We need to have a conversation about tokenism. Why? Because tokenism has a lot to do with representation and representation has a lot to do with – you guessed – storytelling and empowerment. Let’s start at the beginning, as all good storytellers should do: what do we mean by tokenism? This term is used to describe a perfunctory effort to include minorities within contexts from which they are usually excluded. Such efforts are considered to be insincere and only aimed at protecting those who perform them from having their policies stigmatised as discriminatory. In other words, if an employer only has one black employee, if a book prize is only awarded to one woman every 10 years, if a large organisation only has one lgbtq+ person in a managerial position, you might safely assume they are making a token effort not to be accused of being racist, sexist, queerphobic and so on.
If you think this definition helps you tell who is being virtuous and who isn’t and that being aware of it will be enough to advance any minority’s chance at inclusion or fair representation, you are misguided – and a little bit adorable. Because tokenism and tokenism awareness combine into a double-edged sword. And guess who is going to get cut on both edges? Women. People of colour. Disabled people. Lgbtq+ people. In short, that vast majority of the world’s population that commonly falls under the umbrella definition of “minorities”, on account of not being cis, straight, white, middle-aged, able-bodied men.
Tokenism and the “Aunt Lydia” trap
How is tokenism a double-edged sword? Because it exists, but at the same time we need to believe it doesn’t. Because it is not everywhere, but there is plenty of it. And because not being aware of all implications can create dangerous narratives.
Awareness of tokenism, on the one hand, provides the perfect excuse for exclusionary narratives, dismissing the achievements of anyone whose identity intersects with at least one minority. Netflix’ Global Chief Marketing Officer Bozoma Saint John, for instance, has had precisely this insinuation made at her spectacular and entirely well-deserved career, which inspired and empowered countless women (myself included).
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Oh, I was in my bag on this day! So here’s a repeat Monday message for those in the back... and for those who forgot. TUH. 🗣🗣🗣 Anybody else feel like this?? Thanks for resurfacing this one, @girlboss and for putting the entire interview on your podcast) #MondayMotivation #IveGotTheReceipts #IveGotTheSauce
THE AUNT LYDIA TRAP
On the other hand, whenever tokenism does occur, it often has the effect of turning the token minority individual, however, qualified they might be, into a gatekeeper of exclusion. Rather than call their own achievement into question, most people would defend the organisation or the company who has hired them or given them an award as a purely token effort and therefore will end up gaslighting those attempting to point out said organisation’s or company’s discriminatory policies (this is, of course, a very broad generalisation). Ever since The Handmaid’s Tale became an international success, we now call this kind of gatekeeper an “Aunt Lydia”. Before that, we might have been contented with contemplating how Margaret Thatcher being one of the best known English prime ministers of all time can not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a feminist achievement.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? A STORYTELLER’S DILEMMA (NOT REALLY A DILEMMA)
A full-blown battle of narratives is taking place in our society and the stakes are higher than we think. The two conflicting narratives find themselves on opposite sides of the glass ceiling, arguing about its existence and chipping away at the empowerment of minorities at all levels, diminishing the achievements of some and barring the way to the top for others.
Is there a way out of this stalemate? If you have been following this blog, you are probably expecting me to say that we can solve the problems of discrimination and tokenism by changing individual narratives. Not this time. Or rather, storytelling does have a part to play, but it can’t be considered a substitute for real change. This is not, however, the right place to discuss the political merits of diversity quotas. This is about how we use storytelling and the power of representation to contribute to real change.
What we can do, at this stage, is create narratives that uplift change-makers, provide representation to categories that do not have it, and strive for correct storytelling. One recent example is the story of Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, who have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on a new genetic editing method. Telling their story correctly means mentioning their names and achievement in the title like any self-respecting newspaper regularly does when men win Nobel Prizes. Rather than yielding to the inexplicable temptation of titling our article “Woman wins Nobel Prize for Chemistry” and then delving into a paragraph-long description of said woman’s family life, hobbies, and marital status, before even mentioning her work – like an embarrassing number of mainstream European media recently did.
This time I’m going to end my mental meandering on a question: what kind of narrative makes you feel empowered when you read/see it?