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Token Black Girl by Danielle Prescod

Token Black Girl by Danielle Prescod PDF

Author: Danielle Prescod

Publisher: Little A


Publish Date: October 1, 2022

ISBN-10: 1542035163

Pages: 256

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

In the summer of 2003, I turned fifteen years old. In July, the very same month of my birthday, Vanity Fair released a cover that is infamous within my generation of media obsessives. The cover teased a teen-focused special featuring five of the wealthiest and most popular female representatives of television and movie stardom. Amanda Bynes, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Mandy Moore, and Hilary Duff posed draped around one another in varying shades of pastel pink. An expansion of the cover, hidden behind a fold, featured blue-eyed brunette Alexis Bledel, broody Evan Rachel Wood, Token Black Girl Raven-Symoné, and token bad girl Lindsay Lohan. The cover line read “It’s Totally Raining Teens!,” a cheeky nod to youth-speak and Vanity Fair’s way of cementing an authoritarian cultural claim on who the “teens” of the times were. Cover expansions are significantly less popular in the modern media landscape, maybe because it’s cruel, but perhaps more practically because people are now likelier to see cover images on a screen than in the aisle of their local CVS. At the time, it was a subtle and not-so-subtle way to both include and exclude people, with the message: “We need you, but you’re not quite cover material.”

Teen Vogue, Vogue’s kid sister, would be launched that same year. After a test issue featuring a twenty-year-old Jessica Simpson (blonde) cuddling her then boyfriend, obviously Nick Lachey, debuted in 2000, the magazine promised to be the anti–crush quiz fashion bible teen girls craved. For me, an all-girls-school attendee, it was welcomed and essential reading. But the magazine was published quarterly, and that left a void in the teen fashion landscape for months at a time. The July 2003 issue of Vanity Fair satiated some of that thirst. I became an absolute rabid animal in the hunt to get my hands on this issue. I was not, at fifteen, a Vanity Fair reader, nor should I have been, as the other cover lines of the issue previewed subjects far outside my interest—hard journalism about the Bush administration, a Hamptons real estate feature, and an author reporting on cold case murder facts—but the cover had been hyped up on all my favorite entertainment news programs, and I was intimately familiar with every single one of those teen girls’ faces. I was gently conditioned to already believe these adolescent women were goddesses. In fact, my younger sister and I were such dutiful consumers of all Mary-Kate and Ashley products that, to this day, I refuse to buy anything from The Row, their clothing line, as a twisted attempt to get justice for the money I have already shelled out to them.

You may have noticed that all the girls, now women, featured on that Vanity Fair cover are white, and I am not. More specifically, they are all thin, blonde, white girls. Even Mandy Moore, who had an edgy brunette cut at the time of the shoot, had been introduced to the world as a sugary-sweet blonde. No matter what her colorist mixed up, that was how many people still viewed her.

It seems like no accident that the brunette, the bad girl, the redhead, and the lone Black girl were conspicuously absent on the actual cover, instead relegated to the foldout. Alexis Bledel played the smart, safe, and overly anxious Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls. Evan Rachel Wood starred in the chilling 2003 film Thirteen, which was about suburban girls who rebelled by getting tongue piercings and having threesomes. Raven-Symoné, a Cosby Show alum, was now a Disney darling, the lead in an eponymous sitcom where she played a high schooler with psychic abilities. And Lindsay Lohan almost needs no introduction, but in 2003, she was not yet a Mykonos club hostess with a troubled family past. Rather, she was the girl who played both starring roles in The Parent Trap and was on the cusp of Mean Girls celebrity.

Vanity Fair, like most publications at the time, was telling readers who deserved their attention. The inside story featured a more diverse set of “totally teens,” including Kyla Pratt, Christina Milian, and Solange Knowles, and was largely unmemorable. The cover is what everyone recalls. A magazine cover is a beacon, mesmerizing the reader with the image it presents. And for many years in fashion media, an upper echelon of publishing, we readers were shown white women and white women only. In the early part of the millennium, critical years of my development, if a coveted cover spot was assigned to someone, it was a blonde girl—extra points for a bony one.

Ignoring the presence of Black women is a massive power flex that exposes the ideologies of the decision makers who determine what celebrity is worthy of a feature. Erasure is a useful tool of oppression, and Vanity Fair was not alone in ensuring the erasure of Black women and girls from positions of prominence and honor. The media’s compounded interest in either strategically or accidentally reducing the visibility of Black women across the board poisoned my mind for years.

Raven-Symoné must have felt incredibly lonely shooting that Vanity Fair cover. To my knowledge, she’s never spoken about it. She has met some controversial moments in more recent years, relating in particular to her identity as a Black woman. In 2015, she became a trending topic after her criticism of ethnic Black names on the morning talk show The View went viral. Raven and her cohosts opined on whether racial bias affects hiring probability by way of recruiters screening the names of candidates. (Spoiler: it does.) Raven said that she would not hire a woman with the name “Watermelondrea” when that name appeared as number twelve on a list of “sixty of the most ghetto-sounding names.” And while hers was an ignorant and harmful comment, I do not think it is a surprising one from a Black woman who seems to me to have been coerced to maintain a degree of self-hatred, one that was ingrained and then nurtured by an environment that prioritizes whiteness in all forms.

In 2003, the public was not prepared to have a conversation about the influences of white supremacy in the mainstream media. I certainly wasn’t. I was too busy worrying about how to suck in my lips (true story) and shrink my body so I could conform to my white peers. I imagine in some regard, Raven was too. The previous fourteen years of my life had desensitized me to seeing very few Black faces in the media I consumed. And like an orphaned duckling, I found myself imprinting on girls like the quintet of the Vanity Fair cover stars in a desperate attempt to tether my existence to that which was considered desirable and beautiful.

As the Hilarys and Mandys increased in popularity and marketability, a part of me always recognized, shamefully, that I was not the thin, blonde archetype. That fact did not deter me from trying my best to get as close to that archetype as possible. For years, I singed my hair follicles with chemical relaxers to achieve a pin-straight, “nonthreatening” mane. I was acutely aware of how sinful my excess of brown flesh was, so I starved myself, frantic to reduce my size. I took pleasure in my exposed clavicle and hip bones, but no matter how thin I got, I was always outrunning the possibility that I might become “too big,” too noticeable, more noticeable than I already was, which was an utterly terrifying potential reality. Despite understanding that I was different—that, like Raven, I was the Token Black Girl—I still felt I needed to fit a profile in which my skin color was my only difference, and not one of many.

You’ve probably seen the Token Black Girl in many iterations over the years. She’s Tootie, played by Kim Fields, on The Facts of Life. She’s Lisa Turtle, played by Lark Voorhies, on Saved by the Bell. She’s Jessi Ramsey in The Baby-Sitters Club book series. She’s Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes and then she’s Gabby Douglas. She’s Stacey Dash’s Dion in Clueless. She’s Gabrielle Union as Katie in She’s All That and Chastity in 10 Things I Hate About You. She’s the Spice Girls’ Scary Spice, also known as Mel B. She’s Normani in Fifth Harmony, and she’s Jordyn Woods before getting unceremoniously deleted from the Kardashian-Jenner family group chat. You’ve seen her, sure, but you don’t know her because you are not meant to. She is not “the main character,” as the kids on TikTok say.

The Token Black Girl is characterized mostly by her proximity to her white peers and her nonthreatening and friendly nature. She is nonthreatening because she is almost never the romantic interest, and her primary function is to provide “attitude” and “sass,” either as humor or as an attempt to elevate the sex appeal of the otherwise all-white entity. She is a good student because she has to be. She actually feels like she has to be good at everything. She’s almost always a good dancer, and even if she’s not, it doesn’t matter because everyone will still think she’s a good dancer. She either has or can get the requisite social signifiers of acceptance—everything except white skin, of course. She will be well spoken, well dressed, and well groomed. She likes all the things her friends like, including boys, but they will not like her. She almost never acknowledges her position as the sole Black member of a group because talking about race makes white people uncomfortable. She can never make white people uncomfortable. Her most critical responsibility is providing protection against the “racist” label that might otherwise be hurled at a gaggle of white women devoid of ethnic variety.

