Discover more from Hold That Thought by Sarah Haider
On Being a Token
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Recently, President Biden announced his pick for the Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Jackson, who is (as promised) a black woman. I noted on Twitter that the President would have done her a favor had he simply picked her, rather than first announcing very publicly that he would only pick among the smaller pool of black women.
His gesture might have served him well, but it did her a disservice. She will always bear the burdens of being a diversity pick – a “token”.
It was very surprising to me to find quite a few people who appeared to deny this – they did not see what was so harmful about Biden’s declaration.
Perhaps the harms are obvious to me because I have experienced tokenism first-hand and witnessed the detrimental effects on all parties. I have also seen how, once it begins, it becomes a vicious cycle, feeding upon itself and becoming near impossible to break.
In fact, we may already be past the point of no return. Superficial diversity is our present and our future. It has already become an unspoken custom in most spaces – we can look forward to more explicit and ubiquitous “diversity picks” in the coming years.
It should go without saying that there is enormous pressure to tokenize minorities - a pressure that is felt most heavily in groups that adopt a politics which highly values racial equality.
In my time in the highly progressive secular community, I have seen just how severe that pressure can be, and how it can alter the priorities and incentives of a group beyond all reason.
One experience stands out in my mind. At the ripe old age of 23, I was elected to a board tasked to organize a very large, very expensive event. I had no experience in event coordination, in fact, limited experience in working at any kind of job at all.
I assume (but cannot know for sure, of course) that there were a few seats set aside for “community representatives” - and I was the closest thing to an ex-Muslim leader in the nonprofit world. Not quite an explicit diversity pick, I imagine, but undeniably close.
During this time, it was the height of fashion to despair over the “whiteness” and “maleness” of atheism, and many leaders in the movement were gravely concerned with improving this image.
The fact that many atheist luminaries also happen to be white men was a damning indictment in the eyes of the growing faction of social justice radicals - who were increasingly counting organization leadership among their ranks.
This was many years before Ibram Kendi’s “outcomes only” approach to racism had come into public consciousness, but the atheist community was already operating along these lines, in no small part due to years of campaigns by a noisy group of agitators.
In practice, what this meant was that if the event’s line-up was insufficiently diverse, no amount of explaining by organizers would help - we would face the reputation-destroying slander of the self-appointed community police.
And so, inordinate amount of time was spent trying to court the minuscule number of visible minorities who were also famous and also atheists for our event, and shockingly little in engaging the real stars of our movement who could reliably bring out large crowds.
But as these efforts came to naught, and the line-up remained too white - the open tokenizing began. I watched in disbelief as the pretense dropped altogether and the scrambling for brown faces began. Otherwise highly unexciting and unqualified people began to be considered for prime slots.
Incredibly, I even witnessed dissent to British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie because “if we threw him into our website lineup, he'd look like yet another white guy.”
The diversity gods required a paper-bag test, in other words.
Meanwhile, a legendary but extraordinarily expensive rap group was invited as the musical talent - despite being a laughably bad fit for our audience of white nerds. (Out of curiosity, I looked up the recording of the performance on YouTube recently, and found multiple comments baffled at the “low energy” of the audience, despite a killer set by the group. ”the waaaackest crowd”, said one commentator.)
The foolishness of these choices was evident to me then - it was clear that the fear of an irascible minority was holding our better judgment hostage - and I piped up to dissent where I could.
But my protests were quickly dismissed. I suspect this ease had something to do with the fact that my seat at the table was of a different kind - theirs “earned” through one way or another, mine granted through the goodwill of others.
The event, you have probably guessed by now, was a failure in almost every sense. The silver-lining is that at a very young age I saw the sausage-making up close - a uniquely unfettered look into the pathologies that have now come to grip nearly all progressive institutions.
In a healthy working environment, severe mismatches in capabilities between team members don’t stay that way for long. High performers rise, low performers stay put or are let go. The natural resentment which can develop in such teams towards the less productive members is tempered with the knowledge that, eventually, the better work will be better rewarded.
But if the weaker member is a tokenized person, the same rules do not apply. In order to achieve their goals, team members will learn to “work around” their weaker coworkers - who will find themselves slowly relegated to the least important work.
