Sometimes, you don’t realize you’re being used as a token until it’s too late.
When I worked as a freelance copywriter, one of my main clients was a business that needed support with their internal and external marketing materials. For the most part, I only interacted with the business’s marketing director. My in-person meetings with the marketing staff were primarily limited to the handful of times I needed to speak with an employee about content I was working on.
One day, I got a call from the marketing director. The marketing staff was having a meeting with a representative from the City and they wanted me to attend. Would I be willing to come in person to the meeting? I quickly agreed, excited about the prospect of being included. I wondered if it might mean I would be more integrated with the team, or whether I might possibly receive more work from the business. I chose a professional outfit, got to the meeting early, and, certain that this would be a professionally enriching opportunity, did not expense the meeting as part of my services.
My hopes were soon dashed. As the meeting began, I learned that the City’s representative, who was Hispanic, had raised questions about how the business was serving the city’s Black and Hispanic residents. This meeting was meant to assuage his concerns.
I looked around the room. Besides the representative, I was the only person of color. It dawned on me why I was asked to be there. My heart sank into my stomach. I closed my teeth together and felt my blood boil with a mixture of shame, embarrassment, disappointment, and anger.
I was a token.
The marketing director had invited me – a freelance writer – to the meeting to make the business’s staff look more diverse than it was. It was an insult to both me and the City representative. And really, it was an insult to the business itself – not only because of its lack of diversity, but because it seemed to believe the only way it could make progress was through a lie of omission, rather than truly working to achieve better results through asking actual people of color what they wanted and needed.
I became very aware of my heartbeat and heard my blood rushing in my ears. During a conversation about how to reach out to Black communities, the sound cleared.
“I have an idea,” I said. All eyes turned to me. The marketing director looked surprised; tokens are not supposed to speak. I made eye contact with the City representative. “Many churches in communities of color are already connected to the needs in their neighborhoods. Maybe this business can try connecting with them to market its offerings.” In speaking, I tried to signal to the people in that room that I have a voice; that I am a person; that I am not a thing to be trotted out and kept silent.
I’d like to say I gave that business a piece of my mind after the meeting and walked out the door with my held head high and a satisfied smile on my face. But during the meeting, I was working a complicated calculus. This was a decent paying gig and a notable business in the community. I needed the money and couldn’t afford a reputation as being “difficult.” Besides, what could I say to them that would not land on deaf ears?
What I notice now in retrospect, though, is that I started to move away from full-time freelancing. I told myself it was because I missed teaching English, I was tired of marketing my skills, and I wanted a predictable stream of income. This was part of it. But the fuller story is that I was tired of marketing myself in an environment where I couldn’t predict whether or how microaggressions or outright bias would show up. I didn’t like the uncertainty and the constant second-guessing. Would I not be paid for months and be asked to be patient when I sent invoice reminders? Would I risk unemployment if I spoke up for myself? Would I be tokenized? Would I be treated this way if I were a white man? I returned to teaching and freelanced only for entities I knew and trusted.
“You wouldn’t handle that situation the same way today,” my husband said recently when I reminded him of the meeting. “Now, you would probably say something about what they did.”
I like to think that I would. But I also know that when I stand up for myself, I risk negative repercussions, especially as a woman and even more so as a Black woman. Perhaps that’s why over the years, I’ve noticed myself bending over backwards when I offer an idea contrary to someone who is my professional senior – and who has almost always been white. I think and rethink what I will say, considering how to phrase my opinion so it lands softly. I make sure my statement is buttressed with ample evidence and sound rhetorical support. I wear a friendly smile and use a congenial tone to avoid being seen as difficult or as thinking I am “too good” for my job (a charge a former boss leveled at me when I raised concerns that the administrative assistant and grant writing position for which I was hired actually involved no grant writing).
What I do know is that before I entered the meeting room, I would ask more questions. Like: What is the specific topic of this meeting? Who will be there and what is the purpose? Oh, you say this meeting is about diversity? Will there be other people of color there? Other women? Will all the people be able-bodied?
Internally, I would ask even more: Am I being used as a token to promote the business in a way that isn’t true? Am I representative of a true effort to include the voices of people of color, or am I merely the figurehead of an attempt to check all the diversity boxes? Am I being compensated materially or in some other way for this emotional or optical labor? Is this compensation worth it? And is this a welcome and safe place for minorities and people from traditionally marginalized backgrounds to work?
Back in that meeting, I wish I asked these questions. Though I try to give most people the benefit of the doubt, I wish I had not been so naïve. And I wish I had said something – anything – about how I felt used so that business would not put another unsuspecting person into a tokenized role without their consent.
The best I can do now is commit to being wiser. I have forgiven myself for not knowing what to say or how to say it during that meeting those years ago. And I have given myself permission to speak up on my own behalf and to choose more positive work environments that consistently treat me as a whole person rather than a means to an end. Finally, I am working to feel empowered to walk out of a room if it is filled with people who do not acknowledge my agency or my personhood – to realize that it’s never too late to extricate myself from being used as a token.