While this relative invisibility (as in, being there but never being central) dictated the rules of engagement for my life, covers like the July 2003 Vanity Fair helped white girls establish the notion that they were the world’s most precious gift, an idea reinforced by movies and television, where they saw idealized versions of themselves projected or reflected back. They could pick and choose which elements were worth imitating. That imitation is not necessarily healthy, but as an alternative to complete erasure, it does seem appealing.

Examining beauty standards as a system—one that has adverse effects on all women—is worthwhile. In recent years, the dialogue about fighting these standards has become more emphatic, but like racism, it is a harmful culture that evolves just as quickly as its counterculture. Social media apps have joined magazines in upholding a completely unattainable aesthetic as the singular criteria for beauty, and still, imagery of Black women and subjects pertaining to them are siphoned out of mainstream publications to “ethnic” magazines like Ebony, Jet, or Essence. But at fifteen, I was not an Essence, Jet, or Ebony reader. My tastes were morphed and molded by magazines like Vogue, Teen Vogue, Teen People, and YM, publications where Black women were scarce, if present at all. And that scarcity was also totally reflective of my own day-to-day reality.

The media could have been a lifeline to me, a window into a more diverse reality, but that’s not how it functions. Insidiously enough, media is often employed to protect and uphold white supremacy, and I’m not just talking about the obvious here, like Birth of a Nation—although, yes, that’s a big one. In the 2020 book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, authors Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi reveal that entire film empires, like Tarzan, Planet of the Apes, and Rocky, were built on the idea of specifically preserving the mythic dominance of white masculinity. As I was growing up, women’s fashion magazines were doing the same work on me. With their insistence that beauty was to be defined solely through a narrow Eurocentric lens, the magazines accomplished, for white women, what the novels and films of the twentieth century did for white men. But guess what? It all worked so well that I had no idea it was happening.

Primetime TV was no better. Just like Jet and Essence, there were several Black television programs and movies released when I was young, but none seemed to inspire a devoted fandom among my white friends. There are people my age who now profess their love for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but in 1996, every girl I knew had a poster of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the Home Improvement hottie, pinned up somewhere in her room. No images of Will Smith adorned those same walls. I faked a crush on JTT, too, because what else was I to do? But at eight years old, I had never even seen the show that made him a household name. My parents stringently monitored what my sister and I watched on TV, and the shows they approved of, like The Cosby Show, My Wife and Kids, and Family Matters, often played into respectability politics, showing romanticized family structures and successful Black people. But these were not the shows celebrated by my white classmates and friends. For all I knew, they weren’t watching them at all. Preferences were so subtly expressed and communicated that there was no need to explicitly determine what was “good” and what was “bad.” I understood that I should not prefer Thats So Raven to Lizzie McGuire. It was BSB, not B2K. Anything Black that existed in my world was bizarrely countercultural and needed to be approached with caution. Black characters on-screen, like the male leads of Friday or South Park’s Token Black, were only ushered into conversation as the butt of jokes, useful for impersonations to generate laughs but never the ones to look like, be like, or love.

