Was I Really A Token Black?

Discussion in 'Reading & Writing' started by Von Jones, Mar 24, 2020 at 10:31 AM.

  1. Von Jones

    Von Jones Veteran Member
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    Jan 25, 2015
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    Was I really a token black?

    Going through photos taken on past jobs I have had I saw myself as one of several people of color but the only African American in most. When I heard the expression ‘token black’ I was actually proud of it because I didn’t see it as being negative.

    I carried with me throughout as being chosen in a positive way toward ending discrimination against people of color and the opportunity for others to see that their efforts to progress for the better for their selves didn’t go unnoticed.

    Being chosen for a position within a company just didn’t involve the color of skin but the ability to perform the tasks required. During interviews I always ended saying ‘You won’t regret hiring me.’ and most of the time I was hired. I knew I would give 100 percent to do the best I could. I don’t know what moved me to say that - it was just in the back of my mind aching to come out and believe me I felt much better after saying it.

    As I was moving forward I was pleased to learn that I received great recommendations from employers that were repeated to me during interviews. Those recommendations were written not because of the color of my skin but for my work performance. I may not have landed that job but I didn’t leave empty handed. I was uplifted knowing that I did give 100 percent that warranted a good recommendation.

    As years passed I began to see more people of color surrounding me in the workplace. It didn’t matter if only one person of color was in a department or office they made an effort to push beyond the term ‘token.’

    So was I really a ‘token black?’ Yes, but not with the same connotation.
  2. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    Jan 21, 2015
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    When I worked for a Champion paper bag plant, they seemed to have such a policy, which seemed strange, because it wasn't some small, local company, run by a bigot. Yet, although it certainly wasn't a written or spoken policy, about 90% of its employees and all of its local management were white. The other 10% were divided between a wide range of races, nationalities, and other groups. We had one black guy, one who was Vietnamese, a Cuban, a Korean, a gay guy, one woman, and only one Mexican-American, despite the fact that nearly half the population was Mexican-American. I joked once with the black guy who worked on our shift that I was afraid he was being fired because they were interviewing another black guy. This was California in the 1970s so it seemed odd. They did change that in the early 1980s, so it's possible that it was a policy of a plant manager, or maybe even a hold-over from Hoerner-Waldorf, which Champion had acquired, but I didn't notice the disparity when H-W had the plant. Then again, I was busy learning the job and working my way up, and I worked the graveyard shift, so I might not have noticed. Before the plant closed in 1983, the workforce was more diverse, including several women.

    In EMS, I was working in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where about 90% of the population was Mexican-American, and primarily Spanish-speaking, but I never felt that I was being discriminated against. Oh, I have heard from other white guys in the Valley who did feel that way but the problem wasn't that they were white, but that they didn't speak Spanish. In any job dealing with the public, a large percentage of the people walking in would be Spanish-speaking, including many who didn't speak English at all, so it made sense not to hire someone who didn't speak Spanish to staff a hotel desk or to wait on customers. One guy brought a lawsuit against a bank that had advertised for someone who was bilingual, and this guy wasn't hired although he felt that he qualified because he spoke English and German. That was kind of funny, but I don't know where it went.

    Still, I never had any trouble finding work although I was a paramedic, often dealing with patients who didn't speak English. I did learn some Spanish but no one who lived there would have considered me to be bilingual. There were other jobs where being something other than Mexican-American was a plus because the Valley's economy included a large Winter-Texan population, mostly white people from the Northern states.

    I first came to Texas when I was recruited by Duro, another paper bag plant. They discriminated heavily against women. The entry-level production job was as a stacker. They would receive the bales of bags from the machine and stack them onto pallets. From there, a stacker would be promoted either into the warehouse or, more commonly, to machine operator, then some to machine adjuster. However, at Duro, women who were hired as stackers never went any further. When a man was hired for that position, he would be promoted to machine operator as soon as something opened up.

