On Tokenism

A token is something you use for entrée or approval. The token allows you to say you have met the requirements to be “in” a certain place. In my experiences, this token deal has never quite worked out the way it has been expected to work. Often this is because I am not the token they expected. I imagine this as being like when someone uses a coin or token and the machine that checks its validity violently spits it back out or drops it into a bin at the bottom of its structure. Someone who really needs it to work may ask an attendant or cashier to help, always assuming that the machine is broken, of course, only to be told “oh sorry this is a Canadian coin” or worse “this is from Chuck E. Cheese.” The spender puts it away or throws it in the trash and pulls out a new one. He or she inspects the new coin or token a bit more carefully and is so relieved to find it works. The token gets the user what he or she wants. The token metaphor works well to describe this phenomenon but my experiences have taught me to recognize a few issues that are important in the reality of tokenist situations. My experiences have varied across many different settings but the ones that resonate most are the ones in academia both as a student and as a professional. I have learned that in this metaphor, I am the odd coin. I usually don’t work in the machine. The problem with the metaphor is that I am a person – I cannot actually ever truly behave like a coin. Eventually even the shiniest most perfect tokens will not work because we are ALL people and the machine IS broken. Click here to read the full essay.