Hey! My name is Kendra and I grew up as the token Black kid. For those of you who don’t know what that is, let me explain:
The token Black kid is when you are the only Black kid in a sea full of white kids. The thing about being a token Black kid is that it makes you responsible for your entire race. Your actions equal the actions of your race, and any questions about your race, you are responsible for answering. “Kendra, why do Black people always (fill in the blank)? Or, “Hey Kendra, do you think Black people would (fill in the blank)?” Yep! That was me, and still is on some days.
I grew up in a town outside of Cleveland with my parents and three sisters. When I was around 6 years old, my parents moved us from the west side of town (mixed but predominantly Black) to the north side of town (all white). On the west side of town, we experienced our neighborhood as a true community. All the kids would play outside together, jumping from yard to yard and without a care in the world. Multiple generations not only co-existed, but also showed up and supported each other. One of my strongest memories is whenever it was dinner time, my Dad would whistle so loudly that the whole neighborhood could hear it, and everyone would go home. My Dad was known for this whistle, and when that time came, every kid—and I do mean every kid—would go home to their houses for dinner. No, he wasn’t their father, but they all knew what that meant. We took care of each other.
When we moved to the north side, life was very different. First off, we were the first Black family to live in that neighborhood, and it stayed that way for years. In fact, by the time I left for college, there were only three Black families. While our neighborhood was full of kids, there was zero community there. Neighbors weren’t talking and hanging out, kids weren’t riding their bikes together, and so I began to spend more time exploring on my own and with my sisters. Throughout my 12 years living on the white side of town, I was often the only Black kid in almost everything I did. I remember my elementary school bused in Black kids from different neighborhoods, and being told that those kids were from the “bad” neighborhood. Now, as a child, I don’t know if I knew exactly what the adults were saying, but I do remember them making that comment based on their race and neighborhood. What those adults didn’t know is that those kids were just like me; I too used to live in one of those “bad” neighborhoods. So what makes them different from me? Was it my proximity to white people that made them more comfortable with me? Was it the fact that being surrounded by white acceptance somehow made them accept me too?
The thing about being a token Black kid is that you are always “othered”
My first experience with this was around Thanksgiving. My white friends and I were talking about our favorite dishes, and I remember saying that I loved collard greens. My friends looked at me like I had sprouted two heads. I then realized that I was completely alone in this experience, and trying to explain the deliciousness of collard greens (especially the salty ham hock) to a bunch of 7 year olds is like climbing Mount Everest in flip flops. I had no idea that my Thanksgiving was different or weird compared to theirs. I thought we all ate the same things, but obviously I was wrong, and my friends were there to tell me how wrong I was. If I shared every experience where I felt “othered” being the token Black kid, we would be scrolling forever, so I will just share a few more:
- Being the only Black kid in your Honors English class and the class is reading aloud To Kill a Mockingbird. You’re hearing the N-word come out of white mouths, and every time it’s said, the white kids look at you.
- Having to wear spandex shorts for your Volleyball uniform and then getting asked, “Why is your butt so big?”
- Being the only Black girl in a production of My Fair Lady and being cast as the maid.
Being the lone Black person in a white world is draining. Slowly, I began to hide and re-mold who I was becoming so that I could stop being an “other” and start fitting in. Here’s the thing: trying to mold your Black body, spirit, and lifestyle into a white world constantly makes you uncomfortable. I spent 12 years (really 37), being uncomfortable, and I’m still unpacking and healing from being a token Black kid.
If you see yourself in my experiences, then I have something to say: You are worthy, your stories matter, and your voice matters because you exist, period.
Living with and through this experience has helped me cultivate the tools for building my worth, celebrating my stories, and reclaiming my voice. Looking to reclaim your voice too? Here’s where you can start:
1. Be in the driver’s seat of your own healing.
There are a lot of ways to begin your own healing, and only you know what’s best for you. You grew up as the token Black kid, and so you have the in-depth experience of fitting in, assimilating, or putting other’s experiences before yours. Now is the time to start out on your own path. You will not need the same healing as your white friends; you will not need the same healing as your siblings; you will not need the same healing as your parents. Your experiences and stories are yours to heal in your way. As difficult as it is, it’s time to ask yourself the hard questions about who you are, what you love, and even what your favorite Thanksgiving recipe is. Your token kid experience may not have manifested like mine, so celebrate this journey to your liberation.
2. Embrace this new mantra: Every experience is a Black experience, unless it is anti-Black.
Amanda Seales, actress, comedian, and host, said this once on a story she shared on Instagram a while back, and hearing it brought me great comfort. I processed much of my experience through the lens of white people because that’s who I was surrounded by. I have told myself that my experiences weren’t Black because I was the token kid. I have trivialized or invalidated a lot of my accomplishments because they were always in comparison to white people. Your experiences, your accomplishments, and your stories are Black stories. No more playing small inside your body and mind. Step into the full authentic you.
3. Discover and re-discover the most authentic version of yourself.
I’m not going to lie, this one takes a lot of work, and I am in the practice every day of peeling back the layers of inauthenticity. As a token Black kid, I was constantly aware of my Blackness. I felt like I was constantly in some sort of performance in order to survive the white world. Was my hair straight enough? Did I say the right thing? Do I smell like fried chicken from last night’s dinner? I didn’t want to be too Black and get rejected. I didn’t want to be too Black and not get invited to a birthday party, and so I performed. I showed up as a version of me that wasn’t truly me. Ask yourself:
- What does my real laugh sound like?
- Am I code-switching? Is it necessary or is this an involuntary reflex?
- Is this how I want to dress, talk, wear my hair—or am I still performing?
This part of your healing will bring up some tough questions and answers, and I promise you that your most beautiful authentic self is on the other side.
4. Surround yourself with people who look like you and support you.
In 2016 I was cast in a production of the ’60s rock musical Hair. Because of the nature of the show, there have to be two (really six) Black people in the cast. (P.S. If you see a production with less than six in the cast, ask for a refund! But I digress.) My production did have six Black actors, including me. After the show, I noticed that the Black actors would always hang out together. We would laugh and share stories until late in the night. As the days rolled on, the connections and friendships only deepened, and I am still extremely close with them to this day. I also remember signing up for an event called Brown Girl Brunch with my sister who lives in NYC. It was such a breath of fresh air to walk into all the beauty and talent in the room; girls from all walks of life who were there to share their stories, learn, and support one another. I cherish those times, where I was surrounded with people who looked like and supported me. The ease at which I was able to just be myself was some of the deepest healing I have received. I didn’t have to code-switch (in fact at the Brown Girl Brunch, the first thing the moderator said was, “Leave the code-switching at home, we are here to be ourselves.”) I didn’t have to have my guard up. I was able to be me—all of me—no performance needed.
Grew up as the token Black kid? I see you, I am you, and I celebrate you. At times you have felt small, at times you may have felt weird, at times you may have felt “othered.” I’m here to tell you that you have the power to reclaim your voice in spite of how silenced you have felt in the past. Your stories matter, your experiences matter, your voice matters. Black lives matter, and you are worthy because you exist.