“You’re not really supposed to be here,” she said.
I was at the sink in the girls’ restroom washing my hands when the words shot out from behind me. I heard the words. I knew what they meant, but I didn’t know what they were supposed to mean. I turned around slowly, a little confused, to see a small group of girls standing a few feet away from me. It was only the fourth day of school, and I was new to this school. I still hadn’t figured out all of these people’s names. I stood there, slightly flapping my hands because they were wet from washing and I didn’t like the sensation. I wanted to reach for the paper towels to dry them, but that would require walking past the group of girls. And I wasn’t sure if that was a good idea yet, as they were looking at me in a manner that I perceived as not only strange, but somewhat hostile.
We stood there for what was probably only a minute but felt much longer. Then, the voice came again, from the blonde, pretty girl in the middle. Shirley? Sharon? I couldn’t remember. She said it again, louder, and with a defiant shake of her ponytail. “You’re not really supposed to be here. At this school. With us.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. She wasn’t making any sense. Of course I belonged in school. Didn’t everybody?
My mother had told me that it was against the law not to go to school. I had been asking since kindergarten if I could go to work with her or with my dad instead of going to school. Because though I loved some things about school like music class, art, theatre, and PE, most of it was boring. Baby books and dull math problems that I’d mastered years before. I usually finished all of the day’s work in about half an hour and spent the next seven hours of school either curled up in the reading center with one of my own books that I’d brought from home, being sent to the office by my teacher to help them sort papers or arrange files, helping the teacher out by working with the other kids in my class who were struggling with their work, or in the nurse’s office napping and watching TV.
Why go to school, then? I wondered. I figured I could do most of that stuff anywhere, like in the employee breakroom of my parents’ jobs. I didn’t see any reason for me to have to be in a school building to do it. But my mom insisted. She even opened up the school handbook and showed me the “truancy” law. So that was that. I was stuck in school for the next gazillion years of my life. Even if I wasn’t learning anything.
This new school seemed different, though. It had only been a few days, but I could tell things weren’t the way I was used to. For the first time, I actually had to think before just answering problems. It wasn’t just a bunch of stuff I already knew. And I hadn’t had to help any of the other kids with their work like I was used to doing because the kids seemed to understand on their own. I missed my old friends, my old teachers, and my old playground, but so far this place seemed pretty nice. Everyone had been helpful and friendly. The same girls who were standing in the restroom had sat with me at lunch and played with me at recess all week. I didn’t understand why they were acting so weird today.
After I spoke, they all glanced at one another as if they were surprised at my question. No one spoke. “What do you mean?” I said again, louder. The wetness was making my hands feel really gross and I wanted to get out of the bathroom. I stared at them. No one said anything. This was annoying. I decided if they weren’t going to talk, I was going to go get some paper towels, dry my hands, and go back in the hallway where my class was to get back in line. Eager to dry my hands, I headed in the direction of the paper towel dispenser that they were standing in front of, holding my wet hands in front of me because they felt gross. As I neared them, the group of girls parted and backed up, squealing. I stopped in my tracks.
“Are you trying to “hit” me?” Shirley/Sharon screeched, her eyes widening.
“Hit you? For what?” I asked. This was getting weirder and weirder, and I didn’t like it. I flapped my hands up and down as I tried to ignore the gross feeling on my hands. I was trying to be polite and finish this conversation, but it was starting to get on my nerves. School brand soap was not like my soap at home. It had a strong perfumey smell and a slimy, gel-like texture I didn’t like. When you washed your hands with it, it never really felt like it washed away. It felt like it mixed in with the water and coated your hands even though no residue was visible.
I used that soap because I had no other choice if I wanted to be clean, but I always dried it off as fast as possible. These girls were preventing me from doing that and I didn’t know how much longer I could take it. I swallowed hard and willed myself to wait, all the while my skin feeling like it was ablaze. My hands flapped again, harder, as if they were going to find their way to the paper towel dispenser whether I liked it or not.
“See how she keeps trying to slap me?!” Shirley/Sharon accused, addressing the girls next to her. “I’m telling!” She turned around and ran out of the restroom. The other girls followed. Alone at last, I lunged for the paper towels. I grabbed handfuls, more than I needed, because I was so grateful. I tore at my hands with them, rubbing and rubbing and drying and drying until they felt almost normal again. My heartbeat, which had quickened with the effort it took to try to keep from cringing while I waited with the gunk on my hands, relaxed. I threw the paper towels in the trash, grabbed the corner of my shirt to use it to pull open the door handle, and walked out to get back in line.
As I went to take my place in line, I noticed Sharon/Shirley and her crew were standing off to the side talking with our teacher, gesturing wildly. The teacher looked in my direction and gestured with her arms for me to join them. I approached them slowly, warily. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I didn’t like it.
Before the teacher could speak, I said, “She’s lying. I didn’t try to hit her.”
“You’re the one who’s lying!” Shirley/Sharon exclaimed. “Everybody saw you reaching out to try to slap me! I have witnesses!” Her voice cracked triumphantly as she raised her voice to emphasize the word “witnesses.” Her friends nodded on cue. The teacher looked at them, then she looked at me. She had a disappointed expression on her face. I could tell she didn’t believe me.
“I’m not lying!” I said, feeling angry tears welling. There are few things I despise more than being lied on. “I was moving my hands, but not because I was trying to slap you. Why would I want to slap you? I hardly even know you!”
