Why is it necessary for a black person to say “I do not speak for all black people…” after giving an opinion on a subject? Why don’t white people find it necessary to say “Obviously, I do not speak for all white people but…”? Why is it that white people are automatically granted individual autonomy on almost every subject, but many people of color are not granted similar autonomy? In fact, if we extend this generality further, many minorities are often snatched from their perspective groups and then forced to be speak on behalf of the category society has placed them in.
This phenomenon actually causes a lot of trouble. You see, when your actions and words not only reflect yourself put also are forced to reflect your entire group, and you have no say in which group people place you in, your individuality gets chipped away at. Many people of privilege do not know or understand what it feels like to not be able to talk for yourself. Many people take their “individuality status” for granted, and assume this is the norm. Most minorities recognize though, that this is not the norm.
The reality is…. when the fcking popo (police) put out a radio call for some black or brown suspect.. all of a sudden all black and brown people are put in danger. You see the actions of that one individual effect us all. After building a lifetimes wroth of experience with events like these. Minorities recognize that they are often not able to act as an individuals.. minorities build an understanding that.. their actions, whether they like it or not, whether or not it is fair, reflect on other minorities for better or worse. This means that we bear additional responsibility for members of our group, a responsibility that many white folk do not have to shoulder. Many brown folk quickly found this out after the attacks on 9-11, where Americans thought to attack and target any brown men with beards.
Yet, when similar events happen around white people… there are no riots or targeted assault of white people. After the the bombing caused by Timothy Mcveigh or Ted Kaczynsk.. did white people have to be put on high alert as targets? Nah….. You see white people especially, have this sort of magical guard around them, that protects their individuality. They can pretty much live carefree because they know that everyone looks at them as individuals, and no matter how many white criminals or terrorists there are…… no one is going to think that reflects badly on every white man. That same magical barrier is not granted to many POC’s and other minorities.
Instead everything we say, everything we do, can always be, and is, symbolically used to reflect on our group. This sort of thinking leads to a rather peculiar phenomenon when we are talking about equal rights. What ends up happening pretty frequently, because minorities are not granted individual autonomy, is that the people part of the privileged group use minorities to propagate discrimination. They use them as petty tokens to be tossed about and frequently used to clog the machinery that is being put in place to make a more equal society.
The phenomenon I am describing here is called tokenism, and I want to talk about it today because it does not get talked about enough.
Tokenism has a long history in the Unites States… and it is precisely because minorities can be used to symbolize and represent their entire groups, in ways that privilege people can not, that tokenism is such a deadly tool. It is deadly because it is remarkably effective in propagating bigotry and preventing a serious discussion of various social issues. Whites are actually quite fond of using POC’s to defend against other POC’s that demand a more “radical” version of equality they are not prepared for. It is also the “I have a black friend” excuse we here so many whites throw out there because they too think that they can use single individuals from a group to defend against others from that same group. It is that age old deadly formula to defend against being accused of bigotry… you throw out a member of the group that accused you, and have that member say “chill this guy is cool”… and then bam.. this produces a magic repellent against discussing an issue with the seriousness it deserves.
The republicans did this when they tossed out Herman Cain. You take this rich black man, and have him argue against affirmative action, or have him say that racism is not a big deal anymore, or have him defend the Republicans when accused of racism…and this actually works. It serves to diffuse the issue because.. well because people are fcking stupid and they think that just cause a black guy says it.. it must be true and it must represent the black community.
Fck Miley Cirus did that sht just now… in her recent rolling stone interview that fool said that black people like Pharrell and Kanye supported her racist VMA performance. They saw nothing wrong with it, they did not take offense.. therefore, as representatives of the black community, she now thinks she is immune to the accusations of racism during her VMA dance. It is fckign sad too… cause this sht works. The rolling stone article did not dig in deeper and show the logic behind the claims of racism… nope.. what they did instead was take the words of like what.. 3 black people… and give the impression thus, that this incident was not super duper racist as fck.
See, what tokenism is.. is it is this false platitude thrown out to give the appearance of equality without actually doing the work required to have equality. What happens is that the dominant group picks up one person or a few from the oppressed, and then carries them as the spokesperson for the entire group… the odd thing about this is that the dominant group is almost always going to pick a person from within the oppressed group that is not the “radical” one. In that, they have all these choices… and which one do you think they are going to pick.. the confrontational ones or the more the ones that like to accommodate them? Of course they are going to pick the ones that take more accommodationalist positions because those are the ones that challenge power less, and thus less likely to make the people of privilege uncomfortable.
Therefore conversations go like this… a POC says something is racist, white people run up and grab another POC that proclaims it can not be racist. A woman says something is sexist, men run up and grab a different woman who says that it can not be sexist. A gay person says something is homophobic, and straight people run up and grab another gay person that says this can not be homophobic. What ends up happening then is that you get two minorities fighting each other, and the privileged people are no longer are required to take part in the discussion. In the end, this works to discharge and dismiss many conversation that would be worthwhile because they force people of privilege to recognize a bigoted system of social rules.
The thing about this is that, people of privilege are naturally going to gravitate towards positions that re-enforce their privileged positions, therefore not only is the minority they chose to throw at you going to have internalized bigotries they propagate (women who say sexist things, gays who say homophobic things, and POC’s who propagate racist norms).. the privileged are also, when the two minorities are arguing with each other, likely to “crown” the winner of the “debate” as which ever minority had a position that did not force the privileged to recognize the unfair social structures.
That right up there, in sum, is what makes tokenism so dangerous… because it allows people of privilege to outright deny their place in the unfair system of hierarchy. If they can not face the reality that they benefit from a system of prejudices, then they can not work as allies to end a bigoted social hierarchy. Instead what they do is calmly work to keep the system in place.
You see, most minorities know this as well. They know that the privileged are often going to try and use them to propagate bigoted norms by presenting them as symbols of some particular ethnic group that just so happens to land in agreement with the privileged side of the debate. This means minorities have this extra baggage of responsibility, that many do not wish to bear, to make sure that their words can not be twisted, as they often are, to justify bigoted views. This extra responsibility works to take away individual autonomy.. for if you know that your words will not be taken merely as your own words, but rather as a representation of an entire group of people. Minorities who do not wish to harm their own group by saying something to validate this or that bigotry, will quickly find themselves constantly moderating their own voice such that they say the “right thing” at all times.
This kind of thing is something that sucks… and it is, unfortunately, a part of becoming an adult as a minority. Which is why minorities get angry, extra angry, at fellow minorities who have thrown caution to the wind and decided to support and justify the bigoted norms that the people of privilege propagates… well because.. they should know better.. and they should know how easily this fcks up progress. I mean, I take talk a good game.. but it takes me a long time to break through the privileged barrier when talking to, in particular, white people… and I can say all the logic around my position and teach everything that I know… and then, it takes only one fcking piece of sht POC to say “Nah do not listen to that guy”… and all my work is undone. You see, because white people, and most people of privilege, would rather agree with a pleasant fiction than recognize the unpleasant reality of how unfair this society is. So I got a special place in my heart, that says fck you, to those types of minorities.