I am unapologetically Black and weird. I have navigated the world of tokenism almost my entire life. From school age being the only Black student in class to the military with the double tap of being Black and female in my otherwise all-male platoon, and now as I try to champion the cause of literary arts in the Tri-Cities.

The first time I realized I was tokenized was in high school.

I sat in a packed auditorium during my senior year, patiently waiting for the Excellence in Spanish award. I was the top Spanish language student in the school. I was taking AP Spanish as independent study because I tested out of all the available courses. I translated for ESL students during my free periods and acted as a teacher’s aide on multiple occasions. I was consistently pulled out of class to be paraded in front of visiting admin as an example of the schools top academics. I practiced my thank you speech in my head. I almost stood when the winner was announced because I knew I had put in the time, the energy, and the work for that award.

My name wasn’t called. The name of the second ranked student, also a minority, was not called. The award was given to the third ranked student, a white student that I had tutored to that position. The auditorium was silent. All eyes were on me. What would be my reaction?

I didn’t react. I was angry but knew I couldn’t show it. As a Black student in a predominantly white school, showing my true feelings wasn’t an option. I knew that; the other minority students knew that. Some approached me after to share in my outrage, but others came to gloat. I thought I was hot stuff for playing the game, and now I had nothing to show for it.

When I got the courage to ask why, the official explanation was that I was only in a regular Spanish class briefly before studying independently. When I questioned that decision I was told I needed to let it go. The second ranked student said nothing, questioned nothing, and was suddenly the go-to minority representative. I knew then the true cost of being a Token. All the work and a requirement to stand silent in the face of inequality.

From an early age, we are encouraged and taught to believe that there can only be one BIPOC in the limelight. One rises, and the rest fall. It doesn’t have to be like that. High school is long behind me, yet that incident has shaped how I approach tokenism as an adult. I ask why. Not just in obviously non-diverse spaces, but everywhere.

‘Why’ is Powerful. ‘Why’ makes them cringe. ‘Why’ confuses and astounds. ‘Why’ brings the excuses and petty gossip. ‘Why’ gets me uninvited. The reactions may be different, but the answer is always the same. The ‘Why’ is always an -ism — Racism, Classism, Ableism, Sexism. External, Internal, and Systemic. I ask ‘why’ and watch them squirm in the face of -isms. ‘Why’ is my weapon against tokenism. They want a token, and I give them a mirror.

I AM UNAPOLOGETICALLY BLACK AND WEIRD. I know that my weirdness has allowed me entry to spaces that other BIPOC have been excluded from. My awkwardness allows a familiarity but keeps me at arm’s length. I’m a face in the crowd, but my weirdness lends to frivolous small talk. I am considered safe because I am weird. I don’t fit in any box, so I flow through them all. My weird allows me to accomplish what I set my mind to and see who the real ones are — the ones who acknowledge that clout and politics are a factor but prioritize progress over both. The real ones are not put off by my weirdness. They embrace it, encourage it, and understand that weird and out-of-the-box is often needed to get things done.

What have I done? First and foremost, I am an Author. A USA Today Bestselling author of Paranormal Romance. I own my own publishing company, Serpentine Creative, LLC. I have published over 15 of my own books and coached others in their self-publishing journey. I hosted Shut Up and Write Tri-Cities, acted as Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month, and supported local authors throughout the years. I occasionally write poetry and, in 2022, was awarded Best Local Poet by the First Annual Tri-Cities Queer Choice Awards.

I am an activist for the cause of diverse literary arts. I worked with Jordan Chaney on several projects, including the Hopebuilders Program for the Benton Franklin Juvenile Justice system, the Pasco Hope Wall, and Day of Hope. I worked with incarcerated youth to publish a book of their poetry and essays entitled Keep Ya Head Up. I served as Co-Chair of the City of Pasco Arts and Culture Commission for two years. More recently, I joined the Executive Board of the Arts Foundation of the Mid-Columbia as Secretary and Literary Arts Chair in charge of the Rivers of Ink Writer’s Conference.

I AM UNAPOLOGETICALLY BLACK AND WEIRD. I am undoubtedly golden, but I am not and will never be just a token. I move in my own lane, at my own pace, and let my work speak for itself. As the great Audre Lord said: “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”

Unapologetically Black and Weird,

Stella Williams

The Golden Token

A poem by Stella Williams

The Golden Token

Deep pockets
Change the topic
For the optics
The Golden Token

A seat at the table
Othered but able
The Golden Token

A token no matter how golden

You see that dot?
It’s hard to spot
The Golden Token

Full disclosure
The pay is exposure
Keep your composure
The Golden Token

The Golden Token

A token no matter how golden

Stella Williams is a USA Today Bestselling Author and serves on the Board of the Arts Foundation of the Mid-Columbia.