When I began to watch shows and movies dictated to me by the whims of my friends, classmates, and sometimes their parents, I had to strain repeatedly to find myself represented at all. And sure, there were some ways I could see myself reflected in Token Black Girl roles, like Nebula, Zenon’s Black best friend (played by Raven-Symoné), but the movie is called Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, not Nebula. It’s not even called Nebula and Zenon. I gathered from the treatment of these Black characters that they were not to be the most beloved. They were supporting structures, not the stars. Always made to shine just a little less than whoever the real star was. They are never the love interest or the girl who wins in the end. They help a lot, sure, but they don’t dazzle. And so while I was not watching or reading anything with a centralized Black narrative, I was consumed with media that procedurally avoided Black people and continued to celebrate and center white people. As I took in all that media during my formative years, I got the message: “Sorry, you’re not actually lovable.” The indoctrination was subtle and absolute. I trained myself to be smaller in the physical and metaphysical sense. I squeezed myself into that narrow lens as much as possible, and I suffocated there.

Mostly because of what I saw, from an early age, I was plagued by the differences in the size, shape, and color of my body, and not just in comparisons to girls on television or in magazines; the comparisons were live and in color between me and my friends and classmates. You could always easily spot me in a photo, at a party, or on a field. I was the Black one. I oscillated between the complicated desire to be both visible (wanting to see myself and imagine who I could be) and invisible (in that there was no real difference between me and the people who surrounded me). I picked apart every single aspect of my appearance. This was driven mostly by a desire to integrate imperceptibly into the world of my white friends, and my self-loathing was aimed at all the characteristics that made me stand out. Obviously, my skin made the distinction between us abundantly clear, but I became preoccupied with my other physical features as well. I was conditioned to think that Blackness was a hurdle, something that had to be overcome or conquered. I knew I could not change this notion of Blackness, but I deduced that if I could, perhaps, change myself, especially in appearance or behavior, I could change the context of what Blackness meant for me.

At the same time, I saw Black people succeeding in unprecedented areas. I watched Tiger Woods win his first Masters. My tennis-playing little sister and I were constantly “looking like” or “reminding” people of Venus and Serena Williams, who began to dominate professional women’s tennis in the ’90s. It was a tiresome comparison, and twenty-plus years later, we can predict with stunning accuracy when someone will make a Williams-sisters comment after seeing us on a court. But the momentous achievements of these specially anointed Black figures opened my world to possibility. So I focused my energy on what seemed like the “right” road to go down, never becoming like Sheneneh, the loud, crass, misogynistic, ghettoized caricature on Martin—whom my classmates imitated by arching their backs, rolling their necks, and shouting “Giiiiinnnaaaa!” at any opportunity that arose. I, instead, became overzealous about what I could accomplish. It seemed easy enough to avoid being a punch line. I just had to act perfect. And be perfect.

I understood that I would need to excel to be accepted. My parents may be somewhat responsible for planting this seed, as they gave me the ubiquitous Black-parent talk: “You’ll need to work twice as hard to get half as far.” I became obsessed with all markers of achievement: straight As, trophies, blue ribbons, anything I could collect that would designate me as a winner, as better than the next person, proof that I was good enough and belonged. I gained all my confidence from performing as I thought I should, chasing a version of myself that was projected through a white lens. I was attempting not to appear “aggressive,” “monstrous,” “wild,” or “ugly.” Never ugly. But, ultimately, I was playing a game that could not be won. All those esteemed magazines existed to drive that home, especially considering that Black women, aside from in their tokenized positions, were nowhere to be seen.

Through youth or delusion, I remained hopeful that my social accession and acceptance were just a makeover away. I simply had to get there. To me, makeover magic and that seminal before and after were sorcery in its purest form. The Swan, an addictive show that aired when I was in high school, gave women the ultimate makeover: extensive plastic surgery, hair extensions, and new clothes—all so they could be considered “hot.” Someone should maybe check on those contestants now. But when I was entering puberty and going through my first round of excruciating body developments, all I could hope was that, one day, a producer would pluck me out of suburban obscurity and turn me into a perfect plastic television princess. Several Anne Hathaway films later, I had so many fantasies about how all I needed was money and a knowledgeable enough team of experts, and voilà! I would be unstoppable.

