Reports From the Field: White People Love Me: Dispatches From The Token

November 17, 2014 | by Morgan Parker, OP-ED | 20 | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

snowJT 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.

 

MorganParkerMorgan 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.

20 Comments to 'Reports From the Field: White People Love Me: Dispatches From The Token'

  • When the anthology Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press, 2004) was published, I was part of a panel of the contributors and Editor, Pooja Makhijani at The Center for New Words, Cambridge, MA. We talked about many issues. My essay particularly spoke about class (i.e. poverty) as race. At the end, a woman came up to me and said, “I wanted to say hello because you and I were the only two blondes in the room.” I looked around and realized, she was right! “Everyone has ‘ethnic hair,'” she said. Perhaps you should leave academia for a while and read to different rooms. I held my own event called American Race for the book Under Her Skin, north of Boston, with four poets, myself, a white man who spoke about his immigrant ancestors coming through Ellis Island, and two African-Americans, a woman poet, and a male hip-hop artist. There were many African-Americans in the room because I advertised directly to African-American orgs, universities and Boston-area newspapers. One of the African-American poets was afraid to come to my neighborhood. But, we all held a magnificent event, (http://patriciagoodwin.com, click Events) and I even got to pay my poets!

    • Nina says:

      How nice of you to count and categorize everyone for (y)our own comfort and convenience. Perhaps you should spend less time conversing with white women who use the term “ethnic hair” and feel the need to gravitate towards the only other “blonde” in the room.

      • Women of many ethnicities talked about their hair that night, that’s how the subject came up. I did not. My editor said she’d gotten a lot of essays that mentioned hair, but she didn’t use them. To my recollection of the anthology, the stories were a lot heavier than that, so I will agree with you, hair was not the main topic. I talked to many people that night as well as speaking. I spoke about bullying, which has no race. I spent additional time writing and producing another event in order to bring the book to more people (toward others). Academia and mainstream publishing was not reaching more people, as the writer of this piece suggests. I suggest to her that she needs to go outside the box and create the audience she wants.

  • Lenora Ausbon-Odom says:

    Written mainly for you, I assume, but I must tell you, this was brilliance! Roll the clock back to the 80’s, and I am there. What you did as a FLY girl, I did as Madonna. You describe such a unique experience that so many of us share. If I had your gift, I think I would describe it similarly. This will continue in the so-called post-racial America because America for us will always be shaped by a majority that rewards us based on how much we are like them -the goal, the price, the acceptance. At times I am furious and at others grateful for the benefits (read: sorta guilty).

    I do think Mr. Paul Mooney’s quote is more accurately, “Everybody wants to be black, but no one wants to be a N—–!” Admittedly, I have only heard the quote and never seen it written.

    I hope you continue to share. I will look for your work.

  • Absolutely gorgeous. Absolutely brilliant.

  • I was especially struck by your description of isolation and the desire to belong, and then ultimately rejection of belonging. The power comes from the choice- because at least now, as adults, we can chose our own isolation.

  • Lauren K. says:

    This was a wonderful piece, and spoke so well to my particular experience as a black woman, who in the last 17 years has lived in predominately white spaces. It is a terrible loneliness, and you articulate it well. Thank you.

  • Courtney says:

    You ROCKED every single piece of this. Where can I get more? Love it.

  • Barb Polan says:

    I am those white girls.

  • Andrew Brown says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I grew up in small town US in the 70’s, middle class, white, male, heterosexual, but – and maybe this is hard to believe in this day and age – I wasn’t aware of any of this until I moved to the city. As far as I knew I was just who I was – me – un-marked by category and unconfined to pigeon-hole. By now, pushing 50, I’m well aware that an “unmarked” category is still a category, but such is the nature of privilege that I sometimes slip back into it – entertaining the idea that I can just be me, not white me, straight me, goy me, privileged me, or whatever. And sometimes I slip into thinking that others are there with me. I understand that the whole “color-blindness” thing works as a lie and an evasion, but sometimes it’s real – the luxury or delusion to occupy that unmarked space and the desire to have others share it, too. It’s the idea that you construct yourself free from (or rather in creative conversation with) the meddling and manipulations of others. I don’t dispute that this can be arrogant, or delusional, or dismissive of the experience of Blackness or gayness or femaleness, but it feels like a worthwhile part of the identity-repertoire. Chalk it up to the notorious obtuseness of privileged white men if you like!

