Tokenize and Terrorize? No, Thank You

By
R.J. Joseph

Nope. Don’t like. No, thank you. Are they for real? Maddening.
 

These were the thoughts circling around in my head during the first few hours of the onslaught of
announcements from various publishing circles that they were opening to Black writers. First of
all, those venues should have already been open to Black writers, unequivocally. It initially
seemed to me like such announcements admitted the deck had been stacked against Black writers in these venues up to that point. Maybe those announcements were confessions of a sort. Some were, indeed, framed as apologies and declarations to make things right…for brief windows of time.

 

I also found the very brief time frames problematic. Who could get a worthy submission together
that would meet the extremely high standards of those gatekeepers within a matter of days?
Weeks, even? I couldn’t in good faith expect that the bar would be lowered in any way. In fact,
the bar would be even higher than usual because these were “special breaks”. It almost seemed
like a set-up: we ask for your very best work, in the shortest amount of time possible, so we can
turn your sub-par work down and say “You just don’t have what it takes to make it here.”
Wait a minute. R.J., you’re tripping. You’re being unfairly harsh in the light of some folks
wanting to start making amends. You don’t have to submit anything if you don’t want the
opportunities. Let the rest of the fifty-eleventy billion Black writers who don’t make many sales
do what they want to do.

 

In a moment of contrition, I did some self-reflection. Why was I so angry at these
announcements? Why did they make me feel so dejected and anxious? Then it hit me: the sudden opening up of the publishing world not only seemed false, it also invited in my old nemesis,Tokenism.

 

A story: a few years ago, I had a story included in an anthology I really wanted to be a part of.
When I met the editor in person for the first time, he said to me (I paraphrase), “We were excited

 to get your story in…but I don’t want you to think we only took it because you’re a Black woman. I’ve read some of your other work. Your story is amazing and we’re glad to have it.”
 

I had to work to keep my professional game face on and just thank him. What I really wanted to
do was break down and cry because I’m not sure he knew how much I needed to hear that. The
call was for Texas horror writers, so I suspected there weren’t a whole bunch of submissions
from Black, female horror writers in the first place. I mean, we’re out there, but not necessarily
here in Texas. And I have no idea what happens on the editorial end of these things when they
get submissions and realize everything is full of testosterone, cis representation, able bodied, and lily white. For all I know, they might go on a hunt to try and look up the pics of every other
submission to find one—just one—writer of color, an LGBTQ writer, a disabled writer, or from
a woman. Yes, I’m not operating in good faith to think gatekeepers might do this but I don’t have
a ton of good faith in this industry I love so much that doesn’t always love me back.

 

More than a fear of not getting opportunities, I fear being made a token. I have a quite a bit of
confidence in my writing abilities. I know what I know and I know I’m a damned good writer.
But do I want to be The Black Writer who carries all other Black writers on the merit of her
work? Absolutely not. Token checks cash and spend just like honor won ones do, but I don’t
want no parts of that tokenism mess. I don’t like the anxiety that comes with wondering if my
work was chosen because it’s really good or because I’m a Black woman writing about other
Black folks. For a while, I only submitted via invitation or to venues that only published work by
Black people. That way I knew, for the most part (still not perfection, but the bias against certain
depictions of Blackness is a topic for another essay, another time), my work was being judged on
its merit and not because it was one of a few that came in from a Black woman.

 

I decided to make a few submissions to these calls for newfound equity. I’ve got plenty of work
laying around that’s been rejected for all kinds of reasons, and never on the quality of the
writing. There’s no way to know what the conclusion will be to those submissions. I simply hope
that the endgame here isn’t some newfound dastardly plan to find additional ways to tokenize
and terrorize Black writers and maintain the current publishing world order. Because if so…

 

Nope. Don’t like. No, thank you. Are they for real? Maddening.

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