My parents were careful enough not to raise my sister and me in a way that prioritized being pretty. I am grateful to them for that, but their fortitude in emphasizing talent, hard work, and inner beauty could not protect us from a world where the best thing a girl could hope to be was both thin and beautiful. And if you can’t be beautiful, you must be thin. And more intense still, for a Black girl in a white world, you must be perfect. There’s really no other way to avoid the structural mistrust and scrutiny that comes with being Black and a girl, and frankly, even if you’re as close to perfect as you can get, someone will still have a problem with how you look or how you are. Constantly running up against this truth was crushing. I felt rejected by the world. I began to notice that all the physical qualities I hated about myself came as the result of being Black. My lips, my nose, my skin, my hair, my ass. They all meant I could never hide.

Thanks to magazines and movies, I believed, really and truly believed on a cellular level, that the best way to cover up my genetic curses would be to ascend to a level of fame and beauty that was acceptable to all people. OK, who am I kidding? To white people. This was, of course, before I was conscious of the fact that some people don’t even like Beyoncé. These people should be anathematized, but nonetheless, they exist. No matter how perfect you seem to be, or how exquisite your art, or how enormous your dedication, there will always be haters. But I had yet to understand that. So I spent the next three decades of my life suppressing my emotions, stepping into roles I resented, constantly auditioning to find favor with whatever audience was before me, endlessly criticizing my own appearance, literally starving, and drowning in my own misery—but essentially looking amazing while doing so. I was going to succeed, no matter what. I would play the cards I was dealt by the wicked almighty dealer and come out on the other side of life, like Oprah—but my weight would never yo-yo. I would beat racism by becoming beautiful. Isn’t that cute?

Becoming pretty as a pathway to social acceptance was a mysterious maze I had to navigate to unlock the best parts of life, but beauty is subjective. It was difficult to “win” at being beautiful, and within the community I grew up in (read: rich, white), I wasn’t even in the running. People could see me, yes. They could see I had qualities rooted in white supremacy; I was “well spoken” and “articulate.” They could see I was a good dancer and an athlete. When it came to looks, I knew I was subordinate, but because I am nothing if not determined, I came up with a formula I could implement to maximize my chances of acceptance.

First, I knew my body was a critical element. After careful observation of the world’s distaste for anybody of substantial size, but particularly women, I knew I had to remain as small as possible. My Black body needed to be slimmed down, dramatically. I was run-of-the-mill thin, but I needed to be exceptionally thin. Standout thin. The kind of skinny that people whisper about. Second, my brown skin presented an inescapable complication: it was quite visible and, therefore, limiting. I would never be able to hide, at least not in the spaces I occupied, so I had to make sure my skin remained unblemished, unscarred, and pristine at all times. (Even at this very moment, my skin is slick with moisture, shiny, and smooth.) My makeup would need to complement my features but not be loud or flamboyant. It would take years of my life to find the right color combinations to achieve that effect. Third, my hair would need to be disciplined out of its unruly natural state to something straight, docile, and cooperative. And the last bit of the equation would be controlling variables like clothing, nails, attitude, inflections in speech, and so forth, so by the time I was in my twenties, I seemed more robotic than human. (I watch the “hosts” on Westworld with a familiar acknowledgment.) It all kind of worked for a while. A really long time, actually. But eventually, the whole thing began to crumble. And then, of course, came my major malfunction.

Eventually, I had to get to the bottom of my own deeply buried self-hatred and attempt to claw my way out of that soil so I could, at least, not be so sad. I fell into a deep depression when I uncovered that I was guilty of not only believing the toxic sludge (e.g., cultural erasure, colorism, hair-type hierarchy, diet fixation, etc.) the media insists on distributing daily but also spitting out toxic sludge and making sure the cycle continued by lording these same concepts over others. I was complicit. An active participant, working in media establishments that derive profits from exploiting the insecurities of all women, but in particular, Black women. I hope this book encourages people to understand that there are many factors at work in our mental and social conditioning, and we must cultivate media landscapes that are more inclusive and that celebrate our racial, physical, and external differences frequently and with enthusiasm.

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