In my mind that’s what hiring committees say when they’re trying to “diversify”. Let’s check off these boxes. We need one in each category to cover all the bases so we can be diverse. As a professional, I’m not saying that I’ve been in rooms where conversations like this have occurred, but I have spoken to MANY people who have been in those rooms. The words may not be as blunt, but the message is the same. Let’s get one (insert underrepresented demographics here).
I hate being the token. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. The amount of energy that it takes just to get through the day is enough to make me want to give up some days. At school I was always the token woman. As a professional I’m almost always the youngest. Last, but we all know not least, I’m generally the token Black person and sometimes person of color. There is this unrealistic expectation that I know all things people of color. I know everyone’s stories. I can speak for all people of color. As a professional, I can be a resource for all the students of color. All students can relate to me just because I’m Black. Annndddddd in meetings I can be the voice for all underrepresented groups.
It’s so draining and I’m very much over it.
As a student I remember my first year in college in my honors english class when the professor brought up the topic of affirmative action. I was the only non-white person in this class. I vividly remember students making statements about how affirmative action wasn’t fair, and the teacher asking me specifically how black people felt about the conversation. I didn’t really say much, and I regret it. I remember feeling shocked. I didn’t really know what to say other than I can’t speak for all Black people. What was she expecting? In hindsight, I wish I had the courage to go about how misinformed the entire class and how problematic it is to expect one person to speak on the behalf of an entire racial group that is so diverse within itself! So, because I didn’t have it in me at the time to say all of that, I remember just kind of sitting there feeling I wasn’t supposed be there. Like I didn’t belong. Unwanted. Tolerated but not welcomed. Throughout my tenure as an honors student that feeling remained. Generally, I was the only person of color and often times the only woman (FYI - I was a finance major). I never really felt quite right in the classroom and those feelings of inadequacy followed me into my career.
Being the only _____, in my case person of color, in a department/division isn’t necessarily a big red flag. It’s definitely a sign that there is room for growth. Asking questions like: Why is there only one? What’s the game plan to change that? Does everyone understand why it’s important to have different people from different backgrounds with different experiences? Are these difference valued? Is the group open to learning from one another's differences to create a richer experience? Time will tell provide you with the answers to these questions; and knowing the answers to these questions will certainly help you figure out your place and how you want to move forward or move on, if that’s an option.
So how can we improve tokenism? That’s a great research project that I may embark in at some point. For now, I’ll say that hiring committees and admissions have to start with better intentions. Departments also have to hold themselves accountable for the biases and expectations they place on the only _____. Institutions must develop support services that can adequately serve different kinds of students. As schools diversify the services offered must follow suit. Leadership must be open and willing to address issues when they arise and not sugar coat problems or invalidate experiences. Lastly, we all have to be open minded. There is so much knowledge and value in our differences. I truly believe if we aren’t part of the solution then we’re part of the problem.
FYI - I’m writing this in the context of working at or attending a higher education institution, but I think a lot of the content can be applied to other spaces.