Five Ways to Avoid Black Tokenism


When I attended Penn, I found myself being the only black guy in the room numerous times. The predominately white environment of an Ivy Leagues institution would have you drinking the Kool-Aid that you are something special. And while I'm a proponent of black excellence, there became elitism in how I navigated the reasons of such. Was I great because no other black person was present? Was my work more important because white people said it was so?

After some reality checks from campus law enforcement that reminded me that no matter how smart or grand I was, I was still black and susceptible to unnecessary profiling, I re-evaluated my stance. The feeling of wearing your alma mater's shirt and still being asked if you attend there let me know that my respectability or white embrace wouldn't exempt me.

Nearly two years after I graduated, I have arrived to a truth that others around me still don't trust: blacks will never advance or be truly empowered until we stop demoting ourselves as inferior. Translation: self-isolation from the communities and heritage that we know and love will never bring us happiness. Furthermore, black tokenism will forever put us subservient to others outside our race.

Disclaimer: No one is suggesting that everything should be all black everyday...but when it is, there is nothing to be ashamed about.

Here are five tried and true ways I have avoided black tokenism. Caution: It will take some gradual time, but you must actually be serious on making it happen.

1) Stop embracing being the only one and feeling as though it should always be that way.

In 2015, I no longer find it flattering to be the only black person in the room. My pride doesn't make me feel as though I was special because common sense should tell me that some of the other faces in the room are most likely not as deserving as some of the ones who aren't. When you start to take comfort in being "the only black person," you are basically suggesting that as a people we shouldn't collectively be privileged to the advancements we are currently being excluded from. Recognize that institutional racism and dejection exist even if you're the lucky one that got taken it.

2) Stop making it a competition within your network to shut down other blacks in order to remain relevant.

For some odd reason, many blacks feel threatened when their status as "the only one" gets challenged with the inclusion of a possible additional member. Some feel as though that "special" trait they had -- blackness -- is no longer important given that they find themselves now competing against another person of color. That's just a plain crabs-in-a-barrel logic that is manifesting as a result of systemic racial disenfranchisement. You're subliminally acting this way because you feel threatened that the powers that be might reject you given the limited acceptance already created. However, we have to stop looking at us as the threat and look at the systems that pit us together as the problem instead.

3) Extend opportunities and recommendation to other black peers you feel are just as worthy.

I personally don't go to any professional networking event/happy hour without bringing another person of color. Even if I know the other colleagues in the room, it feels important to me to make sure others like me do get the chance as well. I wouldn't be where I am today had it not been for someone else opening that door -- so who am I to not extend the invitation now. Thinking of others of color in your circle that can benefit from new networks is how you can exercise your leadership and also builds allies that you never know may have your back in the long run. Start strengthening your squad now.

4) If you don't know other blacks in your social circle, go fix that right now.

I get so tired of hearing other black people say they don't know any other black people. We are not in one place, and chances are your hesitance isn't based on lack of access but rather fear of stereotype. As a culture, we cannot allow oppressive dominant transgressions to perpetuate stigmas amongst our own people. When you feel as though you cannot interact publicly with someone of your own race, that is a problem. As easy as it may sound, nothing is more empowering than connecting with someone who shares the same social and inter-identity experiences as you.

5) Love yourself, heritage, and let no one openly disrespect it.

Black is just as good as white, which is just as good as Latino, Asian and everything else. Stop feeling ashamed of your identity and what you like culturally. Whether hip-hop or dance hall, no culture is beneath another. Don't ever let your co-workers or peers slide when it comes to disrespecting ethnicity. Too often, we take in subtle micro-aggressions that tear away at our soul and heritage. Just because they don't understand it, doesn't make it problematic.

Overall, once I stepped outside the white gaze of academia and social life, I was able to debunk a lot of these habits that can creep up on almost anyone. I won't ignore the professional/career pressure that such tokenism has on people of color. However, when given the opportunity to step away from it, please do. Because if we're to every strengthen as a culture, as a unit -- we must actually not be the only one.

We can be the first, but surely not the last. The mover, but not the only shaker. But whatever we become, let's certainly not do it alone.