Danielle Prescod, TOKEN BLACK GIRL: A Memoir

Danielle Prescod, TOKEN BLACK GIRL: A Memoir

Zibby is joined by fashion and beauty insider and debut author Danielle Prescod to discuss Token Black Girl, a sharp and witty new memoir about a Black girl’s racial identity, eating disorder, conditional self-love, and delusions of perfection. Danielle talks about revisiting painful memories–from being racially harassed in all-white private schools to developing bulimia at the age of 12 to struggling with her IVF treatment. She also talks about the business she founded to help beauty and fashion brands craft antiracist identities and marketing strategies.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Danielle. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Token Black Girl: A Memoir.

Danielle Prescod: Yay!

Zibby: Congratulations on your book.

Danielle: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here. Congratulations on your book. I wish I read it before I came on the podcast. I am a very slow reader. I don’t know how all y’all in book publishing read so fast. I have a book pile so high of books to read.

Zibby: No worries. We’re both with Little A, which is great. I feel like it’s been such a wonderful experience for me.

Danielle: Same. It’s also my only experience. I don’t know how it usually goes, but it’s been great so far.

Zibby: Good. It’s a good one. Why don’t you tell listeners what your memoir is about? What inspired you to write a memoir?

Danielle: I never thought that I would write a memoir. The fact that my first book is a memoir is kind of surprising to me. I started out my publishing journey wanting to write a fiction book. Once I started doing that, I realized what a challenge that was because I don’t have experience writing fiction. All of my experience is in personal narrative or in interviewing people and doing features, writing about observations, doing research, and all of that. When I was stuck writing my fiction book, I was like, I guess a way to unstuck myself would be to do the thing I know how to do and that comes easiest, which is writing from my own perspective. Once I started doing that, everything became a lot easier. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about. For a number of years in therapy, I had been speaking with my therapist about self-love. She had put me on a recovery journey from an eating disorder. We were trying to uncover the origins of some thought patterns and things that she calls limiting beliefs. It’s a therapy term that a lot of people use.

One of the things that kept coming up was that — she was like, “You don’t love yourself. You need to work on self-love.” I was like, “Of course, I love myself. I don’t understand what you mean by that.” Really, it was that I had been loving myself only conditionally. I had been setting parameters around how I would love myself, so only if I have a job that I like or if I’m achieving something that I like or if I dress the way I like or my hair is done the way I like, all of these things. It was like, why is myself and my essence very hard for me to love? I don’t understand why I think I need to do all these things in order to earn love. Once I started tracing back the origins to where those came from, I arrived at white supremacy. I was like, I need to write a book on how white supremacy affected me, and also my participation in it when I was a member of the media. For many years, after I was a consumer of media, I was also a producer of media. I worked at various fashion publications in New York City. I was also responsible for distributing the same kind of messaging that ultimately was very harmful to me.

Zibby: Interesting. When you decided to dig back and go into your life and everything, which you wrote about in such vivid detail — it was really great. Some of the things, like your third grade — I don’t know what grade it was when the girls were writing that mean note to you in school, which broke my heart. I feel like that was one of those pivotal moments for you. Maybe you could talk about that. Maybe I’m wrong. I just feel like that’s when you realized that there was or there could be perceived to be a difference among and you and your peers. Maybe talk about that moment and how it affected you.

Danielle: For anyone who doesn’t know — I missed this part when I was supposed to introduce the book. A lot of it is about my experiences in private prep school in Westchester County. Then I went to a school in Greenwich, Connecticut, before I worked in fashion. A lot of my interactions with my classmates were actually influenced by prejudice, racism, etc. I did not have the vocabulary or the emotional intelligence to really tackle it. It was something that I was very ashamed of for a long time. As you become an adult and you do get more solid in your own identity, you kind of want to hide if you weren’t always there. I was like, I don’t want people to know that I wasn’t always like, wow, I love being Black. This is the most amazing thing. It was very shameful to revisit childhood memories. In writing a lot of this stuff, I’ve had several other girls or women who identify as token Black girls, or did when they were growing up, say that, I didn’t find out I was Black until I was twelve. Nobody had this conversation with me until later in life.

I’m not sure really what the parenting manual said at the time. I grew up in the nineties. For our household, it was mostly this colorblind messaging. I don’t think that anyone wanted to emphasize that there was necessarily a difference. Eventually in the life of a child of color in America, your parents have to let you know that there is a difference between you and your friends if you are the only person of color. For me, that happened kind of against their wishes, my wishes when somebody at school — I transferred schools. Somebody was like, I don’t like the new girl because she’s Black. The message then got relayed to me. It became this big scandal. I hope that what people get from the book is, talking to children about race is important from both sides. You do not want to be the child finding out that you’re a minority at the hands of another child. You also don’t want your child to be the one who is saying, I don’t like so-and-so because they’re Black, or in a lot of cases, using the N word or using another slur because they have heard it repeated. They know exactly how to use it. It’s weird. Even though parents might not tell children that, they have a way of finding things out.

Zibby: Yes, kids are way smarter than parents think, for the most part.

Danielle: I think so.

Zibby: Are you comfortable talking about your eating disorder? Do you mind talking about that?

