In this article, I’m speaking from my personal experience as a black woman. I am aware that some of these situations may apply to other underrepresented groups, based on various conversations I’ve had with friends, peers and colleagues over the years. That said, we can safely assume the experience is likely worse, or similar at best.
Mirriam Webster’s definition of tokenism is:
the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly
In other words…
Tokens: minority group where there is a large majority and a very small minority
Tokenism: Hiring, placement and tolerance of specific people in your organisation strictly to prove you are not discriminatory
Not tokenism: Hiring and inclusion of specific people in your organisation because they are talented and great at their jobs
Various organisations make the effort to do better, and that’s great! However, it’s challenging to do so without slipping into tokenism whose impact can be detrimental. So much so that it starts to reek of performative diversity, equality and inclusion under the mask of tokenism. It’s tricky territory and here’s why:
1. Most people who find themselves in situations where they are the only (insert underrepresented group), didn’t volunteer to be in that position.
People from underrepresented groups often find themselves in the uncomfortable position where they continuously have to share their trauma and experiences to teach colleagues, friends and other well intentioned people. I’ve battled with not wanting to be the only black woman to speak on behalf of the entire black community. However, I’ve chosen to see the silver lining and I take pride in educating people that don’t have enough exposure to us. Be that as it may, we are not a monolith. My experience does not inform the experience of every black woman. This undoubtedly takes a toll on underrepresented groups because they’re compelled to repeatedly tell their story and in so doing relive their traumas to teach others. It’s exhausting.
For further understanding: when you become the ‘only anything’ in any setting – and in my case, the only black woman, you immediately default to ‘how-can-I-not-mess-this-up-so-that-I-don’t-misrepresent-other-black-women’ mode. We understand that the consequence of messing it up is messing it up for everyone who looks like us.
Food for thought: Friends, leaders, organisations: if you’re going to set up Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to drive DEI, then please consider going the full nine yards. Invest in practical unconscious bias training for all employees. Don’t depend on your employees from underrepresented groups to own these initiatives and programs, unless they categorically express their interest. Even then, there’s a difference between expecting underrepresented employees to carry the burden of creating the solution to a problem they didn’t create and asking employees to share their experience as their expertise. For that to happen, something’s got to give — otherwise what’s the point of sharing our experiences? My trauma is not for public consumption.
2. Tokenism facilitates implicit bias as a consequence of stereotypical expectations
Implicit biases are pervasive and there is increasing evidence that underrepresented groups are often subject to implicit racial bias. Such overt prejudice is the tip of a massive iceberg. An example of how this manifests is microaggressions whose science is complicated, but very much real.
Queue microaggressions (and my standard responses to statements that have been meant as compliments to me):
Them: “You articulate yourself well for a black person.”
Me: How do the black people you’ve interacted with usually express themselves?
Them: “You are a palpable black person. I feel like I can approach you and speak freely”
Me: What do you really mean by that?
Them: “You’re generally quite calm for a black woman”
Me: Silence. (My facial expression does the talking)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the non verbal microaggressions; such as the visibly shocked look on an executive’s face after a black potential hire walks into a room for their first face to face interview and they realise they’re black. This occurs because the potential hire exceeded their stereotypical expectation during the phone interview stage.
I know someone who was told by a receptionist when they walked in for their interview “oh! you’re black?” before she realised how it sounded.
The list is endless…
For further understanding: Sometimes the only thing you’re thinking when you go to a job interview is ‘are they going to be cool with me being black?’ Similar countless circumstances lead many people from underrepresented groups, (myself included), to code switch as a survival mechanism. This also means as a black person, I’m cautious about the way I respond to various situations in workplace settings and social gatherings so I don’t succumb to the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype. I’m not sure people fully understand how exhausting it is to work that muscle of assimilation.
Food for thought: Let’s accept people as they are. You can pay someone a compliment without attributing it to who they identify as. You can call me smart without adding ‘for a black person’. Treat people as humans, regardless of how they personally identify.
3. Tokenism is diversity without inclusion
Some leaders and organisations are risk averse so they hire what they know. They make token hires because they have to tick a box. They like the idea of you but the reality is they’re not ready to hear your ideas.
For further understanding: plenty of companies that engage in tokenism have managed to turn this around to make it like they’re ‘helping’ underrepresented groups by giving us opportunities, and therefore, we should be quiet and grateful.
Food for thought: Do better by doing the work and the research involved in hiring or using recruitment agencies committed to finding and connecting you to talented Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) and other underrepresented minorities. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you find. We can tell when you want us because of our identity. So be transparent about it from the get go and do the work to provide culture conscious spaces and equality experiences. Facilitate career growth opportunities for us so we have a reason to stay and grow into leadership positions. ThoughtWorks is on a continuous journey to do this because of the commitment to creating transformative social change in a global community through using technology.
4. Tokenism is a wall, not a bridge.
As the only black person in countless scenarios, I’ve been frustrated to be the ‘go to’ person people reference when they’re desperately trying to demonstrate they’re not racist or they ‘don’t see color’. Once again, for the people in the back: even though I’m the only black woman you know, I don’t represent all black women. So many well meaning white people’s efforts to appear non-racist backfire because their goal is to get out of an uncomfortable situation through active overcompensation; they escape rather than problem-solve. It makes for tonnes of unnecessary awkward situations which hinder progress and lose sight of the bigger picture. Would you be surprised if we resorted to creating a wall to shield ourselves?
For further understanding: strategic color-blindness i.e overly solicitous warmth, friendliness and refusing to acknowledge race even when it is central to a conversation are employed as active strategies to extricate oneself from a tense interaction.
Food for thought: a listen-and-learn approach is more welcome than professing color-blindness. Look beyond the surface. Make the effort to educate yourself on topics you’re curious about before you ask the token. You’ll likely find everyone’s answer will be different because humans are individuals.
5. Tokens are people too. They can be flawed
We’re all always learning. It’s a continuous process for everyone, including people from underrepresented groups. Unsurprisingly, this means lots of slips and surges.
Even though these two things are in no way similar, I can compare this journey to how we’re for the most part, trying to do our bit to be more environmentally responsible. We know as humans we’ve messed up the earth, and as a result, we’re dealing with the reality of climate change. Some days we’re on top of things, other days we’re not. This is like that.
Well meaning leaders and organisations employ effective practical tools and invest in what underrepresented groups are saying. However, the complexity of these issues often presents a real struggle to pull off the delicate balance between the personal stuff that an individual needs to work through and the systematic stuff the organisation is responsible for.
For further understanding: Multiple circumstances can trigger all sorts of traumas for underrepresented groups — and it’s different for every individual. As a result, this can lead them to an unhealthy space.
Food for thought: Set boundaries and work out how to strike a workable balance between the personal stuff and the systematic stuff, unless of course it’s a support group where the person is looking to get their healing done. I’d also recommend that leaders and organisations carefully assess what aspect of diversity they want to tackle first, then tackle others later. It’s impractical to do all of the things immediately because of limited time and energy. In saying that, the prioritisation aspect is no easy feat. There’d have to be regular transparent communication about the overall staggered diversity approach to other marginalised groups so that they’re not excluded.
If any of the observations above don’t illustrate how tokenism is a double sided coin, I’m not sure what does. It’s easy to do the bare minimum, tap ourselves on the back and think that we’re doing good by ticking this box. There is much more to be done. We (collectively) need to be introspective and employ curiosity about these matters so we can create more inclusive experiences at our workplaces.