“The whole point of being a token is that you exchange your rage at inequality for the respect and admiration of your peers.” ― Jacob Tobia
Though it happened gradually you will know it instantly. When their lips are close enough to talk about tokens with you, they will also be speaking about you. This is how it will happen.
You will outwork, outpray, outhustle, and outearn your way into the job you quietly don’t think you deserve. Not yet. This is not any job, it’s the job. The one that feels five years premature. The one your boss would be perfect for. The one that’s fully equipped with more commas than a compound sentence. The one that fuels a fist-shaped fire in your throat just thinking about it.
You will tell yourself not yet, not now, not ever — but as soon as the divine doors bolt open you will manifest the shit out of this once-in-a-career opportunity. It is destiny. Mama calls it God’s plan. Soon-to-be-former coworkers say it’s well-earned. This. Is. It.
You will remember the double-portion of work it took to even get your name on the lips of the white angel who opened the door to the room where these decisions are made. You remember Sister Tinsley. That time she almost knocked you into the pew with her purse as she reached into a sea of bottomless breath mints to retrieve the Black Enterprise magazine clipping from two-thousand-something bearing your name. You remember the church programs, essay contests, awards banquets and the collection of countless merit badges quantifying your Black excellence.
You remember the doubt. Not fitting in even when you curved your vowels, your wardrobe and your biography, wearing homogeneity like armor. You remember not being Black enough for folks who secretly admired your white opportunities. And not being white enough for people who never bothered to ask why you were the only black one in their room (it’s always theirs). You remember the river of wins flowing from a lake of loss and pain. Most of all, you remember the shoulders of people who knew this day would come even when you didn’t. Time to stand up.
You will shine. You are Sirius A, the brightest celestial body visible from planet earth, burning at 25 times more luminous than the sun we know. Your signature style, optimism and expertise will render haters with nothing but hearsay & speculation. You were born for this. The press release, social media posts, kudos and congratulations will surge in quicker than you can reply. The valley has become a mountaintop.
You will be announced, introduced, presented and handshaked as the badass they need you to be. After all, you are here to solve a problem and create new value. This isn’t new but it’s different. This time the elevation is higher. The air is thinner. This climb is not all about you. The first week jitters will give way to the confident captain they hired and hoped you to be. Take it in. Don’t forget to breathe.
You will bring the best of you. You will bring your pedigree and your purpose. Blue blood swaddled in Black agency. Your culture, your stories, your network, your instinct — or what old saints called discernment. You bring more than standard issue intelligence, you bring Knowingness rooted in family trees that still bloom with firsts. Competence has never been your issue even though every rung you climb reminds you of the times when you doubted yourself. You hold the most dangerous contagion known to modern man — the belief that things can change.
You know transformation is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint. Anxiety calls, you block his number. A longtime mentor who’s been-there-before drops you a text out of the blue. Proud of you. You got this. Keep going! Nothing happens out of the blue. Happy tears spring to life for the hope that lies ahead. I will not be the only one or the last one.
You will work the plan. The one they hoped you had. The one they thought they hired you for. The one you spitballed with the CEO, bounced off the board of directors, dreamed with the pastor and drove your partner crazy talking about. You polish the plan, converting criticism into buy-in by using bricks of collaboration to construct a model for what should be. For what change could bring. You give credit and kudos to the incumbents, respecting monuments of the past while not being bound by their blindspots.
You work carefully, knowing Black ego is a bull’s eye for white insecurity. The plan needs tweaks but it’s tight. Enthusiasm ensues. Small wins roll in. Heads nod north and south. Resistors are heard and addressed. You will work the plan because you know hope is not a strategy, it is a process. I was made for this. To whom much is given.
You will not see it at first. But you will feel it. The delay. The follow-up. The alignment becomes an anchor. The constructive discussions with devil’s advocates. The new layers of decision-makers and phantom committees. Then the call comes (It always comes).
It’s one of your biggest internal cheerleaders. Just calling to check on you. How can I help? You will not hear it at first. Her help sounds more like surveillance but you’re happy to have an extra hand in the first phase of renovation. Teamwork makes the dreamwork. We are family. The help shows up empty-handed. No hammers, tools or manpower. Just more eyeballs. More voices. More supervisors. More second-guessing. You will not want to smile. But you will. Your friend says something isn’t right. It’s just how things go, you practice saying to yourself before responding to him. You will not sleep that night. It’s all part of the process.
You will flex. Choicefully,you signal your confidence. The Knowingness grows as you speak up. You resurface and reinforce divergent perspectives — the same ones that got you in the door. But today’s ears aren’t tuned into yesterday’s truth. This unfamiliar wisdom feels like pain to people who only recite the opinions of their own privilege.
You flex a little less. Your ally pays a visit. He says to keep it up. That’s exactly what we need. That’s why you are here. You try to get back on the fitness routine you had nailed in the previous role but your body carries a load no cardio can move. What’s wrong with me?
You will see it. Finally, the friction you felt will appear on the horizon like a mirage. A dismissive comment will look like a dot. Then a half-joke about your approach, tone or style will bring specks of sneering laughter. Why now? It moves closer. A text or email followed by a call that leads to a meeting. You re-read their words, replay your response and rewind your mind hoping to derive a translation other than the contempt your Knowingness says is actually there. The resistance is not an illusion. Put on your big girl pants. Cowboy up. That’s why you get the big bucks.
You will burn. The words will detonate inside your ears before you really hear them. Shrapnel shoots through your veins. The white guy with the one-syllable name will say it so casually, questioning you so confidently, it begins benignly…
We can’t just find a token black, can we?
I won’t hire a token.
They have to be qualified.
What else do you want me to do?
