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Breaking The Tokenism Cycle!

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

I was a seasoned pro in the Business & Leadership game, armed with a killer track record and a heap of experience. So, when I got offered a spot in the C-Suite at a tech company, I was over the moon. The interview process was surprisingly quick and easy, which should have set off some alarm bells, but I shrugged it off — after all, who am I to complain about a smooth ride to the top?


My first day on the job was a real eye-opener — I walked into the boardroom and noticed something was missing. Oh, that’s right, a chair for me! Talk about a red flag waving in my face. But I was determined to make a difference in this company, despite being the only woman in the room. It quickly became apparent, though, that I wasn’t hired for my expertise or qualifications, but as a token of diversity. And if the lack of a chair wasn’t enough, I had to trek down the hall to use the women’s bathroom while the men had a full bathroom right there in the boardroom. Another red flag? You tell me.


I was the go-to token for the company’s inclusivity needs. I spoke at events, led diversity campaigns, and participated in panel discussions. But there was a catch — I was always the sole representative of my kind, the only woman, and often the lone person of color. It felt like I was being used as a poster child to showcase the company’s “diversity,” while they conveniently ignored the deeper issues at hand. FML!

Despite breaking through glass ceilings and achieving great things, my male colleagues still treated my ideas and contributions like yesterday’s leftovers. They told me to be grateful for even being in the same room as them and to stop pushing for more. It’s like they wanted me to stay stuck in a gilded cage, admiring the view but never actually getting to spread my wings. But I refused to settle for crumbs when I deserved a seat at the table.



 

I finally found my voice and called out the elephant in the room — tokenism. I reminded my colleagues that I wasn’t hired for my race or gender, but for my skills and experience. It took me months of repeating this mantra, and there were times when I would break down in tears on the train ride home because the struggle was real. But you know what they say, “if at first you don’t succeed, repeat yourself until you do.”


Why didn’t I have an exit plan, you ask?


Oh, if only life were that straightforward. I couldn’t just pack up and leave, as much as I wanted to. No, no, no. I had to jump through all these hoops and show those immigration officials that I had a steady job — it’s just how the game is played, you know?”


 

My words were like a bolt from the blue, causing my colleagues to suddenly wake up and take me seriously. It was as if a lightbulb had gone off in their heads, and they realized they were not playing fair. Suddenly, my ideas and contributions were like the magic carpet that lifted me up and carried me to new heights of success.

I was finally able to spread my wings and soar.

Navigating through tokenism in the workplace was no walk in the park for me. Some folks spout advice from their ivory towers, thinking they know it all about toxic work environments.


“Grab those lessons!” they say.

What lessons, how to keep your sanity intact for 30 days? Ha!

My plethora of experiences serve as a reminder that true diversity and inclusion demand more than just surface-level nods — they require a sincere commitment to hearing and valuing the viewpoints of all, regardless of where they come from.


 

What Is Tokenism? Tokenism: the art of fake diversity! It’s putting a sprinkle of rainbow on a vanilla cake and calling it a celebration. It happens when a system includes a handful of marginalized individuals to give the impression of diversity, without really making an effort. This can take the form of ticking off boxes with quota-based hiring or making one person the poster child for an entire group.

Tokenism doesn’t just kill diversity, it destroys diverse thoughts and ideas too! It’s inviting a diverse group of people to a party but only serving them vanilla ice cream. (I am a chocolate type of gal)

Tokenism’s negative consequences go beyond just ignoring differences in opinion and choice — it also hinders innovation that comes from having a truly diverse group.


When tokenism takes over, it’s time to say goodbye to creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and progress.

Tokenism is the gatekeeper to the status quo! It is a systemic problem because it reinforces existing power structures, rather than challenging them.



 

How to Prevent Tokenism? Short answer — Don’t be an asshole — check your bias!

Be genuine in your desire for inclusion and change! Tokenism is a cheap knockoff, a perfunctory attempt to fulfill an expectation without actually putting in the effort. On the other hand, real inclusion comes from a genuine desire to change the systems of privilege and amplify more voices.


Avoid treating diversity as a trendy accessory for your organization’s social justice efforts.


Instead, embrace it as a fundamental principle that requires authentic and sustained commitment

Don’t just sprinkle a dash of diversity on top and call it a day!

It’s not enough to celebrate diversity only during short-lived initiatives like Black History Month or Pride Month. Instead, let’s make diversity a regular and meaningful part of our programming year-round.

Don’t just blame the players, blame the game!

Tokenism is putting a band aid on a bullet wound — it may cover up the issue, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem.


Admitting a few marginalized individuals into a system that’s designed to maintain the power status quo is like throwing them to the lions. They’re expected to conform to the rules and expectations of the privileged few while facing constant micro-aggressions and other forms of hostility. It’s impossible to win if the system is rigged against you.


To truly achieve diversity and inclusion, we need to evaluate and change the system itself, not just the players within it.


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