to teach White people about their oppression of your people.”
In December 2011 I was writing a collection of essays for a scholarship which I didn’t win. The central focus was a topic I believed to signify my coming-of-age as a Black person. I had just finished reading Notes of a Native Son, a book which to this day I credit with awakening in me the fledgling spirit of my Black radical consciousness. It was almost as if I suddenly became aware of this skin, of this body, of these eyes, for the white, red and blueness which belonged to my peers shone at me like high beams in the night.
I wrote about the Black experience, but I took the perspective of providing a panacea for the afflictions of my kind in the most slanted and blinded of ways. My parents looked at the collection of papers with curious grins. I had no idea what I was talking about, had gleaned opinions on political matters outside of my understanding based on my interactions with white people, and better yet, my interactions with working-class black folks. I weaved ideas together by stealing the rhetoric of Baldwin while also attempting, with an unattractive sleight of hand, to be prosy in my ramblings. In these essays was one binding strain of logic – “Black people are not being challenged enough, don’t have enough ambition.” The system of American slavery had left a psychological scar in the minds of Black people which prevented them from achieving progress. Of course, I viewed my own parents as exceptions to this rule, for they were, and perhaps still are, having found their way out of the apocalyptic trap which seeks to keep Blacks in the societal underbelly, angry, dissatisfied and blissfully ignorant to the futility of looking in any direction other than down. Yet I spoke of issues without putting myself in the equation, and therefore I spoke out of term. I could not explain my own exceptionalism because I did not see how class played a role in everything I knew. I did not see myself as an exception to the rule because in my mind, I was not. I was like so many million Black children, born at the beginning of the end of the 1990s, having to inherit from their parents all the benefits and setbacks of hundreds of years of Black struggle. I was ignorant to the way that people like me, people like my peers in high school, were given inordinate steps ahead of the rest of our kin. In the process of looking forward, I only saw what few were in front of me, what few stood beside me, in the peripheral stretch of my vision. I had my back turned, however, to the millions who had not reached that point, who may never reach it. Without this knowledge, it was easy to fall into such a conservative worldview. As my siblings scoffed at my writings for reasons I did not and could not have understood, I knew that my project would likely not gain me the scholarship I sought.
Fast forward a few months. An organization at my high school is in its test-run phase. The program was designed around the achievement gap between Black students and white students in my district. As I’ve mentioned before in two separate essays on this blog, the existence of a leveling system allowed for a visual manifestation of the insidious ways that race relations enter every aspect of American life. Segregating black from white, poor from rich, creates the illusion of progress for what few blacks can penetrate the white spaces, although almost always these blacks qualify more as rich than poor. Those who were not rich felt rarely at ease, it seemed, knowing that they did not belong because of their blackness, which in high school, is also synonymous with one’s poverty.
MAC Scholars, the group was called, sought to address the achievement gap through the proactive relationship between high-achieving and underachieving Black students. I signed up quickly, wanting to help “my community” but I soon realized that this opportunity was to be a disturbing one. In our first meetings, the conversations were spectacular. The school had gathered all the high-achieving blacks in one space to talk about their experiences in Honors and AP classes. Everyone spoke with a power and an authority which I envied, and I felt alive in that space, perhaps for the first time in my life. Some of these meetings monopolized entire halves of our days and it did not matter to us. We felt at ease, at peace, and in power for their durations.
Then, the underachieving students came. I immediately noticed in their disinterested stares a problem. They do not like us. They do not sympathize with us. I talked about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and James Baldwin with them, and they shrugged off my topical advances. I said that we were fighting for the same cause, against the White man, that we should team up because if we both succeed we would defy the White man’s vicious plots against us. They stared at me as if I were crazy. I was talking about things which did not concern them. In my mind, I asked myself crudely: What’s wrong with these people?
I approached the program supervisor and mentioned that there was a us v. them dynamic going on. I had no idea why such a thing could have been, for I had no idea that to them, I was white. In my mind, I had refused to address the opposite, although I knew it all along; they were blacker than me. The supervisor told me not to lose faith and showed me out of her office.
MAC Scholars soon became a topic of discussion for white students who expressed envy at the creation of a Black-only empowerment program at Columbia. When it was discovered that I was in the program, I was asked often by my peers what it sought to do and why it was important. I answered their questions, although in doing so I began to ask myself questions about the program’s intention. Nonetheless I remained, convinced I could save my people from themselves.
