Danielle Prescod’s ‘Token Black Girl’ is a proper page-turner
The author’s debut memoir uses her experience working in fashion and media to explore how our culture can alter the identity and self-image of a Black woman in America
Friday 14 October 2022 By Soho House
As a lifelong fashion obsessive, Danielle Prescod accomplished her goal of being a prominent voice in the industry. Her career of 15 years brought her to the position of style director at BET.com, and she’s currently the cofounder of 2BG along with Chrissy Rutherford, helping fashion and beauty brands progress towards an anti-racism ethos. But Prescod’s journey to that position wasn’t always an easy one. Growing up Black in a majority-white community challenged her identity, her ideas, and her self-image. Those feelings would manifest well into her career, where her diligence and passion would often be marred by subtle and not-so subtle attention to race. On the road to her success, Prescod grappled with her desire to grow and develop in the fashion world, without being limited to the ‘token Black girl’, the name of her new memoir.
Token Black Girl explores the challenges Prescod faced, and how she internalised the culture around her. She reflects on her life and her career, critiquing the systems that instil and perpetuate this type of thinking – especially in industries like fashion and media that prioritise image – and earnestly describes how it feels to exist within it as a Black woman trying to embrace her identity. Below is an excerpt from the book:
In the summer of 2003, I turned fifteen years old. In July, the very same month of my birthday, Vanity Fair released a cover that is infamous within my generation of media obsessives. The cover teased a teen-focused special featuring five of the most wealthy and popular female representatives of television and movie stardom. Amanda Bynes, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Mandy Moore, and Hilary Duff posed draped around one another in varying shades of pastel pink. An expansion of the cover, hidden behind a fold, featured blue-eyed brunette Alexis Bledel, broody Evan Rachel Wood, Token Black Girl Raven-Symoné, and token bad girl Lindsay Lohan. The cover line read “It’s Totally Raining Teens!,” a cheeky nod to youth-speak and Vanity Fair’s way of cementing an authoritarian cultural claim on who the “teens” of the times were. Cover expansions are significantly less popular in the modern media landscape, maybe because it’s cruel, but perhaps more practically because people are now more likely to see cover images on a screen than in the aisle of their local CVS. At the time, it was a subtle and not so subtle way to both include and exclude people, with the message: “We need you, but you’re not quite cover material.”
Teen Vogue, Vogue’s kid sister, would be launched that same year. After a test issue featuring a twenty-year-old Jessica Simpson (blonde) cuddling her then boyfriend, obviously Nick Lachey, debuted in 2000, the magazine promised to be the anti-crush quiz fashion bible teen girls craved. For me, an all-girls school attendee, it was welcomed and essential reading. But the magazine was published quarterly, and that left a void in the teen fashion landscape for months at a time. The July 2003 issue of Vanity Fair satiated some of that thirst. I became an absolute rabid animal in the hunt to get my hands on this issue. I was not, at fifteen, a Vanity Fair reader, nor should I have been, as the other cover lines of the issue previewed subjects far outside my interest—hard journalism about the Bush administration, a Hamptons real estate feature, and an author reporting on cold case murder facts—but the cover had been hyped up on all my favorite entertainment news programs, and I was intimately familiar with every single one of those teen girl’s faces. Between Nickelodeon (home to The Amanda Show and All That, starring Bynes), The Disney Channel (responsible for Duff’s Lizzie McGuire and later Cadet Kelly roles), and the daily MTV TRL countdown that often played Mandy Moore’s “Candy” music video, I was gently conditioned to already believe these adolescent women were goddesses. In fact, my younger sister and I were such dutiful consumers of all Mary-Kate and Ashley products that, to this day, I refuse to buy anything from The Row, their clothing line, as a twisted attempt to get justice for the money I have already shelled out to them.
You may have noticed that all the girls, now women, featured on that Vanity Fair cover are white, and I am not. More specifically, they are all thin, blonde, white girls. Even Mandy Moore, who had an edgy brunette cut at the time of the shoot, had been introduced to the world as a sugary-sweet blonde. No matter what her colorist mixed up, that was how many people still viewed her.
It seems like no accident that the brunette, the bad girl, the red head, and the lone Black girl were conspicuously absent on the actual cover, instead relegated to the foldout. Alexis Bledel played the smart, safe, and overly anxious Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls. Evan Rachel Wood starred in the chilling 2003 film Thirteen, which was about suburban girls who rebelled by getting tongue piercings and having threesomes. Raven-Symoné, a Cosby Show alum, was now a Disney darling, the lead in a namesake sitcom where she played a high schooler with psychic abilities. And Lindsay Lohan almost needs no introduction, but in 2003, she was not yet a Mykonos club hostess with a troubled family past. Rather, she was the girl who played both starring roles in The Parent Trap and was on the cusp of Mean Girls celebrity.
Vanity Fair, like most publications at the time, was telling readers who deserved their attention. The inside story featured a more diverse set of “totally teens,” including Kyla Pratt, Christina Milian and Solange Knowles, and was largely unmemorable. The cover is what everyone recalls, which is kind of the point of a cover. A magazine cover is a beacon, mesmerizing the reader with the image it presents. And for many years in fashion media, an upper echelon of publishing, readers were shown white women and white women only. In the early part of the millennium, critical years of my development, if a coveted cover spot was assigned to someone, it was a blonde girl—extra points for a bony one.
Ignoring the presence of Black women is a massive power flex that speaks specifically to the ideologies of decision-makers determining who is worthy of a feature. Erasure is a useful tool of oppression, and Vanity Fair was not alone in ensuring the erasure of Black women and girls from positions of prominence and honor. The media’s compounded interest in either strategically or accidentally reducing the visibility of Black women across the board poisoned my mind for years.
Raven-Symoné must have felt incredibly lonely shooting that Vanity Fair cover. To my knowledge, she’s never spoken about it. She has been met with some controversial moments in more recent years, relating in particular to her identity as a Black woman. In 2015, she became a trending topic after her criticism of ethnic Black names on the morning talk show The View went viral. Raven and her cohosts opined on whether racial bias affects hiring probability by way of recruiters screening the names of candidates. (Spoiler: it does.) Raven said that she would not hire a woman with the name “Watermelondrea” when that name appeared as number twelve on a list of “sixty of the most ghetto-sounding names.” And while hers was an ignorant and harmful comment, I do not think it is a surprising one from a Black woman who has been raised with a certain degree of self-hatred, one that was ingrained and then nurtured by an environment that prioritizes whiteness in all forms.
Excerpted from Token Black Girl: A Memoir by Danielle Prescod. © 2022 Published by Little A, 1 November 2022. All rights reserved. To purchase Token Black Girl: A Memoir by Danielle Prescod, click here.