By Emilie Koum Besson
When discussing about racial discrimination and inequalities at the workplace, too often the focus in on the definition rather than the impact. Recently, we have seen many articles explaining racial micro-aggressions, the Angry Black Woman stereotype, mysogynoir, etc. Those articles are meant to educate people about these issues by putting a name and articulating their definition but very little is known about the consequences.
Today I want to talk about Tokenism. I see tokenism as a form of (micro)-aggression. It is the practice of hiring a person that comes from a minoritized or racialised group only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are treated fairly or that diversity is important.
In this post George Floyd era, I believe that racialised and minoritized individuals have never been clearer that they only want the same opportunities and to be able to bring their unique background at work. It feels so good to be explicitly considered for jobs that in the past, we would pray to just get invited to interview while we knew ourselves to be the best candidates.
The past few months, with the avalanche of anti-racism statement and updated EDI/DEI strategies, racialised and minoritized groups have become more vulnerable than ever to more violent forms of tokenism. Imagine getting the job and it is all a lie. You get the salary; you get the title, but they only expect you to be a robot. Be happy just being here.
The reality is, the more vocal you are, the more likely you are to be contacted by people who are “inspired by you” and “enlightened by the current conversations” but here is what often happens after:
It starts with professional love-bombing which is an equivalent of narcissistic personalities but I love Gen Z’ ability to create new terms to capture complex situations. It includes Inappropriate gifts; Never-ending compliments; Excessive communication; Constant attention; “Soulmate“ claims; Demanding commitment; Disrespecting boundaries; Neediness; Overwhelming intensity; Uneasiness. Basically, they love you, they think you are amazing but slowly you realise that your opinion does not matter. They have a whole plan for you (you were not invited to that meeting) and are so excited about your future, but you just need to trust them because they have your best interests at heart. I initially thought it was saviourism because it is basically taking away your agency and hiding it under good intentions, but it is more complex than that. They want you to like them. They want to know everything about you. They think they know you and probably did a lot of “research” about you. They feel validated in their anti-racism/EDI journey by their proximity to you and will turn against you the moment you start to question their “good intentions” because they see it as a personal attack. Obviously, you know, they hired you because of your advocacy and who you are so how come you question their practices in that space?
Then, you become hyper-visible (eg, invited to meetings, big announcement about your arrival in a team, etc.) but behind closed doors, you are neither learning nor expected to grow. The only thing getting out of proportion is the ego of those who hired you. You are the public representation of the personal agenda of individuals more interested in looking diverse and inclusive than actually practicing diversity and inclusion.
You become more and more confused internally. You question whether the discomfort you feel is ungratefulness because “they say they love you and the expertise that you bring” and “maybe you should learn to trust” and “maybe you are too defensive” because you know, we (racialised and minoritized individuals) have been conditioned to protect ourselves for so long that maybe we just don’t know how to deal with “nice people” anymore…and it is kind of a dream job because (i) they say they hired you for you; (ii) were not afraid of your unapologetic opinions and it must means that they accepted you for who you are right?! They must really value you because why hire you otherwise? No! Actions speak louder than words and if what they say doesn’t match how you feel and they dismiss these feelings, they are gaslighting you and something is definitely wrong.
You slowly start accepting the wrongs, but you tell yourself that receiving a salary to do nothing sounds nice until you finally realise that in fact, it is just another reminder that you are not welcome in these spaces.
You consider resigning but think “If I quit, how do I explain/justify quitting what looked like a dream job?” while the real question really is “how do you justify to yourself staying in a place that makes you feel so miserable and where there is little to zero opportunity for personal growth?”
You feel worthless, depressed, lose interest in your work and sense of purpose
I do not think that worthless is a strong enough word to describe the feeling. What best describes this is dehumanised. It is “to deprive someone of human qualities, personality, or dignity”.
To be tokenised is to be dehumanised.
Diversity, inclusion, equity/equality, and anti-racism are supposed to be opposite of dehumanising which makes it even scarier to see those new and more subtle and insidious forms of racial oppression developing in workplaces.
To be tokenised is not just a definition. We must talk about its severe mental health consequences before the practice destroys the mental health of yet another generation of racialised and minoritized individuals:
Fear of applying to jobs — Fear of trusting a manager — Fear of being called difficult, ungrateful for just voicing an opinion or asking a question — Feeling stupid — Feeling useless — Loss of purpose — Depression — Burnout — Anxiety — The impact on your livelihood in a period where millions are struggling to find jobs — more
The reality is that racialised and minoritized individuals are more likely to do freelance work with the risks and lesser job security to avoid those systems of oppressions in the workplace.
Organisations should protect employees from tokenisation by formally recognising it as a form of bullying and harassment. Whether it is “race”, ethnicity, legal status (e.g., refugees and asylum seekers), sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, ableism, etc. Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion mechanism alone will not protect individuals from systems of oppression embedded in our societies.
Only accountability mechanism will create safer workplace environment.
To be tokenised is to be dehumanised.
credit - image cover taken from @amysmolcic medium article - Is it love or are you being love-bombed? Signs you’re entangled with a narcissist