I think the catch phrase is "token Black person", but as we see more and more people of color on television, that is becoming less and less the case. First let me say that it doesn't bother me when there are no people of color to be found on some TV shows. Friends is a good example. Yes, it was ridiculous for them to rarely encounter Black folks in New York, but the show was so damn funny, and the characters in their White skin all reminded me of my close Black friends (by the way, I am Monica; I am sooo Monica. It's weird how much I am Monica), that I barely even noticed the lack of Black people. But, there is also this fear that when a TV show is really good in all it's Whiteness, the introduction of a Black character might bring about some awkwardness as the least and offensiveness at the most that would ruin the entire show. So, instead of demanding the possibility of a fail at writing Black characters, I was okay with them just not being there, me not being offended, and the show remaining hilarious. Two Black women were introduced (kudos for that, you rarely see Black women when you do see Black characters thrown in), and they weren't offensive (or all that ethnic, in other words, nothing about them implied that had any connection to a history that was Black history), they were beautiful dark brown women (Gabrielle Union (one episode) and Aisha Tyler (several)), so it was fine, but their is no doubt they were tokens because the public demanded it.
When it comes to tokens, my question has always been: Well, how much do groups of White folks encounter and befriend non-White folks? I have no idea what the answer to this question is. Clearly, my White friends have at least one Black friend, but they actually have more than one Black friend, and then their are the Asians and Latino/as, too. When it comes to my Black friends, there is no token color, we tend to extend from sable to tan (I thought about going the food colors route, but makeup shades felt easier), so clearly, my life does not imitate television, nor does television imitate my life. My next question is, what does it mean for us people of color when like Neo or the Highlander, there can be only One? (I guess Neo was actually a reincarnation...) When there is only one token, that means that either we consider ourselves People of Color and relate to whichever color is on the screen, or we don't. Which brings us to the more important question, what does the token do for us, People of Color, anyway?
When it comes to media depictions of Black folks, you always take the good with the bad, there is no choice. So, when Lisa Turtle is only desired by the freaky looking, weird food eating, odd noise making dork, who then goes on to find his own blonde dorkette, and only appears to have one actual date for whom she tried to change everything about herself, you just shrug and are happy that there is a(n upper-middle class, vapid) Lisa Turtle. (She and Zach might have kissed during one episode, but he was a womanizer who kissed pretty much every single chick on the show and that was one of those weird out of place summertime episodes that seemed to exist in another dimension (like the love affair Wolverine had with Storm).) So, ultimately, even though the Black tokens are asexual and usually unimportant, they're generally okay people and you're happy they're there.
So, even though Black tokens kinda just suck, they were like our sucky family, and now we see that things are starting to change. Two of my beloved television shows have Indian tokens. Big Bang is one. Raj is a cutie, who turns out to be pretty funny, but he gets the shitty end of the stick hardcore. *Spoiler alert* Until recently, he could not speak to women without drinking, he didn't have a girlfriend, when even Sheldon, who prides himself on his asexuality, found a serious relationship, and he is extremely effeminate, and frequently picked on because of this. On the other hand, Royal Pains has Divya. She is gorgeous, educated, witty, her clothing is to steal and die for, and of course, she is kind, gentle and lovable. What these tokens do for Indians or Asians as a whole, I have no idea. I know that for me, although it's nice to see brown people, I don't really relate. I love that both characters have a culture and family, but they are nothing like my culture or my family. And while I can relate to gorgeous Gabrielle Union, I cannot relate to gorgeous Reshma Shetty (Divya).
I can't write this without giving a shout out to Mindy. It's hard to call her a token when it's her show, but even though she calls herself a 'woman of color' repeatedly, she's the only one on the show and her character actually resented the other Indian woman (a romantic rival) who guest starred. Added to that, all of her best friends are White women and I believe every man she's dated has been White, even though she was looking for an NBA player in one episode (because "Black guys love Indian girls! It's not racist, it's true!" I laughed because I agreed, but that's a different post). Her favorite movies are Meg Ryan romcoms and her character is from Boston with a Boston accent that she worked hard to get rid of. That being said, Mindy is awesome, I do relate to her, and I didn't mention any of that in a spirit of resentment, I'm just pointing out the facts about the character.
Back to the point: I'm not sure what a token is supposed to do for me. I'm not sure what they are supposed to do for Indians or Asians who are not Indian, and I'm not sure why I haven't seen many who were Hispanic (was "A.C. Slater" even supposed to be Hispanic?). What I do know, is that as a woman of color, I don't relate to Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or Aboriginal women or men of color just because their skin is not white, and I'm more likely to relate to women because they are women, despite their color, if I relate at all. So, who are the tokens for and what are they supposed to mean? Is the token dark girl just another way to portray the Sapphire while pretending that you're not because she's surrounded by race-neutral women of color? Happily, women like Shonda Rhimes are changing the game, and we're beginning to see, not only different kinds of Black women, but we get to see Black women and Asian women and Hispanic women and White women all in the same room at the same time, speaking the same language, and loving the same stuff. Yes, Shonda takes it too far when her shows only allow one couple to be a same race couple per race, with every other couple being bi-racial, but Shonda is showing a world that's a little bit more like my world, which is admittedly a bit over educated in a bustling city, so therefore, not really your average world in America. Even if Shonda's world doesn't look like your average Latina, Black, or Asian woman's world, she's showing little girls that they don't have to be tokens. And I think that matters the most.
I'm not saying that there aren't People of Color out there who don't only have a group of White (or whatever) friends, and I'm not trying to negate the experiences of those folks, because they aren't tokens - asexual and unimportant, and if they are, they need to remedy that situation quick, fast, and in a hurry. I'm saying that we all need to remember as we watch and make TV, that characters shouldn't be there for color's sake. If race-neutral women of color tend to only hang out with race neutral women of color, then it's fine for that to be on TV. Friends can be both homogeneous and heterogeneous, but no one should be there to represent a color or stereotype. That brown face at the back of the screen (and yes, the Person of Color is always the furthest from center and/or farthest back) needs to actually be a person, a person with a life, a culture, a family, a sex-life, and ridiculous flaws and perfections, not a representation of nothing to keep the masses happy.