Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Return of the Token Black Guy

Believe it or not, but here is a term that, until recently, I had never heard of: Token Black Guy.  I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath.  You good?  Ok, moving on.  I first was introduced to this idea a couple years ago when my roommates and I were playing South Park DJ.  (And yes, SP-DJ is where an entire night is consumed playing your favorite episodes from Seasons 1-10; think TRL.)  Anyway, I finally asked my roommates the question I’d been avoiding for years: “Why is Token named Token?”  Remember kids, if you ever ask a question that you feel you should probably know the answer to, don’t ever follow that question with your hypothesis; just receive an answer.  But before my peers could speak I also stated: “Is it because Black people stereotypically like to smoke pot?”  Unfortunately, the answer was No; his name is not Tokin’.

It was thus explained to me that Token stood for ‘Token Black Guy.’  Meaning, in circles of friends, television sitcoms, work environments, etc., there’s always ‘one African American person’ just to make things more…equal/P.C./diverse.  I was faintly aware of this concept but wasn’t aware that there was slang terminology.  After my embarrassment subsided I thought to myself, “Self, it’s not so bad that you didn’t know.”  Cute little naïve me wasn’t thinking about race, and that’s not something to be embarrassed of.  But recently I was watching a commercial and noticed: a Token Black Guy!  And then again, a couple weeks later, the same thing in another commercial.  What is going on here?  It’s 2010 and the Token Black Guy is making a comeback?!

My education has been sprinkled with studies of race representation in social mediums.  When I was much younger I thought “why do we have to make a point of representing different races?  All people are different sizes, shapes, and colors.”  Again, cute little naïve me doesn’t yet realize the world isn’t like Sesame Street and race cannot be compared to different alien species on PBS shows.  I watched as the 90’s and early 2000’s were littered with even numbered people.  A commercial for JCPenney’s showcased a white male, a white female, a Hispanic male, an Asian female, and an African American male.  That’s how it was; every magazine ad, every circle of friends in a teen flick, and all the ridiculously staged photos in your school text books.  As long as there was one person of a minority race there were no problems, and especially no law suits…right?

As I mulled over my recent observations, I decided to take a closer look at commercials of 2010.  How were races represented?  Noticeably different!  Many commercials feature an African American family with no Caucasians to be found.  Other commercials featured many different races, but again, no Caucasians.  Many people have hypothesized, from Right-wing bastards like Rush Limbaugh to my extremely liberal lesbian Journalism professor, that the white male is the new minority.  And by minority I don’t mean smallest population size but least represented.  I would be interested in debating more about this argument but I just remembered what triggered the Token Black Guy idea in the first place.

I was watching a Taco Bell commercial that I’d seen 100 times when it happened.  You’ve probably seen it: a Caucasian dude steps into a Taco Bell and the Caucasian cashier tells him about their new $2 meal deal combo.  The guy says “I buy a burrito and a drink, and you throw in the chips for free?”  The cashier says to him “Buy the drink and chips and I’ll throw in the burrito for free.”  Another Caucasian cashier walks up and gives another version of the first two options.  Finally the commercial is completed by an African American Taco Bell kitchen worker who walks up to the group, looks around the room as if he’s up to no good, and says “Give me two dollars and it’s all for free.”  Why is the one Black person the one who sounds like he’s trying to swindle a deal?  I’m not sure if this was intended to be the humorous portion of the commercial, but I found it offensive. 

And unfortunately I found it offensive because, though I am no racist, I’m definitely a stereotypist.  And not in the way that I personally expect outcomes from people due to their stereotypes, but that I am aware of most stereotypes, and when certain people fit them I notice.  It’s as stereotypical for an African American to be trying to make a quick, illegal buck as it is for an African American to be named after marijuana jargon.  But on the other hand, let’s flashback to 2005: all my male friends were white and the sketchiest guys you could ever encounter.  They were the ultimate swindlers, more than any African American I have ever met.  But it’s still not a Caucasian stereotype.  It will be a lifelong effort of mine to undo the knowledge of stereotypes that have been ingrained in me from my parents and grandparents, peers, and social media.  Had I not been aware of these stereotypes, the Taco Bell commercial may have never got me thinking.

So what’s the biggest problem here?  The fact that it’s ok for television to digress back to old, acceptable standards of African American representation or the fact that I still haven’t forgotten about stereotypes?  The creators of South Park were disgustingly en pointe when they created Token as the only non-Caucasian student at South Park Elementary.  In rural Colorado there really isn’t any race diversity.  Hell, the only race diversity we have in “über liberal and aware” Eugene is because of University of Oregon athletics.  And even Eugene attempted to make a statement to local business owners during the Olympic Trials on how to deal with a large increase of African American customers.  Events like that disgust me.

So I guess for the time being all I can do is continue to better myself by making an effort to eliminate stereotypes in my own mind, set an example for those I encounter that stereotyping and racism is obviously and grossly unacceptable, and to educate my future children to be open minded to all types of people and personality traits.  I’ll also continue to lose sleep at night over Arizona State cops and their “right” to racially profile citizens in attempt to keep our country safe…