Why don’t you go find them?
This place is not racist.
That one time we tried to hire a black…
Something smolders underneath but you’re too afraid to look at the damage. They must be talking about the non-fungible kind of tokens, right?
Unextinguished, the words spread into ideas. Your Knowingness will bear witness to what you are too afraid to see. The classmate. The professor. The neighbor. The doorman. The security guard. The pastor. The coworker. They all held the same branding iron. These words are already seared into your soul. But if it was easy everyone would do it.
You will burn fast. When he says “token“ to you he is actually saying it with you. He is speaking on behalf of his organization, of which you are part. He is lamenting how difficult it is for us — you included — to find people like you. Safe you. Compliant you. Familiar you. Not-like-the-rest-of-them you.
You burn faster because your mere presence unknowingly became an accelerant for their bias. Not because of your skin. Not because you are brown, or have boobs, or a Koran, or a partner or an accent. But because you belong to them. You are a voucher to be valued as long as you symbolize a safe version of otherness. The one most like them. Hey, a crown with strings is still a crown, right?
You will burn alone. Your ally no longer makes eye contact and turns redder than the threads of a confederate flag when you visit. His silence confirms the whispers you didn’t want to hear. The one who sold you in has sold you out. Despite the stellar performance and stainless success, you are crossing an imaginary line in an invisible battle. You will burn alone as long as you continue leading and speaking this way. This isn’t right!
You will search for help. Where are the ruby red slippers to click three times and start over? Sitting across from a been-there, done-that titan of business and personal friend, you will calmly sip coffee while dying for the answer that will get you back to where you were. You want to sift through the tall tale of how they survived the bullshit and build your own corporate fairytale.
You will search in vain. They reveal a path your feet can’t follow. The way forward is not to pushback against inequity or unfairness, but to make it a little less bad. They will say: Assimilation is the assignment. Be realistic. Find a way and tough it out. And then you will know how they survived. Not by confronting injustice, but by putting a ring on it.
You wonder why no one talks about how hard it is being the only one, the first one, the highest-ranking one. Why are we silent?
You will pretend not to know what to do. You pretend not to know the truth. Under camouflage of social posts about luxury destinations, business class comforts, media interviews and career advice, you perform for your captors. You focus on the positive and highlight what’s working. Your optimistic highlight reel promotes the good as an antidote for the corrosion gnawing away at your identity.
You pretend this is the cost of your dream. You remember your monthly income is more than most make in a year. You research the projected expense of orthodontia, piano lessons, tuition and grad school for your future rockstar. The new house you just furnished is too perfect to risk. Leaving a job after one year is career suicide. I am better than this. Better than they think I am. I can do hard things because I am a hard thing.
You will be a token. After a day of zapping zombies and hoarding tickets at the arcade, your son will want to stockpile some of the shiny gold tokens. He wants to use game tokens to pay for real things like real money does. You will remind him that tokens only have value in one place. Like you.
You realize you were selected to solve a problem they weren’t ready to solve. Not really. And instead of pushing through the discomfort as they promised in their mission statement, they diminished your value. The pet (you) became the threat (to them). The change agent became the trouble maker. The cultural catalyst became the pain in the ass. Now the inclusive champion is excluded and a future leader of the company is instead a constant reminder of how far they’ve fallen behind. You will panic. If I leave who will lead? Who will sit at their table?
You will deny this is happening. Not you. Not here. Not them. Not now. But months ago, in a room people like you aren’t invited to, they decided they wanted a harmless reminder of who doesn’t belong. Out of all the supreme qualifications this figment-for-hire must hold, priority must be given to achieving the appearance of diversity without the act of diversifying. To get credit for change without changing. The token (you) represents all the ones who aren’t allowed. It can be saved, traded or discarded as long as it delivers economic or reputational benefits.
A token represents what isn’t there yet. Its present value is determined by what it can be traded for in the future. No one looks for a token but it serves as a placeholder for what you hope to see. A token isn’t a lie that’s untrue, it’s a limit that’s unreal.
Treasure, on the other hand, holds its own value. When they say how hard it is to find others like you, you take it as a compliment, assuming you are their treasure. Rare. Overqualified. Invaluable. Significant. But a treasure that ceases to retain worth once it creates value for those outside the room was never truly treasured at all. The easiest way to tell the difference between a token and a treasure is not how they look but where they are used. Tokens always have conditional acceptance. I will write my own story.
You will refuse to be their token. You will speak anyways, succeed anyways and work anyways. You will do the right work the right way, even if it means you’re wrong for their job. You decide that no one decides what or who you are. You remember your worth is not a wage to earn. It’s not your calling to make white guys with one-syllable names safer or to comfortably educate them on their own harmfulness.
You take responsibility for creating safety for your people even if it creates an unsafe place for yourself. You will do for others what an entire organization has failed to do for you. I will be true.
You will learn. Leave? Stay? Either way, you will be stronger. The only way to remain a token is to be silent. To surrender to the allure of compromise — that deadly current of complacency that drowns all honesty. The only way to forfeit tokenism is to first treasure yourself.
You will learn what they really wanted — or rather, what they worshipped — was the idea they could reap all the benefits of your Black brilliance with no consequences for their racist, sexist, prejudiced history and policy.
Knowingness is the wound that became a win. Now you are more convinced of your divine dignity than when you first started the job that was too small for it.
More confident in your voice than when you first met the CEO too scared of it.
More capable of creating real change than when you first said yes to a company culture too fragile for it.
You will appreciate in value once you appreciate your own. Courage has a cost that you will pay one way or the other. You will make it a fee (for doing what’s right) instead of a fine (for doing what’s convenient).
You will lead…