on writing as a “token minority”
I was walking into Faunce, planning to get a sandwich from the Blue Room, when a student approached me,
“Excuse me, would you like to fill out a survey for the BDH?”
“Sure, why not,” I replied, and was handed a clipboard with a piece of paper on it.
Checking boxes can be hard when you don’t know who you are. You can’t write in “maybe,” “sort of, “I think”. They can’t quantify in-betweens—it’s just not an option. When confronted with questions like these, you are forced to self-reflect and take a definitive stand.
“I am definitely, 100 percent, this, that, bisexual, other, and I definitely, 100 percent strongly agree/neither agree nor disagree/somewhat disagree with this definitive statement you have made.”
How can you know how informed you are on a given subject when you don’t know what you don’t know? How can you have an opinion and commit it to perpetuity when you might change your mind tomorrow? Circle an option, circle two, hell, circle all of them, because you are in constant flux, and there’s no telling when or how you will stabilize.
There are a lot of people in this world who are secure in their knowledge of themselves. They start their lives fully formed, never wavering in their sense of self. I envy them. I tend to define myself by the things that I enjoy, by the people I love, by the choices I’ve made. There are words that are supposed to write us—Sri Lankan, female, queer—but I’ve never felt a strong tie to them. They exist, sure, but they’ve never grounded me, the way they do for some people.
My best friend writes; she once wrote for a program, Write to Reconcile, that brought authors of different ethnicities and backgrounds together to create a collaborative work, aimed to support reconciliation at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. I read her work, steeped in conflict and tension, and thought, “I will never be able to feel this deeply.”
Growing up, I never had to think about my identity. Even in a country in the midst of a war fueled by ethnic tension, I never felt connected to my own race. Perhaps it was because of my mixed heritage; perhaps it was because, as one of the privileged majority, it didn’t matter as much as it would if I were a minority. I have never questioned the gender assigned to me, I went to an all girls’ school, and everyone was the same, so I never felt the need to assert it. After I came out, my sexuality was the one factor that came the closest to defining me; I joke that I have this haircut to appear as bisexual as possible. But even that feels like it’s something tangential.
In movies, TV, and most media, there’s the trope of the token minority. It’s that one person in a group of straight, white, cis people who happens to not be one or more of those things, a racial or sexual minority, like Zoe from Firefly, or Danny from Teen Wolf. They never really talk about or invest in their minority identity, it just is. They exist to say “look, look at this casual diversity.” I sometimes think that’s a role I fit into. In my mind, I am the perfect token minority. I don’t make waves.
I’m a passionate person. I throw myself into the things I care about, I let them consume me. So why am I not making waves? There are people who feel strongly, who care enough to fight, to write, to change things. I view myself as an empathetic person, but I don’t know how to feel fire. I shouldn’t resign myself to the mindset of a token minority, but it’s lack of care, not resignation, that synthesizes it.
I think it comes from a place of privilege. Most people at first glance wouldn’t associate me with privilege, especially not in this country, but it’s true. I may be a POC, bisexual, female, whatever, but context is important. POC is just an American term; where I’m from, I am the majority—I’ve never had to face racial oppression. Even here, the fact that I can leave this system affords me some privilege. I can go back to an easy life.
I am now more aware that I live within the framework of greater society, a framework determined by people’s need to identify and categorize so as to better understand. I too am guilty of this. We want to understand people, so we divide them into groups, believing that membership in specific groups can immediately tell us something meaningful, like those single descriptive adjectives of gender or nationality will encompass their whole identity. I don’t know if that works for anyone, I just know that it doesn’t for me. Who I am is not dependent on the groups I belong to, not unless I chose the group.
As a writer, or someone who aspires to that title, I have a responsibility to represent myself. If you don’t put a part of yourself in your work, it doesn’t really feel like yours. If I struggle to define myself, how can I ever represent that self to others? I want to be able to write something that people relate to, that feels authentic, but I don’t know what that means with respect to myself. Do I have an obligation to represent those groups that I am a part of? I would feel inauthentic doing so; I look into those groups from the fringes. How can I represent an experience I’ve never had or noticed? I should make waves but I don’t write to change the world; I write to convey some truth of experience.
Writers exist between two poles, between the groups we are inextricably linked to and the groups we are drawn to, between truly representing ourselves and being engaging and empathizable. Sometimes, we must make compromises. All we can do is hold on to the hope that with time, we will find the balance between the words we want to write, and the words that want to write us.