MAC Scholars was in response to an issue which had been dredged to the surface by Cris Thorne’s documentary on the evils of the leveling system. It sought to use Black students to cure the mythical scourge of Black sloth, for only Black people could fix Black issues. White people pawed at the program with passive or violent curiosity. Teachers refused to allow their students to go to meetings because it apparently cut in on “class time.” These were often students who would not have been learning anyways, who would have been better off with us, at least discussing, or refusing to discuss, why they seemingly refused to learn.
Why haven’t you learned anything? says the old raspy white guy in “They Schools,” a song by Dead Prez which my youth empowerment program recently used in a lesson on the implicit biases of school curricula. In my mind, it was my own voice, aloud to the dull-eyed masses of my peers. Why won’t you learn?
I am now realizing, in seeing the long-extinguished cinders of the MAC scholars program, that it was doomed from the start. As nice as it may seem for Black people to look out for themselves in the most nationalist sense as is possible, this is not feasible in the United States, at least not now, and not like this. The nature of Black dependence of the American colonial hand which feeds us and punishes us is too great for us to be able to organize and successfully move forward. The issue of the achievement gap was not a problem which a group of well-to-do bougie blacks could address, regardless of how often we tried to dialogue with and reach our peers.
In the grand scheme, the White administration of my school district allowed the creation of the MAC Scholars program in the same way that Americans allowed the creation of a Black bourgeoisie in order to finally attain his colored middle-man. Between the dilapidation of the ghetto and the opulence of the suburb lies the ring of Black folks who straddle the line between where they’ve left behind, swearing to never go back, and where they seek to go, knowing always that they will never truly be welcomed. Here, in this outer ring, is the conflict which so many of my peers must endure in high school, which many more must endure upon arriving in the bourgeois-rendering facilities which are America’s colleges and universities. This was the hypocrisy of our cause, in MAC Scholars, for we knew where we, the bougie blacks, were going, although we reiterated to our underprivileged peers the words which became a sort of melancholy chant. Not everyone is supposed to go to college.
I did not know until I got to college that I was being molded into a token. It is a strange phenomenon with far more to it than is apparent from the outside. The token is the false illusion of racial progress, exceptionalism in a shiny, shimmering form. In viewing the token, we, as people of color, are made to feel worse about ourselves for not being them, for not having worked hard enough, for not having been strong enough, for not having been chosen. We do not see how the token was made, what it is composed of – we only know that the token represents something to which we should aspire, and consequentially, something which is more often than not totally impossible to possess.
Tokenism means reaffirming white comfort, for the white American conscious has since moved beyond the understanding of Black people as being terrorized and marginalized. In the era of “opportunity” there are no impediments to progress other than the sloth which seems to solidify in America’s black, brown, red and yellow masses more so than in the communities of its largest racial group. Who knows why?
Through the token, White America can peer into life on the other side without corrupting themselves with the guilt of seeing it firsthand. The token is remarkably similar to his white onlooker, so much so that they often remark that he is so unlike the rest of his kind. The token is always held in comparison to his peers, for the token is a representative of all that his peers have failed to accomplish, all that they are unable to grasp because of the dilapidation of their condition and their adoration of their own damnation. The White gaze sees the token not as a white – this cannot happen, will never happen – but sees him as everything which white society has to offer to the Black masses of this grim, dark world, and, consequentially, everything these masses refuse to accept, knowing themselves that to wear such adornments will bring about their imminent destruction.
In being a token, white people can look at you and smile. They see in you the future of the race, and you must carry that burden, whether you want to or not. They see in you the dream of equality to which white people have become so hip that they’ve dedicated a national holiday in Dr. King’s name, a dream he imagined would be extended to all his children. Not just one, not just ten, not just one hundred.
White society depends on Black society to cater to its guilt, to feed it pleasantries. It tells us that we cannot live without it, and this is true, for it has viciously thrust itself into the centers of our lives because it knows, with terrible shame, that it cannot live without us. And thus our souls – black and white – are bound, inseparably, although both sides wish to destroy the other.
I do not continue breathing to make my white peers feel more at ease in their own white skin, their one-size-fits-no-one hull, their cloak of death. I am not a symbol, I am not a manifestation of philosophies, of thoughts within an ivory, ivy-covered tower. I am a human being, am just as human as you and deserving of just as much as you. So, too, are all 40 million of my brothers and sisters. So, too, are those who have yet to accrue the necessary ambition to propel them to my place, who have yet, or refuse, to speak, who continue to live, knowing they were never meant to thrive.
I define my own existence and, in doing so, I become White discomfort.