Danielle: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: I know you wrote about it, but it’s different when we’re face to face, or Zoom to Zoom or whatever. You talk about coming to terms with your own body. You talk about starting ballet at age three, which obviously puts the body into a whole nother realm of attention and form and all of that, and how you were determined to make yourself as thin as possible and to outsmart your own body, in a way, from becoming what it was supposed to become. Tell me a little more about that.

Danielle: I think that, really, what I was trying to achieve the most was that I wanted to be the emptiest vessel because I felt that everyone was constantly projecting their wants and desires onto me, what they wanted me to behave like, be, do. It felt so powerless to me. It was so outside of my control. I often write about how I was on the cover or featured on the website of every school that I’ve ever attended. They’d put my face there. When I worked at Elle, I was on the side of the Hearst building. They put my face there. Then I am not allowed in certain meetings. I’m left off of emails. No one asks you, hey, is this okay with you? I did not really have the tools to be like, I’m uncomfortable with this. I was like, instead, I will just make myself as empty as possible. For me, it was a lot about control. If I feel like all of that stuff is out of my control, the one thing I can control is how I look. It made me feel very powerful to be in control over my own body and to say, I don’t have needs like other people. There’s a lot of people with eating disorders who are mind-over-matter people. They think it’s their superpower. It’s like, I never have to go to the bathroom. I never sweat. I don’t have human needs because I can override them. I’m superhuman. It makes you feel really powerful, in a way, but it’s just not a sustainable way to live. Eventually, you have to address — it’s your mental health. It’s your physical health. It’s your emotional health. It’s all of those things working together. It’s very holistic. There’s not a way to isolate these things.

Zibby: When did you first develop your eating disorder? Can you talk about that? When did you feel that “power” from starving, essentially? How did it transition to more bulimia and all of that?

Danielle: I would say probably at age twelve or thirteen because I really noticed that I felt like I was getting much bigger than all of my friends were. We always used to share clothes and swap clothes. All of a sudden, I could not fit into their clothes. I also had some sort of strange idea — I don’t understand where I got it — that I had to wear the clothing size for the age I was. If I was twelve years old, I had to wear a size twelve. I have no idea why I thought that, but I definitely thought it was real. I also was like, my life will be over if I get over a hundred pounds. There’s many ways that this is communicated in television shows. At the time, there were horrible tabloid magazines that would often print weights of women. When they gained weight and when they lost weight, they would let you know. It would be at the grocery store. You could not really escape this obsession with other people’s bodies. It felt only natural to also have an obsession with your own body. I would restrict my eating a lot.

Eventually, it turned into bulimia because you get so hungry. I was very active as a child. I played a lot of sports. I did a lot of things. You need energy for that. You need food. I would feel so guilty, though, for eating. I was like, I have to get rid of this thing that I did. It was a cycle of shame that almost never went away. Then of course, it becomes a lot easier when you leave your parents’ house. Things are very hard to control when you are living under someone else’s roof. You have to follow certain rules. We had a lot of family dinners. I felt like I had to be very creative in how I avoided food. I discovered that being like, “I’m studying. I have homework,” that was also a really good way. Again, achieving myself out of having natural needs was something I wanted to do and show everyone.

Zibby: How do you feel like you were able to get this under control?

Danielle: It all happened kind of accidentally. When I turned thirty, I froze my eggs. When you go through that process, you have to do IVF to essentially stimulate your follicles to produce a lot of eggs so they can harvest them. There’s three rules. No drinking. No exercising. No sex. I was an obsessive exerciser. I was like, well, they obviously don’t mean no exercise for me. They mean no exercise for people who don’t exercise, but I’ll continue to exercise. The other stuff — I don’t even drink. I was like, I don’t have a problem, guys. I don’t have a partner. I’ll be abstinent. The first day that I was on hormone shots, I took myself to SoulCycle. I started cramping in SoulCycle. I got so scared because egg freezing is so expensive. I was like, wow, how dumb am I that I thought that I was going to mess this up? Actually, I’m sitting here doing exactly what the doctor told me not to do. I was like, I really want it to work because I don’t want to do it twice. It’s really disruptive to your life. You have to go to the office pretty much every day for two weeks, get an ultrasound and blood tests, to the doctor’s office. You have to focus on giving yourself these shots at the same time every single night.

Because I was pumping myself full of hormones, I was hungrier than I have ever been in my life. I just started eating because, again, I really wanted it to work. I was a little superstitious. I was like, I have to just try my best to make sure that this is successful. I stopped exercising. I ate a lot. I gained almost twenty pounds in two weeks, which was really alarming to me, but I was also very sure that after it was over, I could lose it. I was like, no problem. I’ll just go back to dieting after this is over. I realized I was just so exhausted by it all. I was like, what if I just stopped? It was also around the time of lockdown and quarantine. I wasn’t seeing a lot of people, so that also made it easier. I didn’t have to wear fashion clothes and have to go to parties. That made it a little bit easier. Then slowly but surely, I started experimenting with being a little bit healthier. I think having an eating disorder is kind of like being an alcoholic. You have to think about it every day. I’m choosing every day not to revert back to old behaviors. I try my best. I think it’s going well. It’s been about three years now.

