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I am not your Token: Tiyanna

Hi! It's T, or Tiyanna - Poonam Mistry if you want have a go at pronouncing my name.

As a South Asian female growing up in the UK I've always felt a bit out of place especially growing up in a school that was predominantly full of caucasian people. 

In order to fit in I felt as though I had to acknowledge that there was this unspoken rule that I was just an accessory. I was a 'token' that made the school cliques look good. On the outside I made them look inclusive but on the inside I didn't truly belong with them. As much as I had tried to relate to them by straightening my hair or buying similar clothes , the colour of my skin made me feel like an outcast. I couldn't embrace who I was or my heritage if I was just a token and that was not my fault.

This is why I wrote my first blog piece ' I am not your token' because tokenism may seem like  a small issue bit it's not. It is a shared experience which I know many other desi people go through in childhood and adulthood and more people need to be aware of the impact of tokenism on young individuals growing up. I wanted to create a blog to talk about these issues and more issues that exist within the south Asian community and within society as whole 

I hope people read it and talk more about their experiences of tokenism so that society can become truly inclusive instead of it just being performative inclusion.

I am not your ‘token’

I am not your ‘token.’

I was a ‘token’ brown friend. When referring to the term being a ‘token brown friend’, I am discussing the issue of being the only person of colour within a friendship group consisting of white individuals.

Tokenism itself is defined as ‘the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups’. Being a ‘token’ friend is something I know many individuals from an ethnic minority can relate to and as I delve into my experiences of being a ‘token’ friend, I am sure many other people will recognise a similar experience and hopefully begin to raise this issue with their peers and engage in conversations that will facilitate change.

Throughout my school years, I had often felt out of place within various friendships groups that I had been in. Each year I had noticed that within certain friendships I was the only person of colour or there would only be one other person that had the same skin colour as me. Sitting in classrooms I would look around and notice there were very few people in my class who were brown or from an ethnic minority, sometimes I was the only one. I was constantly surrounded by people with fair skin and long, straight hair which made me feel incredibly self-conscious about my unruly locks of hair and darker skin.

I was being taught by an education system where I was only seeing white faces being praised for being pretty, intelligent, and multifaceted. This led to an intense feeling of self-hatred and internalised oppression that would fester until I moved to college.

Over time I began to see myself as a token. I did not feel as though I belonged within any of these cliques; I was simply an accessory to each new group that I joined. I had begun to question whether these people were my friends or whether I was just a way for them to feel like they were being inclusive. All of my efforts to try and impress my ‘friends’ came flooding back to me and I realised I had changed drastically into someone that had subconsciously rejected her heritage and culture because I wanted to ‘fit in’ with the majority.

I remember sitting down in the canteen one day surveying the tables and looking at all the friendship groups, trying to spot people like me, other tokens. Several of the groups did have at least one or two people of colour within their groups but most did not even have one. Not one person who looked different, instead there were entire groups of girls with perfectly straight hair, beautifully made-up faces, and identical black, fancy handbags. They were carbon copies of each other, multiplied and oblivious. I wondered whether they cared whether they saw injustice and lack of diversity too. Did they know how I felt? I decided the answer was no, otherwise, I would not even be writing about this. I did wonder about other people like me in these groups though, whether they felt like I did. Disjointed and out of place.

Eventually, I had become accepting of my role as a token for the time being. I decided that I would put up with it, only for a few more years and then I would leave and find a college where diversity would thrive, and I would feel comfortable in my skin. Things were made easier when I decided I did not want to be part of a group or clique anymore. I kept to myself and kept one or two friends close. It was the right decision because it led me to rekindle my friendship with a friend who later becomes someone that I considered family.

That friend was Nish. She was also like me; she was a British – Indian growing up in a world where she felt as though she had essentially been ‘whitewashed’. In our reinforced friendship, I found an ally and a source of comfort and we both had someone to talk to about our shared experiences of racism, microaggression, and tokenism. Having Nish as a friend these past 14 years saved me because I was going down a dark, spiralling path where I could feel myself losing my identity. I had realised that throughout the years I had been subconsciously rejecting who I was. My heritage and my culture became non-existent whilst I was at school and it was time to reclaim who I was.

I felt as if I was just another cog in the machine, accepting rules from a handbook that did not even exist.

In my mind I had called this handbook: ‘the brown girls guide to western acceptance’: Straighten your hair, lighten your skin, laugh at microaggressions, favour the word ‘exotic’ betray your culture, be complacent. be sedated and now you have made it. These ‘rules’ would rotate around my mind, like a mantra, spiralling around my brain until I realised I had had enough. I could not follow all these rules anymore, if the education system did not want to teach me about my identity, I would educate myself.

Tokenism itself is something I believe everyone should try to educate themselves on, so that we can shift our frame of thinking and truly behave in an inclusive manner rather than disregarding the feelings of ethnic minorities.

By the time I had finished my GCSE’s I had finally realised that most of what I had come to understand surrounding the human experience had been taught me by my white peers’ frame of thinking. Leaving school and going to college made me want to reclaim my heritage, embrace my golden brown skin that adorned my body and free the curls on my head, which were no longer unruly, they were voluminous and full of life. I was ready to dismiss the idea of tokenism. Instead of being an accessory to a friendship clique, I sought out more diverse friendships and encountered people that made me feel strong and gave me a sense of belonging. I now vow never to be a token friend again and I hope that whoever is reading this, feels a little more informed on tokenism and will go on to make someone feel better about themselves.


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