Feeling Tokenized? Here’s What You Should Do

Photo courtesy of belatina.com belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of belatina.com

Racism is one of those monsters that changes its face and mimics itself in all social spaces. Sometimes we simply don’t notice when gestures of inclusion and diversity are not genuine or when they come with a hidden agenda.

Being part of a minority demographic, how are we supposed to recognize all the ways in which we are discriminated against and which have sharpened over the years? More importantly, how can we distinguish situations of racism when we have become accustomed to it?

It is a chasm of systematic failure that is consistently set up to cater to the elect and disadvantage the rest.

A method — or loophole, if you will — that is constantly used to avoid being called “racist” or showing “lack of diversity” is tokenism. 

What is tokenism?

Tokenism is defined as “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate).” While many of us see companies being more diverse and applauding what we see as overdue progress on the surface, others are finding out that this is a method to mask diversity. They cede to the pressure of this diversity by people of color hired to solely meet a quota in their workplace. 

We recently saw this increment in hiring people of color due to many factors, especially the conversations sparked upon George Floyd’s death that highlighted Black Lives Matter’s #BlackoutTuesday. As a result, one of the many crucial points was the push to support black-owned businesses, small-owned businesses and hire people of color. But did corporate companies actually employ more people of color or just wait for the moment to pass on and get back to business as usual?

These questions only scratch the surface of this failed attempt at practicing inclusivity. How can you tell you’re being tokenized at your workplace, though? Well, look at who runs your company. Look at who is ultimately benefiting from all your work, especially your unique point of view as a person of color.

For example, why all of a sudden are people drawn into your valued opinion as an immigrant? Are there many like you in the company, or are you the only POC/LGBT/woman/etc. in the table with what eventually results in more expected pressure based on representation? 

According to an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, Edward H. Chang, “There’s a lot of pressure for many organizations to have certain amounts of diversity. If you’re part of an underrepresented demographic group, you may believe that there are strategic benefits in competitive organizations to being one of the only ones in your team or organization with your identity.”

Although this sounds reasonable and a way “in” for someone in our minority group, this could be a sign of tokenism: when you’re hired only to fill in a certain quota or diversity role.

In some cases, people of color are getting hired blind-sighted without knowing the additional pressure to fulfill tasks that white (or other) hires are not responsible for. How will you hire people of color and expect the most from them? Instead of hiring them for what should be a step forward for inclusivity and diversity, could this be a step back only to lay off outside spectators? And if this is the reason, how do we move forward with this knowledge?

If this resonates with you, it could be that you’re a token in your company. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s set out to be a negative experience. There are positive ways to succeed and take advantage of this place holding. Why not create your own narrative and plot twist? As a minority, it’s not like we’ve never been shunned out before. Like phoenixes, we rise from all that toxicity! 

There are many ways to navigate this bittersweet sense of “diversity” in the workplace.

The art of asking for more

You can ask for more, knowing that your position is in some ways needed by your company’s Human Resources department. Ask for more information, and if you suspect that there are additional pressures and expectancies in your role versus that of your counterparts, speak about it. Ask why and what they are to fulfill them, and if it’s too much, ask for more money or support.

Why are people of color expected to be silent and “happy to be here” when we meet all role qualifications, just like the other dominant ethnic or gender group? After all, we went through it all just like you did to be where we are. We’ve checked out all the boxes and succeeded in our goals to be given the same respect and opportunities as others.

Create a chain of support

Another idea is to use the space given to you to continue supporting others. Give back to your community and your people. Find ways to redirect your company’s initiatives in a way also to include minorities and small businesses. For example, this could be in the smallest ways: is there an event coming up where you can showcase small companies or use the event’s spending to help out others like you with employment? Sometimes it’s as effortless as recommending a small business to a corporation – they are going to spend the budget anyway, might as well spend it mindfully!

Tokenism and genuine diversity and inclusivity is ultimately an unguided pathway that we have to figure out for ourselves as we go through it.

In this modern era, we are fortunate enough to have support systems and online resources that can help us navigate these unspoken terms non-existent to others who don’t experience it first hand.

Whether it’s because of ignorance or unknowingly turning the other way, it’s up to us to make the best out of these less than conventional situations. If there are others in your company that represent the same community as you, talk to them. Create your own allies and safe spaces within your element.

We’ve come a long way to be included in unthought-of places, but now we must continue making sure these spaces are protected in the same way they are to others.