One of my philosophies surrounding diversity and inclusion work is that it is less about a rabid list of do’s and don’ts and more about having a mindset that prepares you to be culturally competent.
However, over time I’ve seen that there are certain terms and phrases, above and beyond obvious racial slurs, that are like nails on the chalkboard when used.
For example, the use of the word “token,” in almost any environment, will grate on someone’s nerves.
For a long time, token was used as an identifier of an obvious difference — a “one of these things is not like the others” moment: Mary is the token female assistant vice president. Manuel is the token Latino working in the department. The offensiveness of the word is pretty obvious as a quick way to marginalize someone. It’s a shorthand way to imply that a person doesn’t have that job because of qualifications, but because of demographics. Most people can agree that that is a no-no.
However, in recent years I have heard the word used far more frequently as a jokey form of sarcasm or self-deprecation — by the only man in a group of women, or the only white person in a group of blacks and Hispanics, calling himself the token man or the token white guy.
To the person making the comment, it may just be a way of trying to fit in. Sometimes, that person is making a back-handed commentary on how unfair the world is outside that room. I personally think, more often than not, it’s someone who has a fleeting interaction of not being in the majority and needs a way of dealing with the discomfort. But honestly, the joker isn’t dealing with the discomfort but shifting it to people who are usually in that same situation most of their lives.
When I hear such “joking,” I’m less offended than highly irritated. It makes me wonder whether the person ever thinks about how many times I and many others are in the same position — and whether that person realizes that for some people it’s that way nearly all of the time. It makes me wonder how the person would take it if someone usually in the minority made a comment about being the token black or Hispanic or woman or gay person in the room. The in-the-majority person would probably feel uncomfortable, and as if the other person was being accusatory.
So, if you’re usually in the majority you don’t have to put using token jokingly on your don’t list. But if you don’t, do take my word for this: No matter how little harm you mean, it will be taken by someone as you rubbing it in that you usually are in the power position, where you don’t even have to notice differences.
Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at www.facebook.com/diversitydiva.