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the token: & i feel that

i had wanted to post this yesterday, but i was experiencing tech difficulties.

yesterday, i was watching good morning america (i always watch good morning america) and chris cuomo (i love chris cuomo's presence on my tv in the morning) did a segment interviewing mr. devon sherwood.

mr. sherwood is the lone black member of the duke university lacrosse team. the interview centered, of course, around the infamous rape scandal. chris cuomo asked him questions, and mr. sherwood, did his best to give his personal slant on how hard and trying the situation was, how conflicted he felt, how he received threats and whatnot, and i thought, ha: he's the token negro. he's the public token. don't i know how that feels?

token, not just because he's the lone black person on the team. but because he now got his opportunity to represent the black voice on the scandal. apparently, in the early days, mr. sherwood declined to comment or be interviewed about the case. i can understand that. in my contemporary civilization class, i skipped the day we discussed w.e.b. dubois's souls of black folks. i remembered how i felt when we discussed bartolome de las casas, and everyone praised his analysis of the injustice and immorality of the attempt to enslave the native americans of latin america. and i remember how i felt about the fact that neither the reading or the class discussion touched on the fact that he, after this brilliant analysis, went on to advocate for the slavery of the african.

i remembered further back. i remembered a music class in 8th grade. my elementary school was big on interdisciplinary learning, and in 8th grade, along with writing our theses, we studied the civil war in every class. and my music teacher decided to teach some civil war era songs, and in the middle of class he singled me out (courtenay) and asked me if i knew what a mammy was. cuz one of the songs we were gonna sing talked about mammy.

i was a token. i remember malcolm x wrote about tokens in his autobiography, and he was not complimentary. but i can say, at least the tokens of malcolm's era got to be first. he called them, negro firsts. the first negro nurse at such and such hospital, the first negro executive at such and such company. i don't get to be first, i get to be: "affirmative action candidate number 927346, how does the black community feel about this? today? do you identify with this? is the color line still the problem?" that's why i skipped w.e.b. dubois day in class. (and mr. dubois gets to be a token in life and in legacy, since his book is the only book by a black author that is required in the core curriculum at my esteemed university.)

well, i feel like the color line is still a problem, but it's not the only problem. it's not the only way that we get to be tokens. when we have to talk about being a woman in the workplace, we are tokens. or about being asian. or about this or that or blah blah blah, and while, of course, cross cultural dialogue (no matter how you define culture or cultural identity) is important, the line between genuine dialogue and succombing to the ease and convenience of tokenism is blurry.

the problem with tokenism: it holds hands with complaceny. yes, we have a woman, a black person, and asian, a latino, a muslim, a jew, etc. we've done our part. this person tells us what we need to know, and we don't need to know anything else. if this person agrees with us, then we are good people. if this person disagrees, this person tells us what we need to do to fix the problem, and then we are good people. but, it's all such gloss. for instance: mr. sherwood talked about receiving threats. yeah, ok, he received threats. the whole team received threats. are his threats different because he is black? or are they the same, cuz he's a member of a team?

to put it another way. i identify myself as black and a woman. i can speak for my pov as a black woman, but i cannot speak for black women. i dunno if mr. sherwood felt as though he were being singled out as a token. maybe he didn't. but proust had his madeleines (which triggered a string of memories for him) and i had this interview on gma.

who wants to bear the burden of being the voice of an entire group? and how dangerous is it if we get used to thinking one voice speaks for a people? how bout if we shift the paradigm? i propose we just be voices, voices you can agree with or disagree with for many many reasons.

i can only say what i would have done if a national news program came to me and asked me to speak on a subject that teeters uncomfortably on the edge pandering to tokenism. i would have gone on playing lacrosse and i would have gone on declining interviews. just like i skipped that class.

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About me

  • I'm call me aja
  • From nyc
  • 20something, black, woman, reader, writer, about to be a student again. i think i'd like to be heard (or read). child/grandchild of immigrant folk. yearning to travel. desirous of wisdom. a little bit ordinary, but working at being less so.
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