  • MrsTDJ says:

    I’m a new reader and I’m blown away. Wow. You really spoke to the way that I grew up and the current issues that still resonate as a result. I look forward to reading more!

  • Luthor Parks says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  • Evie says:

    Morgan, thanks so much for writing this essay! You provide a window into an experience that we don’t read about as often as some — and an important analysis, for anyone who can hear what you’re saying.

  • Marva says:

    Thanks for such a brilliantly written essay which harks back to W.E.B. DuBois’ writing about our double consciousness, or, in the case of women of color writers, triple plus consciousness: “…the adopted daughter or the dog.” Excellent!

    Either way,the part of family which is not wholly family, a credential of normalcy when company comes.

    To fellow writers: to suggest that one try other venues outside of academia reminds me of folks who possess the illogical mindset: “America: Love It or Leave It”. What other venues are being suggested? Why is it that when white people are gathered together in numbers, with a token person of color dotting the landscape, very little, if any, discomfort seems visible, particularly in literary settings when almost everyone looks like (and sometimes sounds like) each other? Rhetorical question. Please. Just reflect. No need to reply.

    “Diversity is,indeed, not equality.” Well-said. Hence, my agitation to the reply whivh contains prounouns of ownership: my, mine,” I got to pay my writers…”, and what exactly is “ethnic hair”? Is that like a Hispanic grocery store? Hair is lightweight compared to the racialized body, the racialized writer. And we are all racialized, but often not viewed as such, especially in academe.

    I am grateful to have come upon your essay, Ms. Parker, as well as the replies. My intent is to thank you and encourage others to perform a close reading of all, as well as request that folks avoid the urge to participate in “The Oppression Olympics”.

    You speak eloquently of race fatigue. Rest, but keep writing your truth. Great stuff!

    • “my poets” – As a producer, I was proud to pay my poets. I do not own them.

      “Other venues” are those you can create yourself, if you don’t like what society is giving you.

      (I arranged with the venue, a small non-profit, to pay half the proceeds in lieu of rent for the evening. It can be done.)

  • Sabine says:

    I never leave comments, but today I will. You conjured my experience out of the shadows and into the light. You did it beautifully. Thank you so much.

  • Kari says:

    I have stood at parties, in bars, concerts, restaurants and even the airport and felt the loneliness. Trying to be the real me while trying to be accepted by the majority. It’s exhausting. Thank you for sharing your loneliness. I should have realized I couldn’t be the only token. Make me think of Sting’s Message In A Bottle. “Walked out this morning, I don’t believe what I saw. A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore. Seems I’m not alone at being alone. A hundred billion castaways, lookin for a home.”

  • Ness says:

    As a poet myself and a writer, I’m awed by your use of words to describe your situation as well as connect us, the readers, to each and every word. Amazing.
    I didn’t go to an all white school but I lived in a predominantly white surburb, well I still do, but I never fully understood all the cold stares and snarls and opted to ignore them. One has way too much issues to concentrate on such things.
    Although, I do feel the same way you do….being black in a predom. white setting is pretty rough.
    I can also relate to that loneliness…
    I don’t have white friends but I’m still labelled as a snob; an ‘oreo’, just because I went to a very prestigious black high school (owned by whites) and speak proper english.
    Sometimes it’s hard to speak up when everybody around you is putting you down.
    Wonderful article, I do hope to read some of your other works.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *