The Bane of Tokenization

Cal in Color

photo of columnist Moideen Moidunny

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I’m at Cornerstone Berkeley on a Thursday night, and while I wait for the bartender, I nonchalantly lean into the bar table in hopes of emulating the stylishness of a GQ model. I notice a lone pretty girl flipping mindlessly through Instagram stories; my liquid confidence compels me to approach her and ignite a conversation. So I do. She seems sweet, though perhaps this is aided by the now-empty cocktail glass clutched in her hand.

She looks me up and down. “What’s your name?”

The solid black V-neck one-size too small from Target was the move, after all.

“I’m Moideen,” I say, reciprocating her smile. “What’s yours?”

“Oh my god, Moideen, what kind of a name is that?”

“It’s Arabic! But I’m Indian.”

“Ooh! I love Indian food! Have you been to Delhi Diner in Albany?”

“Uh, no, but I-”

“Do you do yoga? I just started — I love it.”

“Oh, wonderful! I’m actually a certified yoga instruc-” Her phone rings.

“Oh sorry, I gotta take this. It was nice meeting you, Moybean!”

She briskly leaves. The bewilderment on my face is broken only by the bartender asking me what I want.

“A glass of water, please. Actually, scratch that. Can I get a shot?”

I commend the girl’s interest and effort to connect with me, even if she saw me solely as a novelty and representative of a different and exotic culture. Her line of inquiry with me was characterized by curiosity, albeit an ignorant and potentially offensive strand of it. In her daily regimen, I can imagine the gratification of attending a decompressing evening yoga class or ordering chicken tikka masala at the local Indian restaurant. And that’s okay — yoga is amazing, and chicken tikka masala (though I’ve only had the Trader Joe’s brand) is pretty good, too. 

We can both connect over these robust parts of my cultural background — but it feels reductive when the first attempt to connect with me is by mentioning Indian food. I don’t wish to be the token Indian guy who briefly serves your mission of seeming cultured. Yes, like you, I love Indian food and yoga, and we can certainly chat about them after you’ve acknowledged that I’m a person first before relegating me to the role of a cultural ambassador.

Tokenization is a performative or symbolic effort to seem inclusive and diverse. And it’s a double-edged sword.

In contrast to my defeated experience with the novice yogi, I’ve had interactions with a more irritating type of tokenizer: one I term the “social justice hooker-upper.” When I moved to Berkeley and conversed with one for the first time, I was astonished.

I was microwaving leftovers in my residence hall kitchen when I noticed a brilliant head of neon-colored hair entering my peripheral vision. Despite her being aware that I was pledging a fraternity at the time, I suspect that I was spared from their gallows because I was brown. 

Our refrigerator-side conversation about the philosophy class we’d both taken started off smooth, but soon veered into a gutter of profoundly patronizing offense.

“It’s pretty good, we just finished Locke.”

“Oh, nice. I remember the GSI was really nice.”

“Yeah, and hot. I think he was flirting with me the other day.”

“Ooh, sounds steamy,” I laughed. “You gonna make a move?”

“Oh no, I don’t sleep with white guys, they have it too easy,” she said proudly. “I only hook-up with black and brown boys.”

This self-righteous dimwit actually had the gall to tell me to my face that she only courted people who looked like me, purely out of pity. I think she imagined that in doing so she was performing a noble service in addressing social inequalities while being culturally aware.

But I don’t want your conversations or your flirtatious gaze if it’s done out of benevolent prejudice. Yes, there are real social injustices that impact those of us who are BIPOC, but don’t pretentiously tokenize us into downtrodden novelties. I’m not going to award you the title of “Wokest of the Year” based on who you decide to remove your undergarments for.

She saw me as an ornament of oppression, as someone with the experience of melanin and marginalization; and I applaud her positive intent. However, I suspect that as a way of alleviating her own guilt and sense of responsibility, she unwittingly reduced me and other black and brown boys to quotas on her diversity dashboard (or headboard, for that matter). Yes, like you, I deplore societal injustices, and we can certainly chat about them after you’ve acknowledged that I’m a person first before defining me solely as a member of a marginalized social group.

Making positive associations about other cultural groups is natural — it’s how we advance the goal of connecting to one another in our diverse and cosmopolitan society. Yet it’s superficial if it’s approached with the presumption that we’re still the “other.”

So I applaud the intent. Please talk to me about my culture. I would love to share it with you. 

In the meantime, though, ask yourself if you’re actually connecting with me, or only furthering the differences between us.

Moideen Moidunny writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.