A Love Letter To The 'Token' Black Women I Grew Up With

Do you remember being asked who your favourite actress was when you were younger? A ridiculous but popular question among new friends, teachers who hadn’t prepared back to school ice-breaker exercises, and the 'About Me' pages of those ubiquitous Groovy Chick journals.
I had many favourites. The long list included Melissa Joan Hart for her exceptional performance as everyone’s favourite teenage witch, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen because the novelty of twin-themed content was at its peak, and Anne Hathaway for convincing me that it was only a matter of time before my own long-lost grandmother declared me princess of an unknown land.
Though it wasn’t always conscious, we grew up absorbing these stories about young women. We’d take from them as much as we could to try and shape our own messy teenage lives (anyone else get in trouble for trying to order a pizza with 'Sorry' written across it in M&Ms?). But there was, and continues to be, a huge blocker in my relating to these characters. Why? Because the majority of our best loved onscreen narratives revolved around the white, middle-class experience. Though I tried to ignore it, the fact remained that young black women like me didn’t feature very much in those storylines.
No, it’s not surprising at all, is it? The 'token black girl' is a concept with which we’re depressingly all too familiar, and have been for too long now. It’s a reality that I wrestled with so fervently because I have felt like one myself. I grew up in white areas, went to schools where I was the only black girl in the classroom and in many of my friendship groups now, as a twenty-something in 2019, I’m often the representative woman of colour. With that has often come an underlying expectation to be 'the black one' – to live the sassy, loud, eye-rolling, punchline-delivering, surface level stereotypes afforded to the black women we see in the white TV and film world – think Jada Pinkett Smith in The Women. But it’s really hard to do that when that’s not who you are. At least, not all the time.
Thank god for Dionne in Clueless. Stacey Dash’s character remains one of the most celebrated icons of '90s pop culture. She was as substantial a presence in the film as Cher Horowitz. Dionne’s blackness wasn’t the only thing about her. Her unapologetic 'sassiness' didn’t come across as a means to fulfil the caricature that is normally written for black actresses but rather an assertion of authority in a space that needed it – lol, Cher really needed it. Dionne also wore her hair in braids, which is a big identity-claiming move in itself as the majority of black female sidekicks in the white woman narrative tend to wear their hair in straight styles. Trust me, you won’t un-notice it.
Looking back with a bit of perspective, Dionne was one of a welcome (and necessary) few black women featured in era-defining movies and shows to make the 'token black girl' thing more than the stereotypes we got used to. She's joined by Saved By The Bell’s Lisa Turtle, who was smart, stylish, had a hell of a lot to say and was originally meant to be cast as a 'Jewish-American princess'. Lisa, star of many of the show's romantic storylines, was an unrequited love interest (which doesn't happen a lot to our 'token' black characters) and the legitimacy of the romance afforded her was never mocked or diminished. Sure, she didn't deal with Screech very well (did any of us, at that age?) but her relatability transcended the weird race barrier that often stopped young women of colour on screen from being positioned as 'the desirable one'.
Then there's Charlie Wheeler from Friends. I have a theory which I like to call the 'three-episode curse'. It's plagued the likes of Gabrielle Union, who spent much of her early career (both sides of Bring It On) as the black woman cast to appear in a TV show for a really limited, almost forgettable amount of time. She was even cast as two separate characters in Saved By The Bell: The New Class, for one episode each. Union was also in Friends for a moment or two, starring as a girl Ross and Joey fought over. Charlie (played by Aisha Tyler), however, who also ended up being a conflicting love interest for the pair, was afforded a legitimate backstory. We knew how smart she was, that she had a past and a future beyond the time she was the 'hot' girl Ross and Joey both fell for, and she survived the three-episode curse – she was there for nine.
Another unsurprising observation is that British TV was desperately lacking in similar, or perhaps more frustrating, ways. Some of the most popular mainstream shows of the '90s and '00s are notable for their absence of black women, and so Jal from Skins remains one of my favourite television characters to have guided my teenage existence. She’s as frustrated with her brother’s faux 'ghetto' rap personas as she is trying to prove herself as a young woman – not just the musically talented best friend to Michelle, the 'sexy' one the boys drool over. Her narrative is interwoven with so many layers of the angst and confusion that we all experience as teenagers but points directly to her identity as a young black woman in a way that, thankfully, never felt forced in a series about a primarily white group of friends.
When you're growing up, trying to figure yourself out and battling through the minefield of adolescence, it's hard enough to know which way is up. Coming to terms with the idea that, as a black girl, I wasn't leading lady material was undeniably shit. I sure as hell didn't understand the complexity of what that meant back than, and as an adult still twinge every time the only black woman on screen is made to perform the stereotypes that I've spent such a long time trying to dismiss from my consciousness. But thanks to a few well-written black women who thrived in an environment that continued to position them as 'other', I came to understand that there was a life beyond the mould that most media told me to fit into.

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