Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mixed Feelings (Politics of Tokenism)

Mixed Feelings

Politics of Tokenism

Me finding out about tokenism the hard way circa 1989.
Mixed Feelings

Part 2 of 3

Mixed Feelings is a three part series on my personal and political feelings about being a person of multi-ethnic parentage in the United States of America. I don't claim to speak for and represent every Black/and/Whatever kid in the United States, I'm just saying I've had a lot of ' time to think about what it means to be mixed like me.

Token: 4. One that represents a group, as an employee whose presence is used to deflect from the employer criticism or accusations of discrimination. (from

Me in my late teens - pimply and naive
Part of my personal journey as a woman of color, a black woman who is biracial, has been to come to understand what tokenism is, and what it means to be a token, through emotionally painful personal experience. I grew up in the U.S.A. in a particular time and geographic region: I was born in 1968, making me a teen and a young adult in the 1980s. During the period of time when I grew up, a practice of tokenism involved finding the least threatening seeming minority to included to deflect criticism from your organization. People in the African American community are very aware of this as a pro-female hiring bias in the black community: the gap is closing every year but for a long time it was a lot easier for a black woman to get an office job than a black man, due to a prejudiced mentality that made black men seem more frightening to the biased employer. For the same reason females have been preferred for token positions, biracial or even just light skinned black people have been selected as tokens.

Makode Aj Linde and his artwork
Recently I came across something via the Internet news article postings of my more political friends that seemed to me an example of the worse type of tokenism. Although I view it that way, the artist involved clearly does not. Are you familiar with the controversy surrounding Makode Aj Linde and his "Venus Hottentot Cake"?  Linde  is an Afro-Swedish performance artist who invited the Swedish Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn-Lijeroth to participate in what he said was a performance art piece designed to increase awareness of the African practice of female genital cutting, also known as female "circumcision" or mutilation. Many found his performance distasteful and exploitative. In a moment, I am going to get to why I describe this as tokenism, but first, here is an open letter to the Minister of Culture explaining African Women, among others, found the piece morally reprehensible:

I couldn't have said that any better. Now, let me explain why this is an example of tokenism: here, the performance artist is the only person of African heritage present. His Afro-Swedish heritage has been repeatedly bought up in order to deflect criticism, and other black people who disagree with his actions or the actions of the Minister of Culture are attacked as "ignorant". This is the absolute definition of tokenism - a situation where a single member of a minority is propped up in order to deflect criticism by other members of that minority group.

Here is another definition:

'In the artsemployment, and politicstokenism is a policy or practice of limited inclusion or artistic and/or political representation of members of a traditionally marginalized group, usually creating a false appearance of inclusive practices rather than discrimination. (from the Wikipedia

Sometimes the position of tokenism is like the position that early African American actors were in in the butt-of-joke comedies they were forced to accept in order to break down doors. It's hard to think of people who lower themselves as breaking down doors, but they are part of a continuum of milestones. Every token doesn't break down any doors, though. If you have no knowledge of the community you say you represent, you can wind up doing something as grotesquely inappropriate as what Makode Aj Linde did. I'm going to post it here with a Trigger Warning for PTSD because frankly, I'm personally categorizing it among things I wish I could unsee... and if you're a woman like myself who has had any sort of issues with the girl parts, this video of the black skinned cake with the blood-red insides being carefully incised from the genital area by the smiling Swedish Minister of Culture will probably traumatize you.

If you want to know what the artist has to say... this is  a very good video by CNN explaining both the outrage over the piece and Linde's own reasoning behind doing it from his personal perspective:

Me and my mom, Carolyn
Being someone isolated from the rest of your community can make you very naive when it comes to the whole idea of tokenism. Linde's personal explanation seems to me, naive. But a less forgiving word for this naivette is ignorance, and that kind of ignorance can be dangerous. The words of the African women are more relevant to the subject of Female Genital Mutilation than Linde's take on it as a man, not a woman, living in a far away country with no personal experience on it. Tokenism often involves placing a token's voice into a role of greater importance than a person directly experiencing something: it involves failing to allow people to speak with their own voices. Linde is well qualified to speak to racism he experiences in Sweden: why he decides this portrayal of a woman from the African continent as a stereotype from a racist pass speaks to his own experience is beyond me. But I would say he is out of touch. I can speak to my own experiences, but I can not speak for my mother. My mother has breath, and she can speak for herself. My mother is a black woman who, having both Irish and Native American blood is mixed, too, but the kind of bigotry she experiences due to colorism is different than my personal experience. So love and understanding: but one would have to be very isolated from issues of colorism to believe as Linde did, his action of putting on black face and integrating themes of cannibalism into genital mutilation would not offend other black people. The problem with tokenism is that it relies upon the token to be isolated from the culture he or she is said to "represent".

