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Don't let yourself be the token BIPOC. Photo: Valeria Aksakova.

5 steps to avoid being tokenized in an arts organization

By Apartment613 on July 3, 2020

By Tiffanie Tri

Tiffanie Tri is a community builder, activist, and social entrepreneur with a passion for improving our music communities. She is the Chair of Girls+ Rock Ottawa where she works to increase representation and inclusivity in music.

As we enter the next phase of the great collective awakening by white people to the fact that racism truly does exist, we will begin to see organizations clamouring to be more “diverse and inclusive.” In order to keep up with the times, many organizations will be reaching out to marginalized communities, especially Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) and gender minorities, to join their organizations as staff and board members. I used to believe that this was one of the key elements of the foundation to a more inclusive world, but I was wrong. From my experience, simply adding a BIPOC or gender minority into an organization that is not already diverse and does not have inclusive practices and processes often leads to tokenism.

What is tokenism? According to our favourite gal, Merriam Webster, tokenism is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.” In practice, tokenism looks like you being the only person of a marginalized community in the room. Tokenism feels like microaggressions or gaslighting when you voice your opinion and it doesn’t align with those of the majority sitting around the table.

Good intentions or not, if there has not been infrastructure created within an organization to support and value marginalized voices, the organization will be getting more from you than you’re getting from them.

The fact is, if an organization has suddenly put out a call for more diverse staff or board members, aside from being a little late to the game, this branding exercise has the potential to be damaging for folks from marginalized communities. Potential side effects include tokenism, microaggressions, and being silenced. Good intentions or not, if there has not been infrastructure created within an organization to support and value marginalized voices, the organization will be getting more from you than you’re getting from them. This is especially important in the creative industries because organizations will be using your identity to prop themselves up when asking for grant funding and other opportunities.

So how can you tell if a call for diverse board or staff members is just a branding exercise, and how can you protect yourself, your time, and your energy? Don’t just ask for a diversity and inclusion policy — do this instead:

1. Look at the current members in an organization. Read their bios. Note who has seniority and roles of authority in an organization. Do BIPOC and gender minorities hold positions where they have decision-making ability?

2. Ask for board meeting minutes and attendance records from the last year. Some organizations will list BIPOC and gender minorities as board members even if they’ve rarely been to a meeting. You need to know who is actually at the table, if they are able to contribute meaningfully and shape the direction of an organization, or if they’re just there as diversity ornaments.

3. Ask about organizational structure, and make sure the legal and financial side of things are covered. Is the organization a registered charity, an incorporated non-profit, or a community organization? Make sure that the rules and best practices are being followed for each type of organization. For instance, incorporated non-profits cannot have owners. If an organization identifies as a non-profit, yet their leaders claim to be “owners” or “co-owners,” that inconsistency in governance is a red flag. If an organization runs year-round events, do they have board insurance? If an organization is a non-profit, does anyone on the board get paid? If so, for what role? Is there transparency on financial decision-making?

4. Look at how an organization and its leaders have responded to the Black Lives Matter movement – does it centre them in the narrative? Do they expect or seek praise and recognition for this? If yes, proceed with extreme caution. This is Performative Allyship and is not meant to help you. Instead, ask what an organization is doing to yield power and make space for BIPOC.

5. Turn the “application process” on its head. Instead of offering up your skills and expertise, ask what role you would be playing in the organization. Which of your skills and expertise would benefit the organization the most? What do they feel you specifically will add? And what can they offer you? Don’t forget — you’re interviewing them too.

It’s natural to feel excited and flattered at the thought of becoming a board or staff member at an arts organization. Maybe an organization provides a chance for you to get experience and exposure that you’ve never had before. This will need to be taken into a calculation that only you can make for yourself. Just remember that these organizations need you and your lived experiences to stay relevant today, not the other way around.

These organizations need you and your lived experiences to stay relevant today, not the other way around.

So before you jump in, take some time to do your research and get a better idea of what you may stand to gain, or lose, from getting involved. If possible, “date” the organization before you commit. If you’re being asked to join the board, participate in a board meeting or two before making a decision. If you’re applying for a job, call up some employees to learn more about the organizational culture before you accept. Reach out to current and past board members, employees, and community partners to get a sense of how an organization manages relationships.

In the next while, there are going to be a lot of invites for people from marginalized communities to join the board or staff of organizations in the creative industries. Now more than ever, these organizations will benefit from appearing progressive. But appearances can be deceiving. If we’re not careful, our identities could be used by Performative Allies to maintain a hold on funding, opportunities, accolades, and ultimately, the status quo.