Tokenism Hurts Everyone

It was 5-6 years ago when I got a phone call from someone. They were discussing the merits of “working from the inside” to change an organization. At the time, I just felt frustrated because it was pure tokenism and everyone knew it but the person it was happening to. Or maybe he knew too. He since learned his lesson, but the impact has had a long lasting effect.

Last year, some new claims of tokenism have popped up. Again, with the same organization. Are they bringing on autistic people to say “Look! We do have autistic people.” but then not listen to them? Or is there a meaningful shift happening to mean they’re actually going to value the input of their new autistic people? Who knows… Time will tell.

But I bring this up not to talk about tokenism on a large scale, but tokenism in general and in your backyard and maybe with you. These are just examples of a larger problem where it’s the fashionable thing to have a disabled person on staff, in the audience, as a friend. The real driver though is why is that disabled person there. Is it to make yourself feel better? Are you taking their input? Are their needs being met? Are you gaining more from their presence than they are gaining?

If the answer is yes, then you have a token disabled person.. A token autistic person. And it’s not cool. Because you’re hurting ¬†yourself.. You’re hurting your cause.. and worst of all, you’re hurting that disabled person. It’s taken me many days to come up with the fact that I have become a token for someone. It hurts to come to that realization because I want to believe, heck, I know, this person is just trying to be a good person and do the right thing. But it has come at the expense of my well-being.

I wish I had some solid ways to identify tokenism. I know they’re out there.. But this experience has left me quite aware of the fact that I’m not equipped to recognize it when I’m the token. If anyone has any ways to help me recognize it for next time, I’d really love to hear them.

Photo by stevendepolo

1 Response

  1. Tendai says:

    I’m sorry someone treated you like that. It sucks to be used. I value your input and your unique perspective and if I seem anything other than grateful and reciprocating it’s because I’m limited by my own physical issues. The biggest sign is like you said they don’t listen or value what you have to say but want you there because you prop up their self perceived reputation. I’m not sure I can recognize that I’m the token until after the fact either. Like how do you really know you’re being used until you’ve been actually used? It’s hard to see it when you’re experiencing it but awfully clear in hindsight like most things.

    When there are power structures in place I’m already suspicious of the other person’s intent but I’m not sure until I’ve seen them in action a couple times. It’s the insidious nature of the consequences of racism, sexism or ableism etc that makes you feel complicit in your own usery. It attacks one’s ability to trust period.

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