    I promoted a woman to machine operator on my shift. Since I was a supervisor on the graveyard shift, I think no one in the office noticed until it came time to cut a check at a higher rate for her. For the first couple of weeks, it seemed that the women in my department were angry with me, which seemed odd. Taking gender out of it, she was the best choice for a promotion, and she was learning the job well. Then, when I went in for a supervisor's meeting, the plant manager asked if I was sure that promoting her was a good idea. I told him she was doing great, and he didn't say anything else about it. The next week, she was transferred to another shift and demoted back to stacker.

    In EMS, I taught EMTs and paramedics, and about a third of my classes were female. Yet, the only medics who were working throughout the Valley, which included a lot of private and public EMS services, were hired as dispatchers. Some of them were paramedics, yet they were dispatching. They weren't on the ambulances.

    I brought this up at EMS Association meetings and other events where EMS managers would meet together because my students were having to leave the Valley in order to find work in the field. The answers, when given at all, had to with a fear that the female EMTs wouldn't be able to do the lifting needed to get the patients into the ambulance, yet men were hired without having to pass a lifting test, and pretty much everyone sometimes needed to call for help with larger patients.

    I knew that was bogus because, during the six years that I had been an EMS director of a volunteer service, we had a lot of female medics and any detriments relating to upper body strength were offset by the fact that many of our patients preferred to have a female medic attending to them. When it came to delivering babies, I know I would pass that task on to my female partner whenever I could.

    Then, a volunteer service in Port Isabel, Texas created a 100% female staff for a while. I was still working in Los Fresnos, while teaching for Texas Southmost College, and we were called to back-up Port Isabel one day because their only ambulance was out of service. They wanted to borrow one of or ambulances but our board of directors didn't allow lending them out, so we sent a crew to cover Port Isabel Amusingly, when they picked their ambulance up at the repair shop in Brownsville the next day, they stopped at the mall to pick something up before going back to Port Isabel. Meanwhile, we transported a patient from Port Isabel to the hospital in Brownsville, and I spotted their ambulance at the mall, so I just had to tease them about what happens when you put a couple of women in an ambulance - they go shopping. I think the retort had to do with seeing our ambulances at the restaurant every time they went through Los Fresnos.

    Okay, I've rambled long enough, as I tend to do, and perhaps only nominally on-topic, so I suppose I should end with something more on-topic. When I was hiring someone to work EMS, women had an advantage. Realizing the disparity throughout the rest of the Valley, my preference would be to hire a female medic, and I never regretted that. However, they had to be qualified in the same way that any man that I might hire had to be qualified. But I knew that a male medic could find work at any of dozens of EMS services throughout the Valley, but that a female medic's choices were far more limited. Were they tokens? Not really, because they made up a large percentage of our employees, but also because I was hiring them because I had good reason to believe they'd be able to do a good job.
    Craig Swanson and Von Jones like this.
  3. Patsy Faye

    Patsy Faye Veteran Member

    Nov 21, 2015
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    Von - your post reminded me of the brilliant film 'Hidden figures'
    If you haven't seen it, please look out for it - so good
    Von Jones likes this.
  4. Ed Wilson

    Ed Wilson Well-Known Member

    Dec 6, 2019
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    Being a "token" black probably depends on what time period you are talking about. Tamron Hall has an afternoon show featuring blacks primarily, and today they had some kind of fashion show and one or two of the models were white, and my mind went "token" whites.
  5. Nancy Hart

    Nancy Hart Very Well-Known Member

    Jun 3, 2018
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    Von, your post reminded me of Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who died last month. She said, "My dad taught us 'you are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better.'"

    He might have been wrong about her not being better ...

    "In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.'"
  6. Bill Boggs

    Bill Boggs Veteran Member

    May 13, 2015
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    I haven’t heard the term much since I retired, maybe a couple of times. but during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the term was used frequently in Texas. I’m sure those days are over.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2020 at 10:17 PM
  7. Shirley Martin

    Shirley Martin Veteran Member
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    Jun 9, 2015
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    @Von Jones , maybe you were a token black. But I'm sure they didn't just run down to Walmart and pick one out. I'm sure they checked all applications for the jobs and decided that you were completely qualified for the work. By being competent at your job, you opened a pathway for more black women and men to be hired. So, rather than "Token Black" let's say you were a trailblazer.
    Bill Boggs and Von Jones like this.

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