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William Frantz Elementary School, New Orleans, 1960. “After a Federal court ordered the desegregation of schools in the South, U.S. Marshals escorted a young Black girl, Ruby Bridges, to school.”

Black History Month is always a month that I find quite emotional due to my own heritage and the many documentaries on TV during the month. The images that impact me the most are those of the desegregation of schools. My father is African American and he only attended segregated schools. My father told me that everything in his school was a hand me down from the white’s only schools. The school was so poorly funded that he drove the school bus his senior year in high school.  

Not that long ago

The reality of segregation is only one generation ago for me. Sometimes it is hard to imagine that my father never sat next to a white person in school because the law of the United States forbid it. When I see the documentaries about desegregation, I realize again, viscerally, how recently this all happened. What I find most disturbing is the footage of young African American children being escorted by armed National Guards or US Marshals into a school. In some cases, it is literally elementary age children. These small children suffered insults, people spitting on them, and a level of fear I will never know or understand. The children and their parents endured insults and threats so that everyone with brown skin could go to school.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

They paid the price to be the first

These children and their families are the definition of integrity and commitment. They chose to be the first. They were there because of the color of their skin. The small children that integrated schools had no control over what people thought of them. They had nothing to apologize for and were not responsible for the racism directed toward them.

By walking past all the hate and threats, they forced the United States to honor its commitment to equality and the principles of our democracy. What they achieved changed America and the world.

Yet I often see the term “token” used to degrade those who subject themselves to being the first. Were these children mere tokens, so few that they didn’t really matter? No. Clearly, they mattered—both to the people who were so vehemently protesting and to those who took courage from their actions.

I am a token

I once had a colleague at a former job tell me, “You are a token.” He said that my company only hired me because of the color of my skin. At first, I was offended and hurt by his statements.

But no longer: I am a token. By which I mean: I am among the first. Somebody has to be first whether you are integrating a school or a lunch counter, sitting at the front of the bus, or serving as the first woman on the Supreme Court. It has to be done.

So go ahead and call me “token.” I am not responsible for your racism. If you assume I am unqualified because of the color of my skin, my gender, my ability, or another status—I am not responsible for your bigotry and racism.

Stop doing the work of the bigot or racist—and be first

If we begin to say “no” to opportunities because we are afraid of what others might think or that we might be a token… we are taking racism and bigotry to its highest level. This means you are more concerned about the thoughts of the racist or bigot then you are about making change. That bigots and racists have you doing their work for them.

The bigot no longer has to threaten violence or stand in front of the schoolhouse, because you have made what they think of you the highest priority.

You may be afraid that some people will think your opportunity arrived just because of the color of your skin or your gender. The fact is, you cannot change your race, gender, or other status, so bigots will think you are unqualified regardless of what job you have or where you stand.

Stop valuing the opinions of the racists and bigots. Do not be deterred by the label “token.” Be the first—even if that means, for a time, being the only.

Honoring the legacy

Someone has to be first. There will be those who say you only got the job because you are Black, because you are a woman, or for some other reason connected to your identity. You have no control over what people think of you and you are not responsible for their bigotry.

Be the first, be the token.

I no longer worry if others think I am here because of the color of my skin. I no longer concern myself with if others think I am qualified. As I will make a change, I will speak truth to power, and I will be a token. Those small children escorted by armed National Guards opened the door, and I will walk through. You can doubt me because of the color of my skin, my gender, my ability—and assume I am less. Call me a token. Your negative assumptions of my qualifications or ability only reflect your racism, sexism, or other -ism.

I am not responsible for your bigotry. I will honor those small children that desegregated schools and I will be the first. I am a token.


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Jason Thompson Jason Thompson
Jason is VP of Diversity & Inclusion at Techstars. Jason has had a long career in Diversity and Inclusion, most recently with the US Olympic Committee, and has developed award winning D&I programs for sports organizations, healthcare and higher education.