I have, at various points in my life, been the ‘token black guy’ in one social group or another. In the smaller groups it’s been simply the result of small numbers – if there’s 4 people in a group then it’s not exactly surprising that there will a token somethingorother. In other activities, my tokenism was the result of niche interests – there were precious few other black kids in either the youth orchestra or the drama program.* Still others, like both my undergrad and graduate school experiences, were due to things that would probably require some in-depth sociology to answer.
I don’t watch very much television these days – a function of little interest and little time – but I have long been familiar with the practice of inserting a token dark face into commercials. The idea, I suppose, is to show that even black people like to eat at The Keg, or something, provided they are surrounded by their white friends who get the vast majority of the camera time. Much rarer are the commercials where folks of colour make up the majority, with a few white faces peppered in (salted in?) for ‘diversity’. Now, this may be vastly different in other parts of the world, and if it is I would very much like to be made aware of that.
If we are indeed as ‘post-racial’ as we pretend to be; if race really “doesn’t matter” when casting a group of friends enjoying beers on a patio, then there is really no good reason why there should so often be only one (or, if you’re really progressive, perhaps two) people of colour in your commerical, or in your office, or in your cabinet, or in your [insert endeavour here]. The fact that this is the case with depressing frequency leads me to believe that tokenism is nothing more than a shallow show of forced diversity aimed at showing how ‘not racist’ your group is. “Racist? Couldn’t be. If we were racist, would we have hired Angela? She’s… um… Thai. Or Taiwanese. Or Turkish. Something weird with a T.”
I can understand the motivation behind such posturing. We’ve been taught that being ‘a racist’ is the purest of evil things to be. In ‘our’** societal recoiling from the horrors of unchecked and unabashed racism that marked the colonial and post-colonial eras, we rightly recognized the damage that racism does. However, while remembering that racism is bad, we have quietly glossed over why. As a result, so long as we were able to convince ourselves that we were ‘not racist’, we were then free to engage in as many racist behaviours as we liked.
Of course those of you reading this blog know enough to reject the concept of being ‘a racist’, instead favouring the idea that ideas, institutions, and behaviours can be racist, but people are only ‘racists’ to the extent that they participate. What we see from this superior definition is that, rather than burnishing our ‘not racist’ bona fides, tokenism is actually not only a reflection of racial preoccupation, but a not-so-subtle indication that we’re more concerned about preserving our image (both public and internal) than we are with acting to advance the cause of equality.
Rather than mount the usual liberal soapbox and scold people for failing to think or care deeply enough about this issue, I will instead offer the following suggestion: including more people of colour (PoC) in your organization serves your own rational self-interest. As I’ve argued a number of times before, diversity isn’t just good for reasons of morality and fairness – it actually makes life better for everyone. By including a variety of different perspectives, you not only increase the level to which your organization is capable of speaking to a plurality of issues, but you also decrease the chance of your privilege blinding you to some important information.
And when we reach this understanding, we expose the central conceptual flaw in the practice of tokenism. Too often, we see instances where token PoC are brought in and asked to give an account of “the X perspective” where X is whatever racial group that the token person is supposed to be able to reduce to a single point of view. It is rarely a good idea to assume that any PoC walks into a room armed with the requisite knowledge to represent what their entire group thinks – the exception, I suppose, is if that person also happens to be a sociology scholar in that particular area. It is an even worse assumption that the token PoC will appreciate having hir “exotic” minority status shoved in hir face at all times.
That being said, when PoCs (or, to broaden the point, any person coming from a non-majority background) are involved as equals in decision-making processes rather than relegated to an amusing racism-deflection device, you stand a much better chance of making choices as an organization that reflect the full scope of reality rather than an unjustifiably-assumed objectivity that no one point of view can truly reflect. As a result, the group becomes much stronger and more agile. The presence of PoCs no longer stands out as ‘special’ or ‘token’, but instead suggests that they are included for their contributions rather than their skin colour.
And, on a personal level, I can say that having functioned both in a tokenized capacity and as an equal member of a multicultural team, it is not difficult at all for me to state my preference. I would imagine that feeling of being a team member rather than a mascot transcends my own experience as well, but I can’t speak for anyone besides myself.
That being said, if there’s a group of white people who want to take me to The Keg, I’m 100% down for that.
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*Of course, I should point out that in schools that have a large black student population and well-funded arts programs probably do a much better job of recruiting interested black students than my school did. It is only now, looking back, that I notice this discrepancy.
**Once again I am slipping into the easy vernacular of Eurocentrism. I trust you will insert all the appropriate caveats where necessary.