Kenan Thompson, Being A Token and Wanting to Believe You’re Special
Yesterday it came out that Kenan Thompson, a regular player on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, felt the reason why there were no African-American female cast members on the show was because the black women who have auditioned weren’t good enough. Mind you, Lorne Michaels, the showrunner for SNL, is the one who does the picking and auditions are by invite only and there are a plethora of funny black women working in and around the industry. Never mind that SNL has, historically, employed plenty of not-really-that-funny people who have crashed and burned spectacularly while also being white.
But it’s not Lorne Michaels fault, per Thompson and how could it be? Lorne Michaels is his boss and he picked Thompson so Thompson has to rationalize why there are no black women on the show in a way that absolves his boss and also solidifies the belief that he, a long-time cast member now, got this position based on merit and talent and is special. If only more black women had merit and talent and were special and they’d get to be on SNL too. Everything’s fair right? Except it is not.
I don’t know Kenan Thompson’s heart. For all we know he was talking haphazardly not wanting to step on his boss’ toes and, without thinking, threw black funny ladies under the bus. But it’s concerning because it reminds me all too much of how sometimes people who get to be the “lonely only” or the “token” in some workplace or academic situation fall into the false belief that they got there because they were “special” and other people who look like them are simply “lazy” and don’t “try hard enough.”
When I was a newspaper reporter, I was often the only black person on the news staff and sometimes the only black person working at the paper at all. This was because I worked for small town papers in cities most people from major metropolitan areas wouldn’t want to move to, let alone a black person. Bakersfield, Calif. and Midland, TX aren’t exactly known for their vibrant black communities. And it can be an alienating experience to move to a place and be the only black person there … unless you WANT to be the only black person there because it makes you feel special, like you were “chosen” and therefore elevated to a higher position than other “common” folk.
While most black people are offended by a white person saying “You’re different from other black people,” there’s always a minority of black people who actually enjoy hearing these words, who like feeling they are “different” from other black people because they have issues with black people, or even with being black themselves. Perhaps they felt they didn’t fit in very well or that old chestnut of being labeled as a “nerd” or accused of “acting white,” a common experience for certain pockets of those brought up in the black middleclass. But rather than seeing this for what it was – immaturity on the part of your peers and that they were the issue, not the entirety of the black race – they doubled down on it being black people’s fault for “rejecting” them. And so they bought into the beliefs that all back people are intolerant or ignorant or close-minded or uneducated. And then, by pre-rejecting black people before they could reject them, they over-compensated with desperately seeking the approval of white people. I’ve seen it happen. And it’s always disappointing because it ignores the reality that often being a token doesn’t mean that you’re “better” than other black people. It just means they found one acceptable black person then stopped looking. That they don’t actually really care about finding qualified people, that it’s about superficial nods to diversity while reinforcing the status quo where a white person can be average for a position, but a black person must be exceptional. Where George W. Bush could simply be a guy you wanted to have a beer with, but Barack Obama needed to be the second coming. Where faceless white male comics could come and go on Saturday Night Live, but black people had to be the perfect fit.
It’s not anything to be proud of to be a token. It’s just yet another reminder of how real the glass ceiling is for women and people of color. Denying it doesn’t make it less powerful. Denying it doesn’t make the token more special.
Reprinted with permission from Clutch.