Black tokenism: how to stop box ticking when it comes to diversity

Black tokenism: how to stop box ticking when it comes to diversity

Yemi Penn

Recently, a friend and businesswoman I respect greatly phoned me, in the midst of finalizing a project application she was working on. She noticed that her team wasn’t as diverse as she wanted it to be, nor was it reflective of the diversity she strives for in her work.

They were women that, to some extent, looked like her – white with blonde hair. She called herself out as she wanted to do better, which I applauded her for. As she shared the obvious lack of diversity, I found myself starting to shrink. I knew what was coming. I was about to be asked to be the ‘Black Token’.

The conversation became a blur to me as I started to ‘soothe’ her – I was searching for the words that wouldn’t make her feel bad for asking me to be a ‘token’ to improve her diversity quota. I whole heartedly believe there were good intentions and she in particular is always ready to enter the arena. I also know that we cannot solve a problem we do not acknowledge, so I decided to share my discomfort and lessons with her, which she received with grace.

The truth is, most Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) and marginalised groups tend to feel they are the token ask for events where everybody but them is white.

While race is nothing but a man-made construct, something that racism was born out of, we must be brave enough to have the uncomfortable conversations to re-build a world that is not only Just and Equal but Diverse and Inclusive.

Given I am in the midst of creating my second feature film on trauma, I was shocked to realise after this conversation with my friend that I had suppressed the trauma of the Black Woman. The Black Woman is often forced to choose her gender over her race, depending on the cause that is being fought for on that particular day. The intersection of race and gender gets more complicated if you are in the LGBTQi community, are non-binary or transgender.

So, what can we do to remove tokenism from our day to day?

First, we need to ensure that diversity and inclusion (in its truest form) are not an afterthought. When building a team, seek out differences from the get-go, and difference on all levels. If your team is already built and majority look and sound like you, change it, but don’t just bring in a token, ensure you have a truly diverse team. For any project, programme or event, it is imperative that the team is diverse, not just at the working group level but the decision-making level. To suggest anything different would suggest that you are part of the problem and the system that upholds white supremacy and its privileges.

Secondly, we must encourage everyone, especially non BIPOC to call themselves out but also abstain from what Layla Saad calls White fragility and White centering. This is an inability to focus on the issue at hand (tokenism and racism) and ignoring systems that have been created to benefit them as a white person, therefore holding privileges that typically disadvantage others.

Third, you need to educate and soothe yourself. As a white woman and man in particular, you personally may not have done anything wrong but the system that dominates most societies has given you privilege at a disadvantage to others. To educate yourself, read books on race written by BIPOC to understand a different perspective, a narrative different to the one that has been told in isolation for centuries. This will show you your blind spots, strengthen your allyship and make you a fearless leader.

Tokenism is one part of a very large problem, and I’m drawing a line in the sand. I won’t be a token anymore, and it’s time we start calling ourselves and each other out on it.

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