There are many ways racism can show up in the workplace. But often, the most difficult one to address is tokenism. Tokenism exists when an organization does in fact have some people of color visible as the face of the organization or overly represented in the clientele, but those groups have little to no real power to make meaningful decisions in the organization as a whole.
Nowhere have I seen this play out more than in the nonprofit space of HIV/AIDS service organizations. In many cases around the country, we see the same thing: Organizations serving largely black and brown people who are primarily impacted by HIV have white people in nearly every director-level position. And often this remains unchanged and unchallenged over the course of many years, even decades.
I've worked in several HIV service organizations as a community liaison, early intervention services manager, HIV tester, social work case manager, and support coordinator. I've experienced the beauty of bringing community members together to achieve a common vision at some of these organizations. Unfortunately, I've also felt dehumanized and devalued by them, when the work I did with communities was not taken seriously and did not influence the overall mission and programs of the organizations for which I worked.
Tokenism is simply a form of covert racism. Racism requires white people to maintain their power by exercising social, economic, and/or political muscle against people of color (POC). Tokenism achieves the same while giving those in power the appearance of being anti-racist and even champions of diversity because they recruit and use POC as racialized props.
What does tokenism look and feel like? If your organization exhibits these characteristics, you may have a problem with racial tokenism:
- You convene special diversity councils or community advisory boards but don't have any POC leadership on your board of directors.
- The individuals crafting programs, strategies, and messages are white -- and your volunteer storytellers are people of color.
- You lack transparent processes for feedback and use methods of information dissemination that uphold white dominance and the status quo.
You Convene Special Diversity Councils or Community Advisory Boards but Don't Have Any POC Leadership on Your Board of Directors
I have been asked countless times to join a special leadership council, advisory group, convening, roundtable, task force, etc. to help educate large-funder or quasi-funder institutions on issues impacting POC and HIV. These projects, very sincerely pursued by their staff, are designed to help educate that institution on "what's really going on" with people of color and help flesh out initiatives targeting POC groups. Aside from the fact that these mostly non-POC-led institutions are engaging in "trickle-down community engagement," the POC leaders they recruit are rarely tapped to serve as members of that institution's board of directors or trustees.
This is a form of tokenization, because the board members of these institutions -- often unified not only by race, but even more so by class -- want to "learn," but from a safe distance, while retaining their authority and power. They avoid the discomfort of having anyone on the inside challenge their privileged worldview, which often determines organizational policies, systems, and practices.
The Individuals Crafting Programs, Strategies, and Messages Are White -- and Your Volunteer Storytellers Are People of Color
I can think of several all-white HIV/AIDS service organizations principally serving one or more minority groups that solicit people of color to share their stories of success, hardship, or trauma to funders, donors, as a program recruitment strategy, and in social marketing campaigns -- all for the financial benefit of the nonprofit and without pay for those individuals. Meanwhile, the organization retains all decision-making within their white staff and keeps people of color safely disempowered and on the outside.
While not every storyteller can be compensated (I understand the financial constraints under which most nonprofits are operating), recruiting POC to support an organization that doesn't value POC enough to hire or pay them is the ultimate form of tokenization. And when white people are the architects and gatekeepers of what stories are best to sell or move people around a cause, they will surely fail to understand key motivations, perspectives, and influences, because they are filtering everything through their own privileged lens.
You Lack Transparent Processes for Feedback and Use Methods of Information Dissemination That Uphold White Dominance and the Status Quo
Most white colleagues perceive themselves as cultureless, attributing culture and a prescribed set of behaviors only to POC. (When was the last time you read a research paper about the "behaviors of white men who have sex with men [MSM]," versus the dozens published annually on black or Latinx MSM?). This leads to a willful or convenient ignorance that an HIV/AIDS service organization's culture may be set up to maintain the status quo (often white-led) and block POC from rising in leadership or having any decision-making power.
Many HIV service organizations operate with a kind of indirect, non-transparent, and sometimes downright passive-aggressive organizational culture. We see this manifested in who at the agency gets invited to weigh in on certain decisions and what information is shared with whom -- and at what point in time. It is similar to the culture of politics: Savvy politicians refrain from making open and direct statements about their plans, projections, or positions, because the less people know, the more likely the politicians are to retain their seats and power.
Silence is a tool of the powerful, used to maintain power. If that's a part of your HIV/AIDS service organization's culture, then POC will not only be tokenized but will also be forced to either subjugate ourselves to your implicit control or risk speaking out and being accused of being uppity, confrontational, or not a good fit.
The three signs above are only a few examples of how tokenism and other forms of racism show up in HIV service organizations. I am critical of nonprofits, but only because I know that we can do better. I encourage people of color to share your own stories as a way to raise further awareness. To my white nonprofit colleagues, and especially for my resilient POC who continue to push for social justice despite the difficulties: Stay truthful, stay vocal, and support each other.
Our greatest tools are truth, our voices, and our organizing.