By: Priscilla Wiredu
South Park is an American adult comedy cartoon that has aired on TV for over 25 years.
America has accredited the show’s success due to its brilliant controversial take on prevalent issues, current events, and clever commentary towards people.
Its characters have earned a credible reputation for themselves. Eric Cartman, an obese sociopath who is anti-semitic, racist, and scheming, and Kenny McCormick, an impoverished boy who has powers to be resurrected.
In particular, a genius character that really stands out in South Park is Tolkien Black.
Tolkien Black is the only African-American character on South Park, featured in many episodes which focuses on him and his affluent family.
Black is an ordinary character, and a pun on a trope that many TV shows, businesses, and media outlets have been incorporating for decades in the name of diversity.
He is, quite literally, the Token Black character of the show.
What is ‘Token Black’?
The Token Black character derives from the ideology of tokenism, which is defined as the practice of doing something, i.e. hiring a person from a minority group, to prevent criticism and to create the illusion that people are receiving fair treatment.
Tokenism originated in America around the 1950s, seen as a solution to racial segregation in society.
It fell flat due to it being deemed as a performative allyship over the years.
Simply put, the Token Black character is the one Black character incorporated to meet racial guidelines and inclusion in TV shows.
The name itself is symbolic because this Black individual who has the potential to make or break the show’s reputation is compared to a valuable token one would need for a video game.
Essentially, the ‘token one’ needs to win a game of who is the least racist respective to their competitive markets.
Examples of ‘Token’ Black Characters
Most millenials remember growing up watching 90s cartoons that confronted serious issues and were simultaneously entertaining. These shows told unique stories in clever ways.
When asked, a group of 20 year olds would all identify the same Black character they recognized from their childhood. These characters include, Suzy Carmichael from Rugrats, Vince LaSalle from Recess, and Lando Calrissian from Star Wars.
Growing up as a Black child, there were a new generation of Black characters to look up to.
There were renowned Black television shows that offered a positive representation of Black families without harmful stereotypes, such as The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Good Times.
The Token Black character is a sense of hope for Black individuals who have suffered with visualizating white characters being the default, more favourable casting, and Black characters being the foreign and the unwanted.
Black viewers who get to see a glimpse of their own race in TV shows should set a precedent for accepting different races, instead of viewing inclusion as a supposed ‘solution’ to racism.
However, there are drawbacks to the idea of tokenism.
The trial of OJ Simpson was about racism and police brutality. Simpson’s acquittal was simply a tool to show white American citizens that, with financial aid and the right juror and lawyers, Black people can allow white people to see injustice from different racial perspectives. What was once a bittersweet victory back in 1995 has now become a tool among racist people to use against racist court cases or cases dealing with police brutality.
Nowadays, people wrongfully reference the OJ Simpson trial to explain that Black people have similar opportunities compared to their white counterparts, to avoid facing penalties for racially-motivated crimes.
People fail to realize that Simpson is a famed and retired football player and sportscaster with financial means to propagate the narrative of racism and police brutality against Black people in America. The fact that the Rodney King riots happened beforehand also contributes to their favour.
When asked to create a chart of all the known Black people who got away with murdering white people and all the white people who got away with murdering Black people, there is a disturbing contrast between the two, which explains tokenism.
‘I have Black Friends; how can I be racist?’ The problem with Tokenism
As mentioned above, introducing tokenism to society can have large-scale setbacks and issues. Tokenism is the lowest bar of acceptance for diversity and falls short of a lazy attempt at “solving” discrimination in the public eye.
When assessed from a psychological standpoint, psychologist Vaclav Linkov claims that tokenism can be a double-edged sword. On the bright side, portraying a character from a distinct group can show viewers their expertise in their culture and skills, and can offer different perspectives towards solving an issue.
However, tokenism can also be a hindrance due to the ostracism of the selected individual. It can present false information that is inaccurate. Many white people use whataboutism when confronted with the latest news of racism. People claim that since one Black person has defeated all the odds, that racism no longer exists.
In 2008, many people ridiculed President Barack Obama for becoming the president of the United States, claiming that he ‘reignited’ racism in America. What did he do exactly? Have the audacity to have Black skin.
Other people claim that the introduction of Black fictional characters such as Black Panther and Tiana from The Princess and The Frog have provoked more harm than good, because it brings the issue of lack of representation to light, creating barriers between race and the media.
When the movie The Little Mermaid released, many people questioned why a white character was being ‘blackwashed.’ Many encouraged white people to play Black historical figures such as Martin Luther King and Jr. Harriet Tubman in upcoming movies. The problem lies within this suggestion, why whitewash Harriet Tubman? Why not make any Black fictional characters white? Because there are not enough well known Black characters to whitewash.
Tokenism is problematic for both white people and Black people. People become ignorant on the matter of racism when supporting the Token Black. In their minds, it erases the racial problems Black people suffer from.
Tokenism does more harm than good. Seeing Black children dressed up as Tiana or Black Panther for Halloween is a step in the right direction, however the situation becomes problematic when white children can choose from a list of white Disney characters to idolize and dress up as. The problem with the token black character is that it offers a limited amount of representation to Black children as opposed to white children.
The only way to defeat tokenism is to address it wherever it comes up. When advocating for diversity, people should consider if they are treating Black individuals as humans or viewing them as another character to avoid being called out for their racist views.
Priscilla Wiredu is a writer for this year’s Black Voice project. An alumni of York University, she graduated with Honors where she studied Social Sciences. She then went on to get an Ontario Graduate certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers, and a college certificate in Legal Office Administration at Seneca College. She is currently studying for the LSAT in hopes of going to law school. Her main goal as a Black Voices writer is to ensure Black issues and Black Pride are enunciated through her works.