Zibby: Wow. It takes a lot of time to undo so many years of entrenched behaviors. Be patient. It’s not perfection. I know you know all this. I don’t know why I feel like I need to tell you.

Danielle: The listeners might not know. So much of that behavior was a coping mechanism, too, for me when I had something stressful happen. I would be like, oh, great, I’ll just push food aside. I won’t eat. I’ll focus on this thing. You can’t really do that anymore. I have to remind myself. You have to eat. I’m like, after this, I have to eat breakfast. You’re on the East Coast, right? You’re an hour ahead of me. I’m a little behind. I have to remember. Eat breakfast. Then eat lunch. Then eat dinner. It’s okay to stop and want a snack in the middle of the day.

Zibby: It’s a lot. I have a lifetime fascination and deep interest in eating disorders for several people who were close to me who had really serious eating disorders. I majored in psychology in college. I worked at the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. I worked at the adolescent inpatient unit of a psychiatric hospital and have learned a lot. I’ve struggled with my own weight in my own ways for years and years. It’s just been something I’ve done a lot of research on. I feel incredibly empathetic towards what you’re going through and the phase of recovery that you’re in. It’s hard because food is everywhere. It’s not like an alcoholic. Not that that’s easy. That’s also horrifically hard, but at least you can choose not to go to a bar or put yourself in the scenario. With food, it’s everywhere. It’s not like you can be like — you can’t get away from it.

Danielle: You can’t. For a long time, I also hated holidays. I hated especially Thanksgiving. The worst. Everyone loves those holidays. It was amplified by having social media. It just became this other thing as well. It’s very hard to manage because food, it’s very cultural. It’s how people express love. They want to feed you. I understand that. It’s also hard to explain to people, it’s not that I’m rejecting your love. It’s that I don’t think I can accept this package as you’re giving it. It’s a lot of negotiating personalities and helping to open up. I also think the book has made it easier for me because personally, I think that, as you know, working with people with eating disorders, the secrecy of it all becomes its own thing. I felt like I was hiding so much from so many people. I write about this in the book. Once I had these kind of jobs in media where it was supposed to be part of my job to make it look so fun and like it was the best place to be in the world — you’re hungry. No one can know that part of it. It just becomes really difficult. Now that the book is out there, I feel very free and relieved. Everyone can know. I also hope that some other people maybe realize how serious their responsibility is as members of the media. There’s no shortage of research that shows us how harmful certain imagery and language is to be out there. Yet I don’t understand. It doesn’t stop.

Zibby: What is your personal outlook on your own contribution going forward? How do you want to see yourself professionally? Obviously, you’ve written this book to point out the things people should be aware of and start that dialogue, or continue that dialogue, rather. Given all of your work experience in that realm, what are you thinking now? Where do you want your career to go and all of that? Maybe you haven’t thought about it that much.

Danielle: I really want to write more books. I really do want to write fiction as well. I have a consulting agency with a business partner who is also a former editor. It’s called 2BG Consulting. We help beauty and fashion brands craft antiracist identities and help them to be more inclusive in their language and their marketing so that when people are introduced to their brand or interacting with their brand, they are feeling welcomed by it and not necessarily excluded by it.

Zibby: That’s great, really wonderful. Have there been any surprising reactions to your book?

Danielle: I don’t think so. I’ve had some lifelong friends reach out who’ve known me for a long time, some white friends, and say something like, I had really fond memories of us growing up. I’m like, I did as well. The book is not heavy on the good times, necessarily, because I feel like I spent so long projecting that everything was perfect and fine, and my participation in being in all those photographs. I’m like, you had that story, so now I want to tell the story that feels most authentic to me. It doesn’t mean that I had a bad childhood or that things weren’t happy or I didn’t have happy memories. For every negative experience I had in the book at the hands of white people, I also had twice as many positive experiences. I have several friends that I can trust. I don’t know if this is in the book. We might have cut it out. My father’s mother, that grandma on my side, was always questioning my mom, was so shocked. She was like, “You are going to let them sleep over at white people’s houses? You’re going to let them play with these girls?” She would tell me, she’d be like, “Those girls are not your friends. Don’t be fooled.” It was because — I didn’t know this at the time, of course. She just had so many negative experiences with white women. She was just like, “I want to protect you from that.” She couldn’t believe that my parents were willingly putting me in situations. For the most part, it was okay. I do want people to know that when it’s not okay, it’s very serious. This is not something that’s going to work itself out. It’s something that we need to be very proactive about challenging before something goes very wrong.

Zibby: Excellent. Danielle, thank you. Thank you for coming on and talking about Token Black Girl, your memoir, and your experience and being so open and honest and helping so many other women out there by sharing your experience. It’s really wonderful.

Danielle: Thank you for having me. Thanks for having me in your nice library.

Zibby: You’re welcome.

Danielle: I love your setting.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you very much. A happy place. Take care.

Danielle: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Danielle Prescod, TOKEN BLACK GIRL: A Memoir

TOKEN BLACK GIRL: A Memoir by Danielle Prescod

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