Report From the Field: White People Love Me: Dispatches From The Token
I get along with white people really well. Growing up, they brought peppermint bark down the cul-de-sac to my parents’ house every Christmas. They smiled at me, lone brown spot in the classroom, as we read Dr. King’s speech every February. In my graduate writing program, white classmates complimented my afro with liberal fingers, applauded my poems for their sass and bravado, asked me to explain references in Harryette Mullen’s work while we were out for drinks. They’re my white friends, and I’m their black friend. White people love me. It’s kind of my thing.
I have never given a performance to an all-black audience.
For weeks she asks from the chair across from mine, can you describe that loneliness? My therapist is a young, thin white woman who isn’t following the protests in Ferguson. What does that loneliness feel like? I kind of sink into the chair as a performance and flip my wrist. It feels regular and a little glamorously sad. She says can you think of the first time you felt that. I say generations ago. She says we have to stop. I notice my mask slipping. I put it back on before walking out to 5th avenue, weeping quietly in front of The Gap.
Having grown up in the ‘90’s heyday of “I don’t see color” and hearing the budding subconscious white supremacy in statements like “You don’t act black,” the playground was where I first learned about acceptance, and its price. Where I learned to make myself small, nod graciously in thanks for approval. The playground is where I learned who makes the rules. Where I learned that my identity is not up to me. When we played house, my white girl friends called dibs on being the teenage daughter. They stuck out their thumb and pinky fingers and made their hands a phone; they flipped their stringy hair. For my role I was presented with two options: the adopted daughter or the family dog.
I’m sitting here trying to write after watching a Nancy Meyers movie featuring Diane Keaton as a writer trying to write in a Hamptons house that looks like someone’s Pinterest board. White interiors, white turtleneck, white linen pants, white shells in a vase, white flowers on an end table. French music and candles. I am angry that I am comforted by the romance. That thing inside that wants me to be someone else.
In sixth grade we went on a field trip to The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The other black girl was sick. At the end of the American civil rights exhibit, I stood in the set of a recreated 1950’s diner while my classmates approached me one by one to hug me and say I’m sorry. I realized: I was the tour guide.
That’s me in the picture. I’m the black girl.
That’s me in the picture. I’m the diversity.
Are all of your friends boys. Are all of your friends white. You don’t act black. You’re an Oreo cookie: black on the outside but soft, sweet white on the inside. You’re not like a regular girl. I don’t think of you like that.
For my role I am presented with two options: woman and black. I am on stage tapping my feet. I am a number in a count. I am more tired than I am angry. I fill a void. I turn into the void. This is called being accepted.
I call it the post-Beyoncé complex. Every minute of my black-girl day is doubled: I’m both erased and glorified with each Miley twerk, each time a white girl friend exclaims Giiiirl. White teens on Twitter wearing grills hashtag gangsta, Taylor Swift in heavy gold hoops among a chorus row of shaking black asses. The Black Woman is sex, inexplicable cool, exotic, edgy. As long as she is empty. As long as you can hold her in your palm or drape her around her neck. Paul Mooney said, everybody wants to be black but nobody wants to be black.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, basement bar, three PBRs deep on the last leg of summer 2014. Before reading the poem I say to the audience I don’t know if you noticed all these black boys getting killed well I’m here to generate some white guilt for you ha ha ha. It is quiet in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the end of summer and I laugh when I’m uncomfortable.
Mark says he’s got a reading tonight in DC and the line-up is all white men so he’d like permission to read one of my poems. He says he’s just going to keep reading my poems in all-white spaces. It isn’t a permanent solution. I am really not enough. I can’t carry all of it.
JT says she’s no longer going to readings if all of the readers are white. There is even more to want. My poem has just been published in an online literary magazine. I scroll through the table of contents to see the names of the other contributors. I know the names. I know the color of the names. It snows. Another poem has been published. I know the color of the names. Another poem has been published. I know the color. I am really not enough.
Here is the curse of the token: the tokenizer (see: white supremacy, see: white men, see: oppressor, see: majority) thinks they are doing the token a favor, giving a gift. The gift is isolation, is limitation, is submission. The trauma, of course, is centuries old. The pedestal is an auction block. Woman as prize. Black American as entertainment. The Magical Negro. The Token Black Friend. The Female Perspective. I’ve paid good money to untangle it like a necklace. You know how just when you think you’re getting close, you find a new knot. Like suddenly, not knowing how to read the word nigger in my own poem. Or why I have to be one of the boys. Or naming that feeling– pressure– of being a representative. The other feelings: shame, an impulse to apologize, the knee-jerk self-deprecation. How I am comfortable.
Everything is connected. How I have gotten too comfortable. How being alone turns into loneliness. How performance is a habit. The growing difference between acceptance and love. The growing awareness of difference. The awareness of difference as barrier to love and success. Here is a stark fact I hate to break to my white friends: I can’t have what you can have. Instead I have this strange dress I’m trying to zip myself into; this tricky way of moving through the world. Here’s an uncomfortable fact about the level of trauma I’ve accumulated: sometimes I think I can’t have what you can have means I can’t have anything. Dear white friends, this isn’t really working for me so much anymore. I’m not breaking up with you. I just need to find myself. Diversity isn’t equality. Simply acknowledging privilege isn’t equality. There is something more to want. I’m letting myself get uncomfortable with being alone. I’m spitting out the token. Watching it rust in the dirt.
Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015), selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize, and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Coconut Books 2016). A Cave Canem fellow, graduate of NYU’s Creative Writing MFA program, and poetry editor for Coconut Magazine, Morgan lives in Brooklyn where she is Education Director at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). She also contributes writing to Weird Sister. You can find her at www.morgan-parker.com.