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.