“Because,” she spat, “You know I know your secret. You don’t live around here. You’re not supposed to be going to our school. You’re not one of us. You don’t belong here. You -”
“Cut it out, girls!” the teacher interrupted. She slid in between the two of us as if we were about to come to blows. She then began lecturing us about acting our age and being respectful. I heard her voice, but hardly understood a word. I was there, but I wasn’t there. I stood there woodenly, my heart breaking as I mentally put the pieces together of the whole situation inside my head.
I was new to this school. The kids – especially the girls – had welcomed me. I had been worried about making friends, but everyone had gone out of their way to make sure I never sat alone at lunch and that I was included in the games at recess. Just the other day, Shirley/Sharon had mentioned having some of us come to her house to play. We had all written down our addresses and phone numbers on a piece of paper to give to her so her mom could call our moms and make plans.
I hadn’t thought about it because we all attended the same school, so I thought that it shouldn’t matter where we lived. But now I realized what was wrong. My address. They all lived near the school – close enough to walk if they wanted. I lived nearly an hour away. I was an “Exceptional Minority” transfer student who’d been admitted to the school because of my high grades and my high scores on district-administered IQ and aptitude tests. They, however, lived in the area. It was “their” school.
They’d known I was black (it’s obvious), but that hadn’t deterred them from playing with me. I guess because even though I was black, they thought I was “one of them.” But my address revealed otherwise. I didn’t live in a big, pretty house in a gated community; I lived in a tiny apartment on the other side of town where six of us shared two rooms and a bathroom. Our neighborhood was often on the evening news, and sometimes police helicopter lights kept us awake as they circled the apartment complex looking for someone. Most of our neighbors were nice people, families just like us who were regular, everyday people who just happened not to have a lot of money to live somewhere else.
Yes, there were “criminals” in the area too, but they weren’t the majority. A lot of people were kind and caring. They took care of their kids, went to work, had hopes and dreams. But yes, we were all from the “wrong side of the tracks” – literally, as my apartment’s back door was less than a tenth of a mile from the railroad. My neighborhood friends and I used to race each other across the train tracks (not when there was a train coming, of course). As an adult, I still feel a sense of nostalgia when I hear the sound of trains, as it was the informal lullaby of my childhood for many years. It was not a wealthy nor a fancy area. But to me, it was home.
But my “home” wasn’t like their homes. So to them, I was an outsider. Someone who “didn’t belong.” In other words, a token.
That was the first time I was basically called a token. But it wasn’t the last. Sadly, one constant in my life has been people thinking/assuming/outright saying that I am only, or primarily, valued for what I represent, not what I do or who I am. I have heard this all my life.
Sometimes they say it directly to me. Sometimes they say it to others and it gets back to me. Sometimes it’s merely implied. Either way, it hurts.
It’s usually stated more subtly than I’m paraphrasing it here. But for all the gilded coating, the words festering beneath have the same sordid meaning.
“He’s only dating you because he wants to see what black girls are like in bed. You know, if all the rumors are true.”
“You only got that scholarship because you’re black.”
“The only reason they chose you for that promotion is because you’re a woman.”
“They needed a disabled person, and you were the only one that applied.”
“They only voted for you because they felt sorry for you.”
“You only got accepted into that graduate program because they need to fill quotas.”
“They only elected you because…”
“They only chose you because…”
In other words, you’re not good enough on your own. Smart enough on your own. Qualified enough on your own. Dedicated enough on your own. Pretty enough on your own. ______ fill in the blank enough on your own.
You are only good for what you represent. Not what you really are. Because, as Sugilite (voiced by Nikki Minaj) said on Steven Universe, “You…ain’t…NOTHING.”
You know what? There was a time I would have bought into that. Would have gotten sad. Would have cried. Would have felt like I was less than.
But those days are over. That person who would have doubted herself, who would have bought into that, who would have been beaten down by that…she doesn’t exist anymore.
She’s gone. And in her place, I stand. I am me.
My name is Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, and I am nobody’s TOKEN. I have value. I have standards. I have worth. I am good enough just by being myself.
Yes, I’m black. Yes, I’m a woman. Yes, I’m part of a serodifferent family. Yes, I’m a Christian. Yes, I’m autistic. I’m all of those things, and all of those things help make me who I am, but none of them alone is who I am.
I spent enough years of my life doubting myself and I won’t spend another minute doing so.
Poverty didn’t destroy me. Being a victim survivor of childhood sexual assault didn’t destroy me. Depression didn’t destroy me. Domestic violence didn’t destroy me. Having my children almost taken away didn’t destroy me (yet).
I won’t let doubt destroy me.
Let it be known now to the world: The God I serve says I’m fearfully and wonderfully made. I serve HIS purpose. I’m not here to serve your purpose. If there is anyone or anything that thinks I’m a token, I strongly suggest you re-evaluate that, because I’m nobody’s token.
And if there is anyone and anything that is affiliated with me in any way for any reason that is less than authentic, you have made a huge mistake. I’m a real, living, feeling person. I’m not some “box” you can check off somewhere to make you feel good, and if you got that impression, somebody done told you wrong, and if you interact with me long enough, you will experience that for yourself. If you need somebody that’s just “for show” who’s not going to question and if necessary even vehemently disagree with you if I don’t believe in what you’re doing, then I suspect you go get somebody else because I don’t roll like that. You must not know ’bout me. I’m nobody’s “yes girl.”
I have my own mind, my own principles, my own boundaries, and I make my own d@mn decisions. I will never compromise myself for you or for anyone. I still have to live with myself. I still have to be able to sleep at night. I still have to be able to face my beautiful children and not only tell, but show them how to live in this crooked world with integrity. And I’m going to do that, and you will not stop me.
This is a token – from Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza (photo credit: pullman dot com). I, however, am not a token.