Last updated on April 13th, 2021 at 03:31 pm
One of those things the Black community doesn’t talk about nearly enough, tokenism is what happens when someone’s in a group where everyone else is completely unlike them.
Much of my life had me as the token Black guy, navigating spaces unfamiliar to me again and again as I defined my identity. Black Canadians make up 3.5% of the population now, but there were even fewer of us around in the ’80s and ’90s. You rarely saw Black faces not already connected to your parents from their ties back home. Over in the suburb of Mississauga, Ontario, I could go to school near one of its few Black neighbourhoods, and there were still only three of us in my French immersion class.
Fact is, I didn’t understand how differently my parents were looking to do things.
The thing is… you don’t really know that you’re Black as a kid till someone points it out for you.
And I don’t just mean your skin colour—it only takes one look in the mirror to tell you that—but how you come off to everyone else as a Black person, with someone always willing to call you to account if they don’t think you measure up.
Too “White” for the 3.5%, too Black for the rest. This is Casey Palmer’s Trouble with Tokenism, and it all started with one little test.
What’s The Trouble With Tokenism?
“And every Black ‘You’re not Black enough’
Is a White ‘You’re all the same'”
— Childish Gambino, “That Power”, Camp (2011)
One of the problems with being Black in Canada is that we’re often grossly underestimated—that our economic, social and situational disadvantages are somehow due to a lack of intelligence instead of a lack of opportunity.
When I was six, my Mom wanted me tested for gifted education, thinking me capable of more than what my school offered. And so she did what any concerned parents would do and asked the school board to make the arrangements to make it happen.
And they refused. They thought my shows of intelligence little more than a phase I’d outgrow if they gave it a little time. But my Mom wasn’t one to takes things lying down, fighting them until they let me take it, doing better on it than anyone on the board expected.
But that just might be part of the reason why I wouldn’t see many Black faces for the next ten years—in a country that didn’t expect much of us, it took a lot just to get through the front door.
I was lucky, though, to have a mother who believed in me even when others wouldn’t—to have me rise to the challenge even when others thought I didn’t belong.
I just wish I understood all that sooner.
Life as a Black Kid in a World Coloured Otherwise…
“I’d go on my hands and knees and clean every house in Toronto if it meant getting you into Harvard!”
— an oft-repeated statement from my Mom throughout my life
What I took for granted is that I was a Black kid in some very different waters, and that by itself meant something. I could win any number of accolades, awards and accomplishments, but that Blackness didn’t just go away—I’d either rise as a testament to my people or fail and become another statistic. What my parents wanted me to understand is that everything I did was bigger than me. I needed to enter these strange lands and come out on top with the talents I was lucky enough to get.
So when I again beat the odds and became one of a hundred among thousands who got into University of Toronto Schools, becoming one of three Black kids in a school of over four hundred, that’s the weight I carried with me as I went.
And an experience like that changes you—studying amongst the children of lawyers, doctors and engineers. You’re too young to get it at the time, but every experience you have outside the cultural norm for your people takes you a little farther away from the things that made them your people.
Each bar mitzvah. Cottage country retreat. Each model United Nations, each Latin class… it all painted an entirely different world than the one I’d be in if we’d just accepted what society said we could have. So that’s why when I returned to public schooling after ten years of specialised education, I was the only one surprised at how Black I wasn’t.
A Questionable Case of Identity
I found it telling that other Black kids questioned my Blackness while others took me as I was. But was it because they didn’t see colour and to them, I was just Casey Palmer, or because I was no more than a Black kid to them, my individuality not included in the equation?
You’d hear all sorts of things:
”You’re not like the other Black guys I know.”
”You are nothing like I expected.”
”You’re the Whitest Black kid I’ve ever seen.”
The problem was this—we all shared a very narrow view of Blackness. With my non-Black friends, I could be the “safe negro”—the ones they could share Black jokes with and know it was okay. To many of my Black friends, I was a curiosity—trained in navigating these others spaces, but not Black enough to hang after hours.
And that’s the trouble with tokenism—when you spend so much time representing your people in foreign spaces, in the end, you don’t belong anywhere.
And that’s something you learn to live with.
The Trouble with Tokenism is that it Leaves You Without a People. So You’d Better Find Your OWN.
“I used to get teased for being Black
And now I’m here and I’m not Black enough
‘Cuz I’m not acting tough or making stories up ’bout where I’m actually from…”
— Drake, “You & The 6”, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (2015)
In the end, I made peace with my tokenism, realising I’m more than the colour of my skin and capable of so much more than just trying to be the best Black man at whatever I do. One can’t deny their own story, and there’s no way I’d suddenly become the Black person everyone expected because I’d spent so much time doing just about anything else.
But there’s a lot that I learned from it all that I hope I can pass on to anyone else who’ll have to have that experience.
Coping with Tokenism—A Primer.
Don’t give others a pass. Stand up for your dignity. If you’re the only one of your people in your social circles, lay down the law for how they engage with you. It won’t be easy, and you’ll put up with a lot of shit, but if you know exactly what you stand for, who is anybody else to tell you any different?
But always remember that it’s bigger than you. That you’re paving the way for others so they don’t have it as hard as you have it right now. You’re going to have to call people out on their ignorance and correct behaviours. But no matter if you’re light-skinned or dark, token or no, telling our stories is the only way we broaden how everyone sees us.
I’m Casey Palmer, a token Black guy, and this February I want you to know our culture’s more than skin deep.
Thank you for reading, and we’ll catch you at the next post where we examine why Black outrage seems to be all the craze when it comes to getting attention.
Be well out there, and until the next, I remain,
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4 replies on “The Trouble with Tokenism”
Your on point! My girlfriend, Keishia Facey is facilitating a number of training sessions with various school boards and CAS – she learned that black students in schools particularly in the rural areas are being asked for the N word pass. I couldn’t believe it! Since its so cool to mention the word in songs, why not bring to the every day conversation. These kids will feel compelled to allow it, considering their outnumbered in this environment. We need our children to know this is not cool and not to be subdued. Tell them no and tolerate less of this behaviour. I agree with your primers, fantastic article.
Yeah, I haven’t heard any verbal issues the boys have run into of late, but I always have to wonder whether they have come across are due to race. I feel like I’ll learn more of this as time goes on ☹️
This was a really interesting read, especially as a white girl that grew up in rural farming town Canada. We didn’t really see many variations at all to the people that were around us in our neighbourhoods, schools, etc. I can remember there being one black girl that was in my class throughout elementary school, which I could imagine would have been so challenging for her when it comes to the struggles that you mentioned – finding her identity in a beyond predominantly white area.
I think it’s great to see topics like this being discussed more openly. As someone who teaches a music class (still in a small rural town) myself, I really appreciate people being as open and honest as you’ve been here. I will never fully understand what my students may be facing, but that insight is SO powerful. Thank you.
Britt, thank you for your comment here. This was perhaps the most viscerally honest piece I’d ever written, and it really resonated with a number of friends and peers who grew up with a similar experience. If it rang through… that means a lot. It’s what I hoped it’d do.
I really appreciate your words ?