During the early 2000s, the teen Hollywood scene was booming. From Mean Girls to Gilmore Girls and Gossip Girl, there was no shortage of TV and film profiling the lives of young women in America. The casts, however, usually included a single Black character with a limited storyline.
For writer and fashion editor Danielle Prescod, the lack of representation in the media mirrored her reality while attending high school in Greenwich, Conn. In her new memoir, Token Black Girl, Prescod examines how growing up in predominantly white spaces shaped her identity.
“When you are the single person of color in an otherwise all white group, that becomes your only function. So you don't ever get to transcend your racial identity. It's really hard to access full personhood if your whole being is just focused on being the Black girl,” Prescod tells Yahoo Life.
Prescod, 34, was born and raised in Westchester, N.Y., where all of the schools she attended were primarily white. She writes that in the 4th grade, another girl declared that she didn't want to play with Danielle because she was Black. It was the first time Prescod remembers becoming aware of her Blackness and what it represented to other people. Prescod’s parents kept her busy with a schedule of tennis, soccer and dance, but socially she was on her own to navigate a mainstream culture that often made race a punchline.
“For a lot of my life, people were very invested in creating this fantasy of equality, that racism is a problem of the past and it doesn't necessarily exist in the present moment. So if someone made an off-color joke or if somebody said something that was insensitive, someone would be like, 'Oh, come on. You know, they didn't mean it; they're just joking,'" Prescod says.
Navigating microaggressions and racism as a token Black girl takes “fitting in” to a whole new level. Prescod was diligent with her wardrobe, making sure that she was dressed in the trendiest clothes. She kept her hair permed or relaxed to keep it straight and far from its natural texture. In an effort to maintain the thin ideal perpetuated by the media, Prescod developed an eating disorder that she would struggle with throughout adulthood. She says that schools routinely put her on the cover of brochures, without her permission, to tout the diversity in the school.
“I'm like, well if they're gonna do this to me and they want me to be a vessel, I need to be totally empty. I cannot have thoughts, I cannot have food, I cannot have anything. I just get to be whatever you want to make me. And I will willingly submit to that because the alternative is just too difficult and I choose not to,” says Prescod.
Growing up in a suburban white community, the things that Prescod was introduced to and experienced weren’t aligned with those of the stereotypical Black experience in America. That was a hard line to tow because as she assimilated to the white culture around her, her white peers would invalidate her race by telling her that she didn’t act Black.
Her reality also left her feeling misunderstood by her own community.
“You're the whitest Black girl I know, that's what they'll say. And it is supposed to be a compliment because their assumption is Blackness is so negative, let me distance you from it 'cause I like you, but I don't like them,” says Prescod. “And then on the flip side of that, if you interact with Black people, they'll tell you that you want to be white, that you are white, that you're whitewashed or an Oreo. They'll say that about that part of your personality because they also can't see what a struggle it is for you to exist simultaneously in these two worlds.”
After graduation, Prescod attended New York University before starting a career in the fashion industry. Over the years she took on roles as an editor for fashion magazines like Elle, InStyle and Teen Vogue. Prescod viewed clothing as a great equalizer, and though she was still in predominantly white spaces, her skill in putting outfits together helped her to gain respect. While her eating disorder began years earlier, Prescod says it continued into her career because the fashion industry rewarded her for being thin. She believes that the stress of being Black in white spaces can take a physical toll, and says her disordered eating was able to go undiagnosed for so long because of racial stereotypes in the medical industry.
“So many people are like, Oh, Black girls don't have eating disorders. Actually, Black women are the highest demographic for binge eating disorder that exists and it's because of the stress that we have,” explains Prescod.
Over the years, Prescod has processed her self-worth and identity in therapy. She has also been in treatment and recovery for her eating disorder in the last two years. In Token Black Girl, Prescod says that therapy helped her to learn the importance of self-compassion and self-kindness. She has released the shame she carried for being Black and for not being Black enough.
“I only loved myself very conditionally. Only if my hair looks perfect. I only like myself if I like my outfit, and if I have the job that I like,” says Prescod. “Like why do I have such a consistent problem with self-love? And it's because systemically the way that I'm being affected makes me think I'm not good enough.”
"A lot of it was forgiving myself for surviving."
In 2016, Prescod was named the Style Director of BET, and in June 2020 she launched 2BG (Two Black Girls) Consulting with her friend Chrissy Rutherford. Their mission is to shed light on how white supremacy has impacted the fashion industry and how brands and influencers can create safer and more inclusive spaces.
As a token Black girl, Prescod says she was trained to be looked at and not heard. Those days are over.
“That is kind of the mission of the book. It's taking back some ownership by being like, 'Fine, you wanna make me a token? No problem. But you'll also hear from me.'”
— Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove