Token Minority

June 25, 2010 By Nelia Dingcong Bernabe

The phrase, “Token Minority,” fascinates me. I don’t really know why but it simply does. Maybe because it has a nice ring to it, I don’t know. But for some odd reason, it just does.

Being Filipino American in any social situation does not bother me. Unless blatantly singled out as a non-White person, I live my life every day not even thinking about the color of my skin. That takes too much work if you ask me.

For now, curiosity got the better of me so I did some research on the phrase and came up with the word, tokenism. The noun means the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.

I knew that! The word “tokenism” however has a different ring than “token minority.” The latter sounds friendlier than the seemingly socialistic twang that the first word carries. Anytime you add “ism” to an English word, it lets out an extreme sense feel to it – feminism, exorcism, baptism, alcoholism, and many more.

So with the definition out of the way, you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing it up. Why the need to talk about “token minority?” Don’t ask me; ask the people who made me think of the phrase! (Half) kidding aside, that phrase has been on my mind lately. Seriously thanks to some people, ummm…one in particular.

First off, let me preface it with I’ll be the last person to cry foul when it comes to the issue of race and anything pertaining to it. I think for some people, it’s their go-to battle cry and for some it serves as a crutch. With that said, we move on.

Nowadays it’s quite common to see me as the only person with black hair, dark brown (or are they black?) eyes and skin tone that’s a few shades darker than Jack and Jill. Quite a unique perch, don’t you think? For the most part, it really is. But there are times, and for the sole purpose of this platform we’re going to talk about it, that it has gotten awkward.

For instance I walked into a group of people where one of them was handing out homemade samples of whatever it was she made. She gave everyone a sample, including the person who just walked in after me, except me. I wish I could have frozen time in a bottle so I could get the chance to play it over and over again and come up with some calculative guesses that the person is everything but ignorant. Not today. Unfortunately I can’t freeze time thereby I declare that person ignorant.

Walking into something like that made it awkward for me instantly. I really wished that I could just have stayed in my spot, not moved, until the taste test got done. The funny part about this whole thing was the person never even twitched, batted an eyelash or turned around and acknowledged my presence. Oh no, the person carried a-business-as-usual stance as if I didn’t even exist. Can I say awkward one more time? Awkward!

That incident put me into thinking mode and right away the phrase token minority came to mind. Not that I felt slighted or anything like that. Not at all. I just wondered if my being “different” played a part in my exclusion from the taste test. I won’t ever know, will I?

For me though, and this is the God-honest truth, I took that as a chance to play along. After the initial shock, I put on my thick-faced armor and pretended that the incident never happened. I call that survival and not allowing anyone to steal my joy. I proceeded to do what I set out to do without any incident. I don’t think the people that were there realized anything was awry either.

After a few times of being thrown into awkward situations, you become a pro at pretending that everything is just fine. Inherently it is but on the other hand, you can’t help but feel that your special spot as the token minority has just been hand delivered to you in a sealed envelope. Oh well!

I just realized that this was the same person who told me to change my handwriting a few months ago because they can’t read my cursive. Again, I don’t take anything personally but two strikes from the same person? Common!

To be the token minority is not easy but what doesn’t kill you will definitely make you strong. Through time and being in the hot seat a few times certainly allow for one to build that impenetrable emotional fortress that no hurtful words, strange looks, and deliberate exclusion in any form of conversation can crush.

I’ve learned that the best way to even deal with it is to simply erase the phrase from your vocabulary and distance yourself from the polarity it brings because of the attention that you’ve devoted to it. Instead drop the phrase in the magician’s hat and learn the trick of turning it into a rabbit or some fancy scarves tied together.

The unique perch of being a token minority fans the fire in me. The challenge to convince people that you are not different just because you look different keeps me going. It’s also a great position to be in because it gives you the chance to invite people into your world and show them that regardless of our differences, we really are one.

Token minority…let me say it one more time before I drop it in the top hat. Imagine me shaking the hat, and pulling something. Ready? What do we have here? Oh gees, it’s a really good-looking gray rabbit! Gray! I thought I had all white rabbits. A gray one in the mix…go figure!

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