By Courtney Dowe
What is the difference between tokenism and diversity?
I don’t fucking know.
Wait. Did you think that just because I have access to a computer and the ability to type that I would be able to quickly clear that little question up for you? *tsk tsk*
I’m just asking.
For many, diversity and tokenism are impossible to distinguish from one another, but the seemingly subtle difference between them is the difference between genuine progress and a new version of the same old bullshit.
The Urban Dictionary does not have a definition for tokenism, but it does have a definition for Token Negro: “A Black person whose interests and actions are profoundly non-threatening to whites…” This definition is helpful as I recall the countless times I’ve been compelled to say “that which should not be said” in the presence of Whites. Since any word or statement that could potentially make White folks uncomfortable is “that which should not be said”, the stakes are perpetually high when whether or not I speak up from moment to moment can easily determine whether or not I am contributing to my own tokenism.
In my research on the subject (today), I came across an outstanding article by Lauren Lyons entitled “The Curious Conundrum Of The Code-Switching Token Teacher”
. Yes, that title is everything and yes, you do need to stop reading this and go read something by another Black woman right now. Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you get back.
* * * *
She basically conveyed the essence of what I am getting at with all of this, so I will just leave you with one more thought.
A real commitment to diversity must include, not only a willingness to be uncomfortable, but a recognition of the need to be. Discomfort should be seen as a positive indicator that the work of cross-cultural understanding may actually be taking place. Otherwise, tokenism will continue to be a much more likely outcome than diversity, whenever those with real differences attempt to come together in spite of them.
—Courtney Dowe lives at the Compersia community in Washington, DC.
Intro, by Brittany:
The following piece was written by Sunya for her workshop at the 2016 Twin Oaks Women’s Gathering. She’s shy of writing but consented to my introducing her piece here. In our bylaws, Twin Oaks is defined as a striving to eliminate the “attitudes and results of racism,” and all FEC communities are forbidden to discriminate on the basis of race. The following piece shows that opposing racism on paper is not enough, that more is required to truly eliminate the results of racism.
Main writing, by Sunya:
I open my eyes and next to me i see blond hair and facial features that resemble those of the “superior” race. Tight and pointed. I smile with adoration, my heart flutters. I wake, our legs spun together like spaghetti on a fork. This man lies next to me… and then it dawn upon me that I, with tight unkempt curls in what someone with straight hair might call an afro, am lying next to this creature. someone whom society and conditioning has taught me to believe is much closer to perfection then I could ever be. Shit…my heart starts pounding, he is not awake yet , now is my chance to slip away, tidy my hair, flatten my bangs, make sure that I haven’t slept in such a way that accentuates my features. I want to look the least exotic as possible. to be as close to white beauty as i can.
Exotic, there’s a word that is rarely used to describe a white persons appearance. Us on the other hand have heard it a lot, I assume. “oh your, so exotic” or “wow, what an exotic beauty”. although these statements are usually offered as compliments I find them quite off putting. Websters dictionary defines the word exotic as “Very different, strange or unusual”. Even though many people embrace their differences, I assume that no one really wants to be viewed as “strange or unusual”
I come from a white world so when I first visited Twin Oaks I felt completely comfortable. it was only after spending a few months here That I began to feel effected by the lack of color. there were times during a meal when I could look around the table and see that I was the only one with dark eyes. twelve individual sky blue colored irises.
I get this discomfort, both here and in the mainstream when people ask me to take my hair down or if I have let them touch my curls, and they say in a surprised way “oh it’s so soft. The most fucked up about these occasional interactions is that I some how feel better. Like I have been able to prove my whiteness and there for some sick sort of superiority. It’s not the truth. It is what we have been taught. That is why I am doing this workshop today. I want to hear your stories and how you all have experienced being non white in this world. I want to come together and create something that is colorful, strong and undeniably beautiful!