President of the United States, Obama
When someone is connected to and knowledgeable enough to actually represent a community, you may see some kind of "backlash" from a majority culture. We see this a lot in the USA with Obama is in office. The direct racism comes in the form of people making fun of the President's choices of musical entertainment or food for events at the White House, and when it is not coming out in the form of direct racism it comes in the form of the Birther set. However, even the Birthers are becoming more direct in their bigotry. We all know that Obama is a US citizen by now, so we are getting more and more desperate iterations of the birther argument with less and less sense to the nonsense, such as this idiot Gordon Warren Epperly who wants to bring back the Dred Scott decision:

Me when I was 6 days old and protected by ParentGate(TM)
Notice that Epperly calls Obama by the "M" word and as I've already said - in Part 1 of "Mixed Feelings" - mulatto is a slave term. Epperly goes out of his way to make sure that people know that both "negroes" and "mulattoes" were declared as non citizens in Dred Scott. But I'm not going to spend this whole blog discussing the Epperly fool. I only bring him up so that I can make sure we are on the same page about why this kind of thing needs to be discussed, yes even nowadays, no racism isn't "over" it's still here in the good old US of A. But as I said earlier, my parents were brave when they decided to marry and have me and my brother Scott. They were also parents, and like most parents, they best they could to protect their children. As as result, Scott and I mostly grew up in very integrated and racially mixed neighborhoods in first Los Angeles County and then the State of Hawaii - which is a very integrated state. For the most part, they avoided having us live in segregated areas. If you're not an American, or even if you are not a Californian, I think it is important to point this out: there are largely race-segregated areas in the United States, and there are largely race-segregated areas in Los Angeles and in the Greater Los Angeles Area. Because I lived in largely integrated areas, I was pretty sheltered until I reached adolescence.

Me and Scott in the safe Carson, California of the 70s
There is a thing about being sheltered and tokenism: separation from your community makes it easy for you to become completely ignorant. When I moved to San Francisco at the end of the 80s, I had already experienced a great deal of prejudice in my young life: specific anti-white or anti-black prejudice when I lived, briefly, in segregated areas, and anti-black prejudice during my adolescence in Hawaii regarding the texture and length of my hair. What I had not experienced was tokenism. I wouldn't even find out what tokenism is until I moved to San Francisco and found out the hard way: by being a token. The thing is, my parents spent so much time sheltering me and my brother by keeping us in integrated neighborhoods that they left me unprepared for this particularly reality, so I didn't even know what was going on.

Me in the late 80s getting schooled on tokenism
I was living in the Tenderloin, and I was 19 years old. I managed to get out of the cycle of 28 day a month Single Room Occupancy hotels by getting into a residence hotel: this warrants some explaining, but before the laws changed to prevent it, San Francisco low-rent hotels in the Tenderloin used to prevent tenants from staying for more than 28 days in a row because if you stayed 29 days you would establish legal residence and that would mean the landlord would be forced to evict you to get rid of you. The residence hotel I wound up in was a cooperative hotel with a lot of artistic residents. It was also a hotel with a population of mostly single, mostly either white or black, mostly middle-aged tenants, but the tenants weren't really all that universally liberal about race relations. There was a big racial tension going on that I was naively unaware of. They elected management staff, and I was elected to the position of assistant manager. After I was elected, some drunken tenant ran up to me and told me that he and his buddies voted for me because they thought that I was "neither black nor white" and would somehow maintain some secret racial balance that would keep the powder keg from exploding.

Me being Repair Manager
That was an example of one form of tokenism - as I mentioned earlier - which involves seeking out a less-threatening representative to perform in the role of toke. When you are being a token, you are being objectified - you become something, not someone. You are some thing to represent an idea, not an actual group of people. At the point where you decide to represent, you are no longer a token. Soon afterward, I would find myself working at a computer company where I would be elevated to the position of Board Member on the Board of Directors simply so that their Minority and Women Business Enterprise (M/WBE) status would include Minority and not only Women. This second case was a textbook example of tokenism: that is placing a person who is part of a minority group into a position of perceived power, when the person actually has little or no power, in order for your organization to have a monetary or public relations gain. In that case, I was indeed, the Repair Manager. I did not, however, have any power as a board member but was plastered on photos at trade show booths and asked to tend booths for public relations reasons.

Malcolm X
Now... here is the thing: there is a thin line between being a door opener - a ground breaker - and a person who kicks down doors for other people like you to get in. In fact, you can be both things at once, because sometimes you are let in the door because you seem less threatening: it's like the way that MTV, upon criticism of not having any black artists on, put tons of videos by a young Michael Jackson on. He was a young teen idol and as such, perceived as less threatening than a more mature and openly sexual black man would have seemed. But after he was on MTV, a sort of door opened and there were more black artists.

But there is a line... that has to do with whether or not you intend to represent for your community - if you will not represent, how can you kick down any doors? The line is essentially defined by how well you understand your relationship to the community. If you don't understand your community, you can't represent it. The secret to creating a token is to keep him or her isolated from his or her community, so that this person is just standing up there like an idiot being someone a bigot can point to and say "but I have a black friend," or, "my black friend said it's okay to do this so how can say it is bigoted?" Essentially, tokenism is like The Highlander: there can be only one.Being light skinned or even mixed doesn't mean you can't represent for a community. Malcolm X chose to represent his community and didn't let having white blood stop him. When I first came to San Francisco, I had a book in my pocket which was Aldus Huxley's "Malcolm X" and I read it, gaining wisdom and strength I would need through the years.

Now some things have changed but everything has not. Tell your children to keep their eyes open.

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