I don’t like drawing attention to myself, despite what my clothes sometimes say. It’s one of the reasons I don’t always feel like being black. I grow weary of being scrutinized and simultaneously ignored. I grow tired of the collective low expectations and shock/awe at everyday success.
At the end of this year my parents will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. They believe there is wisdom in partnership and shared vision. Because their philosophies on life, art, and freedom are so divergent, I can always look to them for inspiration. There are always two different perspectives to consider.
I wanted to steal their wisdom. Know what they know.
A few weeks ago I met someone who reminded me of an old student. He was creative and nontraditional, talented and wise. He was always assigned leadership roles because he commanded respect. Peers were enamored and simultaneously jealous. He struggled with image, identity, and race because he didn’t fit anyone’s vision of what they thought he should be.
He was tall, athletic, and black. He wore skinny jeans, tatts, and dashikis. He wore leather, jewelry inspired by indigenous peoples, and bright colors (sometimes at the same time). If the mood was right, he’d shave his ‘fro into a fauxhawk. Other times he’d wear hoopin’ shorts and Tims. His taste and style confused everyone. To me, he seemed like most of the black people I knew: complex, diverse, and adaptable.
He had so many questions about race and identity, and so few experiences with people willing to engage, that he wanted to know how I felt.
He wanted to be more accepted by black people. He wanted to stop being tokenized by white people. He wanted to stop being “othered” by all other groups. He thought white people were always nice to him in conversation, but scared if they saw him alone. Black men always thought he was gay. Black women thought he preferred other racial groups. He didn’t think it was a significant trait to have diverse interests and experiences. Poverty and trauma made him wise.
If there was ever a poster child for men most likely to be tokens, my brother would be one. He’s ambidextrous and courteous, charismatic and kind. He loves Agatha Christie, Alternative music, animals, and computers. When he was little, he wanted to be a vet. He’s owned turtles, birds, snakes, cats, fish, and dogs; fortunately, not all at the same time.
He loves sci-fi, basketball, and Dr. Seuss. Because he’s 6’2, people often mistake him for someone dangerous. In Killeen, a small, rural, predominately white town in Texas, it was hard for him to meet people he could connect with. As a waiter, people often didn’t want him as their server.
Tokenism is dangerous. For the token, it creates a false sense of superiority. He ascends over his under-performing brethren. Internalized racism looms ahead.
For those issuing the status, it makes everyday people into outliers. It prevents status givers from acknowledging the token as a person, as an individual: not representative of his group. Long-held stereotypes remain woefully, faithfully, in tact.
There’s a certain expression of black masculinity that we love and we hate. In love, it’s culturally appropriated and part of a balanced breakfast. In hate, it’s shot and killed on the highway because our car breaks down (Terence Crutcher) or killed in a routine traffic stop with our lover and child in the backseat (Philando Castile).
We expect black men to look, dress, and sound a certain way. When they don’t, we experience cognitive dissonance.
I wasn’t allowed to get tattoos. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have anyway because I just wanted clearer skin. I was supposed to believe that tatts represented an allegiance to a certain group and with it came a fixed, immutable ideology.
A few weeks ago we were on the train downtown when an older couple engaged us in conversation. They argued that sickle cell was a horrible disease and that women who knew their child would be affected should be legally required to abort. It was just too painful for a child to bear; no mother could want that for her child.
I listened with concern and agitation. (1) Fearful of a legislation that would mandate abortion as a preventative measure at all. (2) Fearful of a legislation that would condemn certain conditions as unlivable for certain people. (3) Curious at the choice of sickle cell in particular, one that statistically affects black Americans in disproportionate numbers.
The race card is real. It exists because hierarchy does. Sometimes it’s important to know who will be on the right side of the battle should there be a war. Without it, we are left unprotected.
Wisdom is hard-fought. Wisdom is earned. Sometimes it feels like the boxes we are assigned are either (a) tokens or (b) Tims and tatts. But I require more.
I get out.