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Tokenism May Cause the Following Side Effects
When one of us wins, we all win. That’s the mantra that marginalized folks have internalized for centuries. It’s the mantra that makes us pliable, submissive, grateful. We’re happy to have been allowed proxies, spokespeople. At least we have Serena Williams, at least we have Robin Coste Lewis. It’s not enough. When writers of color become a filled diversity quota, it’s a matter of time before we become a token. While obvious practices of tokenism and discrimination are becoming easier to spot and called out on a more frequent basis in literary circles, there still remains the psychological damage of the lack of equality in publishing.
“I wish I’d felt proud rather than grateful—intensely, almost exhaustingly grateful to just be there,” wrote Saeed Jones in his important essay “Self Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer”. “It’s the kind of gratitude that, I suspect, is very familiar to those whom our culture has a habit of reminding they should be happy ‘to just be here.’”
It’s this pressure to be grateful that silences discussions of the idiosyncratic side effects of tokenism, of “diversity” rather than equality. Writers of color know the ins and outs of these effects, but we feel pressured to swallow them up, to avoid at all costs being labeled angry, and instead commiserate over happy hour or in hushed whispers at the back of a party. That’s how I knew exactly what Christine Shan Shan Hou was talking about when she tweeted, “When I see an Asian poet win a literary award that I just applied for it’s sad that I feel like I don’t have a chance of winning it the following year.” When our friends Roberto Montes and Wendy Xu joined the conversation, we were comforted that we weren’t alone in our frustrations, and the shame we felt over being frustrated. It was healing for us to openly admit these internalized effects of white supremacy—especially because we all knew they didn’t stop there.
Tokenism may cause the following side effects:
1. You will get tired. You will be loved and it will make you tired.
You will be asked over and over to read to all-white or mostly-white rooms, to submit to all-white or mostly-white journals, to write in response to this or that political issue, to recommend other writers of color, to explain, the help. It will be exhausting. You’ll be flattered, but you will never stop wondering if your attention and success is only because of your race or gender or orientation. You will never stop wondering if you are being exoticized.
“I’m not a token every time,” Wendy Xu said, “just enough of the time.” Enough times to make you wonder if it’s every time. When (racist) people insinuate you’re getting special treatment, you will start to believe them.
2. You will find yourself in competition with other POC writers, even friends whom you love, and you will hate yourself for competing.
You will not wonder, you will know, that your attention and success comes at the cost of an opportunity for a writer of color. As Jenny Zhang perfectly articulated in her incredible, necessary essay “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist”, “What I want is to not have to be made aware that because most publications only ever make room for one or two writers of color when those publications publish me it means another excellent writer of color does not get to have that spot, and yes, we internalize that scarcity and it makes us act wild and violent toward each other sometimes instead of kind.”
“When I win,” said Xu, “I am painfully aware of this scarcity and I feel alienated from my POC peers, worrying over the knowledge that there is still not NEARLY enough space given to our voices. When I don’t win, I’m sometimes hard on myself for not presenting a version of my identity that is most attractive (recognizable) to white gatekeepers. Can I prove that this is why I don’t get the stuff I don’t get? No…but imagine all the things I could be doing if I wasn’t trying to figure it out…if I was secure in my viability as a CONTENDER for more than one (or “periodic”) slot. When you honor me with a thing or prize, please honor me further by taking some time to reflect upon how white supremacy might insidiously turn POC triumph and success into trauma for other POC whom you are not actively honoring at this moment. Honor me by acknowledging racial inequality in publishing, and commit to keep bringing POC voices to the front in the future.”
Before you even notice, you will be turned against yourselves.
3. You will start to forget your own name.
You will grow tired of correcting people and start answering to mispronounced names. You’ll get used to saying “no worries” when you’re mistaken for another writer of color who you look nothing like. Maybe you will even laugh, touch the older, white writer on the arm, making them feel comfortable and normal about their blunder. It’s no problem. I know it’s confusing for you. How could you be expected to see us as individuals? To see the differences between us, the quota-fillers, the diversity numbers?
I started a collective with Angel Nafis, and we called it The Other Black Girl. It’s funny because it’s true—time and again we have been confused for one another. We don’t look alike, our poems aren’t the same, our backgrounds are wildly different, we’re different ages, heights, skin tones. But we’re both black women writers who live in Brooklyn.
4. You will start to forget you are an individual. You will start to forget what your poems are and can be.
“In undergrad I was advised to make my work more latino, more more latino,” said Roberto Montes. “Literally someone suggested tacos.” You will be told your work is only valuable when it caters to white expectations and imaginings of your culture. You will be asked to explain yourself, to play to white audiences, to dress in a costume of yourself. “Ugh,” responded Xu, “The trauma of never being enough POC/ pre-traumatized to appease whiteness’ idea of identity.” You will be encouraged to define and flex your identity as a style, to exploit yourself.
Montes confessed that the frustration he feels regarding identity in poetry is because of fear of being left out. “Why would someone publish a queer latino who writes about sincerity in the classroom when they can publish a queer latino who writes about being a queer latino? It is toxic to young marginalized people to attempt to make their marginalization who they are. Sometimes when a press publicizes an effort at diversity, they mean to publish those who write about being latino, not latino poets.”
Your humanity will start to get lost.
5. You will be ashamed of your ambition.
You have enough. You have enough. You have enough. You have enough. It is getting better. They are doing what they can. They are trying. They are trying. They are trying. At least you have this. At least you have this. At least you have this. They are trying. Be grateful. Be grateful.