Why Everyone Needs to be a Token

November 24th, 2010

I feel sorry for anyone who has never been (or will never be) a token.

I was reminded of the value of tokenism in an unusual way last week.  I attended the National Communication Association 2011 Annual Conference in San Francisco and I went to a very thought –provoking session on “Solitude and Distraction” by Dr. Mara Adelman from the Seattle University’s Department of Communication.  The part of the workshop that captivated me was the segment on solitude and the power and importance of being alone.  It made me remember my days as the only black faculty member, first at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and then at Darden.

There are lots of downsides to being a token and a good deal of research over the past 30 plus years (starting with Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s classic book, Men and Women of the Corporation) has described them:  receiving heightened attention that creates extra pressure to perform;  being excluded from important social and professional networks;  being prevented from moving into non-stereotypical jobs (e.g., women were more likely to be stuck in HR or staff jobs that were seen more as “women’s work”).  Not only that, but the presence of visible tokens lulls others who share that token’s identity to believe that they, too, can make it, even though the reality is that very few people like them will, in fact, make it.
Given all this, it’s no wonder that most see tokenism as a bad thing.

But what occurred to me at the session I attended was that there is also a value to experiencing yourself as alone.  Too often, we covet the presence of like others because it counters all the bad stuff I just described AND it leverages the age-old adage that there is strength in numbers.

But these benefits shield the cost of numbers.

When I was a token in my early career, I often felt isolated and kept to myself.  As a result, I learned some powerful lessons, many of which I recalled in the workshop:

  • Heightened attention provided opportunities to shine. When I first learned about tokenism and critical mass, I learned that some tokens have amazingly positive experiences in their organizations.  They are successful in their work and are often well-liked.  Now there are some interestingly dysfunctional reasons for this phenomenon like: the majority highlights a token member as way to help the majority feel good about itself as it uplifts the poor token; or the reason the token is so good is because the average tokens never get to be a part of the organization.  Only tokens who are extremely capable ever gain entrance, so of course they are successful.  They are, as the saying goes “better than the best.”  But in this kind of situation, the token can garner resources and social capital that allow her or him to flourish.
  • I was able to draw on my creativity in unexpected ways. They say that when you are in a trying situation—one in which you have the capacity to overcome it, but not easily—you are able to actually able to learn and perform more effectively.  I became more innovative out of necessity.  My research became sharper and more interesting, in part, because I sat alone so long thinking about it.  My teaching improved as I became more comfortable being myself in class (see the next bullet) which was, for me, an innovative approach to being in the classroom.  If I was going to be successful in my endeavors, I realized that I could not easily rely on that which was external to me; I had to fend for myself.  Necessity was indeed the mother of invention.
  • I was more reflective in understanding my identity as a black person because that identity was so salient. Being the lone black person in these organizations meant that my race was always in the foreground for me.  Lots of social psychological research reminds us that it is difficult to forget the factors that make you unique when you are placed in a context in which you differ dramatically from those around you.  In an interesting way, I became more attuned and aware of what it was like to be black.  I read more and reflected more as I sought to make sense of my experience.  This deeper self-knowledge is one of the benefits of solitude.

The caveat I will add to all of this is that strictly speaking, I was not operating in solitude.  I was a member of an organization and that meant there were people all around me.  Indeed, it was that social milieu that helped define my experience.   Other people were the referents I used to experience myself as different.  But what I found illuminating as I reflected on the workshop was that one can be profoundly alone even among lots of people.  That is often the life of the token.  But that life need not be one of anguish and desperation (at least not solely).  It can also be a life of energy, renewal, and strength.  It can really be quite nice to be unique.

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3 Responses to “Why Everyone Needs to be a Token”

  1. LeeAnn Mallorie says:

    Thanks for this post Martin. I came across your blog about a month ago, as I am working on getting my own self online… Really love what you write. It makes me think. This post in particular gives me strength and a relieving different perspective on being an American woman in the UK. Hope we’ll see you around Sausalito again sometime soon.

  2. Holden Lee says:

    it is human nature to associate with others and join groups that organize on similarities, but if one reflects deeply enough, one can find uniqueness across multiple criteria that would allow tokenism to occur in any individual – hometown, college major, fanaticism for an obscure sport, unusual hobby, etc.

    as a korean-american, the hyphenated identity allows all sort of interesting variations versus the other. asians consider me american; non-asians consider me asian. even within the asian-american community, i’m of the korean-american segment. within the korean-american segment, i’m the 1.5 generation, fluent and assimilated within american life, differentiated between the complete 2nd generation who speaks no korean and the college/post-grad import.

    but race and visual identity is easy. as an assimilated korean-american, it is more interesting to discuss tokenism across other variables.

  3. Norm Roulet says:

    Hi Martin – love your writing. A few quick thoughts from a flip side you know well, where I live now… East Cleveland. I believe my family represents 5 of 36 whites in a 98+% black census tract – we sometimes have felt a bit different but not isolated… we are just new parts of a very old, established community – we are well received for the most part. Turns out we find mutual value among stranger-neighbors who have nearly opposite localized and global life experiences to either my wife or myself, and many of my best friends are black and from the immediate area, and I get along with pretty much everyone. I believe we find value in each other’s authentic individuality – as you say – and our unique life experiences help us see the world from important other dimensions… advice I have received about staying safe around here is actually important for my survival… my neighbors know life on THESE streets far better than do I.

    I bring in survival perspectives like we must eradicate lead poisoning – we must shut down the coal plant and stop a new one in University Circle – and I bring the knowledge we can fight the system I know far better than they do.

    And I think some of our neighbors are thinking it may be nice to have a chicken coop and fresh eggs each morning like the crazy white family with the huge garden, gravel driveway, wood-burner, five mastiffs and two wild boys playing over on Roxbury.

    We’re the token Green people in EC, so far….

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