Wednesday, November 26, 2014
A Person, Not a Token
Token, from South Park
Allow me to tell you a true story.
An African-American woman and a man of European descent fall in love with each other. After a year or so of dating, they get married and move to another state. Then the trouble begins. She begins to notice that her husband takes offense to the neighborhoods she frequents and the friends she chooses. Whenever there are family gatherings on her side, he refused to attend. Then one day, it finally made sense to her. The neighborhoods she went to were safe and characteristic. The friends she chose were respectable and warm, and her family was loving and treated him well. The problem is, they were all Black, and to her horror, she realized that, while he loved her, he disliked Black people. Maybe it was her charisma or her sophistication, but she realized what many educated, open Blacks with White friends are often forced to realize; she was his Token Black--an exception to the rule, if you will. This realization damaged her deeply. After all, as she is a dignified Black woman, to dislike her people is to not truly love or respect her. Needless to say, she divorced him.
While this is an extreme example, it demonstrates the attitudes some people harbor against Blacks, whether they mean to or not. On the one hand, many people treat Blacks like mascots, and they try to "act Black" in order to be cool. Then there are all of the others who, out of misunderstanding or just plain racism, dislike or hate Blacks, yet like some individual Blacks. Either these are friends or celebrities. In fact, even some of the most bigoted people have that one decent Black. They live next to them and talk football over the fence. They work with them, hire them, invite (and parade) them to (at) barbecues, they adopt them, date them, and, as the illustration suggests, even marry them. Even the White supremacist David Duke reminisced of his childhood mammy (Black maid). Somehow, they are magically able to separate a person from his or her own people because they cannot find it in their hearts (or brains) to dislike him or her as well.
I reflect on my own experiences being both the mascot and the decent Black. A lot of this comes from a history and childhood of ethnic confusion and shame. Everyone kept telling me to be proud to be African-American, but I looked around me and could not find any reasons to be proud. I remember when I was 8 years old and had just learned about Dr. Martin Luther King. After school, when I was on the bus on my way home, I saw graffiti and litter all over Black neighborhoods. I saw Black guys sloppily dressed, Black women scantily dressed, and people fighting and throwing bottles at each other. On my block, I saw plenty of hardworking mothers and devoted grandmothers, but very few fathers. I remember saying, "So, Dr. King gave us freedom, and look at what we are doing with it." I guess that is where my ethnic shame began. It perpetuated in high school when I noticed that the boys who always bullied me were Black, while, for the most part, the White students either befriended me or left me alone. As a result, I kept my distance from Blacks, and most of my friends were White.
When I befriended Whites and was in the White crowd, I have experienced many things and asked many questions--questions that I did not mind but would probably offend the average Black person. I have been asked why I don't act or talk "Black", A few people even thought I was English! Then, there have been those who asked for my opinion--as a Black person. Really, if I really spoke for most Blacks, then Blacks are against affirmative action and believed that OJ Simpson was guilty.Then there are those who have been inclined to vent about their experiences with me about other Blacks or, reversely, try to talk "Black" around me. Case in point, there was a fellow who went to my church who kept calling me "bro," and he really pursued me as a friend. Then, in mixed company, he insinuated that Whites were the superior race because they invented the wheel. Finally, there was a time in college when I wrote an article reprimanding Black students for playing the race card about a certain issue. For as many Black students coming to tongue lash me, there were White students coming over to applaud me. Most of these students I had never seen or talked to before. Those same White students did not sit down next to me at lunch. They did not invite me for coffee after school, and they did not invite me to their parties. In fact, in all of my years of high school, there was only one person who ever invited me to a party--a Black girl.
Even though all the signs were there, I still did not pay attention because I wanted to convince myself that racism was only experienced by Black who did not respect themselves. The only times I began to realize that there was a problem were when I befriended a Jewish classmate named Jess, and when I looked for work after getting my MSW. She was all buddy-buddy with me for a while, but then, even when I visited her in the hospital, she kept cancelling meeting times and never invited me to see her non class friends. This is the same pattern I have noticed since I began college; a person talks about how great or interesting I am, they then play with me for a while, only to throw me away once they have proven to the world how "tolerant" they are or when they realize they cannot mold me into their image. This is why I have decided to never again let myself get too close to any friends. And then there was finding work. Ever since I started grad school, all I heard was how there was a great need for male, minority social workers. Well, someone forgot to tell the employers, because once I graduated from a top social work college, summa cum laude, White female classmates who worked only half as hard as I did were getting jobs much faster than me. Social Workers, dear friends, often brag that they belong to a field that is liberal and celebrates diversity. Why, then, did it take 14 interviews to get the job I have now, while the aforementioned classmates only had 3 or 4 interviews?
If there are any White people who have not become too offended yet, let me just say that I have known many Whites who have been genuine and respectful, and I thank all of you for that. As my mother has drilled into my head a million times, there is good and bad wherever you go. For those who are not sure if the few Black friends they have are token friends, ask yourselves these questions:
1. Would you be embarrassed to introduce these friends to your family?
2. Do you only talk to them when other Whites (in general) are not watching?
3. If it is safe, would you be comfortable socializing in your friend's neighborhood regularly?
4. Do you talk negatively or mockingly about Blacks, Black culture, or Black neighborhoods--to your friend or behind his or her back?
5. Do you often try to speak Ebonics or wear stereotypical "urban" clothing around your Black friends?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have token friends, and you may be struggling with racist tendencies. No one is perfect, and it is only human for people to place beneath them things they do not understand. I would strongly advise you to become educated about African-American history, culture, and social problems. Then, I would suggest that you consider the problems of your own cultures and the skeletons in your own ethnic closets. We all have the same desires and fears, and we all want to be happy and feel safe. Like most cultures around the world, African Americans cherish community. We love to eat, sing, dance, go to church, and share passions. We have traditions and value lineage. Yes, we have our problems, but before you dwell on our problems, just think of the stereotypes about your own people. How would you feel if someone made a mascot out of you or love you yet denigrate your people? Think about that, and you will know how I feel. Each ethnicity is a snapshot of beauty; why can't we stand together and create a collage?