In fact, in this system the tokenized individual doesn’t even have to be less competent. The circumstances of their inclusion create an expectation of less competence - the tokenized person might find themselves marginalized right from the beginning, kept at a distance from both criticism and meaningful responsibilities - unable to prove their worth.
More insidiously - I’ve personally witnessed deeply unethical (even downright criminal) people take advantage of the impulse to tokenize to gain power.
Hucksters have recognized an easy game - they can use their racial/sexual identities to guilt-trip leaders into granting them positions, and then use the power and prestige gained to harm their own communities through ineptitude and outright fraud.
Over time, the dynamics tokenism fosters can also drain real talent. I’ve witnessed incredibly intelligent, hard-working black and brown people walk away from the secular community - uncomfortable in an environment in which they feel they are valued only for the good PR they can provide. They know their talents will not be fostered through meaningful experience and critical feedback, and they leave, ceding the ground to more dysfunction.
As a result, the object of the supposed diversity efforts - equality- is fundamentally undermined.
It seems to me that the above effects are fairly obvious. So why are they ignored?
One reason is that this is a subject many people would prefer to ignore. It is uncomfortable for all parties.
On the part of minorities at risk of being tokenized - I can speak from experience at the dilemma one faces. No one wants to believe that they don’t deserve their seat at any table - the reality of tokenization is damaging enough to the ego that there is a powerful incentive to pretend that it isn’t happening (or that it isn’t happening to you). And of course - it appears to be the easier road - in the short run anyway. Who can deny that millions of others take advantage of the privileges that might grant them shortcuts too? It is not easy to resist the temptation to take this road and indeed, in some circles one is practically relegated to it.
The calculation faced by organizations doing the tokenizing is an entirely different one. The extent of their tokenizing is determined by balancing their needs of efficiency in the organization, and the intensity of the pressure they feel to display their anti-racist credentials. The effect on “equality” does not play a role at all.
But I’ve found that an increasing number have convinced themselves that the explicit act of grafting minorities into positions of power can in itself advance racial equality. Powerful minorities - unlike powerful whites - are presumed to also serve as authentic “voices” of the community. Powerful whites are never asked to think on behalf of their race - to encapsulate in their own self the fullness and range of values and perspectives found within their racial group - and indeed we would find it absurd and unseemly if they tried.
Powerful whites are individuals with their own independent desires - but minorities are figureheads, embodying the collective from which they stem and serving its needs dutifully.
Even if this expectation to serve as avatars for large swathes of people was reasonable - the mechanism by which they are selected ensures that tokens will never come close.
In order for anyone to serve as an authentic community leader - they must arise organically through their work within the community, through their efforts in tackling the issues faced by the community. But in the token system, the communities don’t choose their leadership - the whites in power do.
As a result, tokenized minorities instead reflect the values dominant among the whites who choose them. Anecdotally, I’ve seen this play out time and time again within the secular community. Less anecdotally - we can see the results of this clearly in Democratic party politics.
The inconvenient reality is that - despite the display of many minorities in highly visible positions - the woke movement is as white as it is progressive. Poll after poll, election after election make clear that racial and ethnic minorities generally do not share the views of the cultural left, and yet there are more minorities in highly visible positions who seem to embody the most extreme tenets of woke-ism.
This superficial treatment of race continues to have downstream effects - we are witnessing its absurd results in the voting booth. This is how we arrive at a reality where despite unrelenting media coverage about the white supremacy of Republicans, Donald Trump gained black and brown votes in 2020, while the Democrats gained among whites. Meanwhile, the black politician - highly celebrated by the media as a historic “first” and almost certainly chosen for the Vice Presidency due to her race - struggled to gain votes among blacks.
What we are seeing is an unmooring of racial politics from the people they are meant to serve, and I am not optimistic that this trend will reverse any time soon.
I wish I could end this essay with a note of optimism - but try as I might I haven’t been able to find a silver-lining here.
What we are bound to see (in the short-term anyway) is more explicit racism that professes to be anti-racism, more marginalization of minority communities, and more dysfunction in working environments….all of which will lead to yet more demands for superficial diversity, which will in turn make matters worse.