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There is a fine line between tokenism and diversity

20 May 2016

Back in February, three weeks into writing and a week before deadline, I had an article swept under my feet and given to a more “visible” black writer. I received an email saying: “I think as an editorial team we’d like to have a BAME writer cover this as a preference”. The publication did not know I’m mixed-race as I usually “pass” as white British (or Spanish, Turkish, Brazilian).

The article in question was a factual piece on the lack of ethnic minorities in the Bristol Council, prior to Marvin Rees being elected as Bristol’s first city mayor of Caribbean/African descent. Whilst The Bristol Cable have since apologised, this incident serves to illustrate how ethnic minorities can easily become pigeonholed. Editors see a topic about race and quickly find someone visibly of colour to fit the bill, in what I believe to be a tokenistic approach to handling topics on race.

Of course, as an often white-passing individual I am aware that I do need to take a backseat on certain racial topics, which often would be better articulated by non-white-passing folk. At the same time, media organisations need to realise that there is a very fine line between having a diverse range of voices and tokenising them.

Tokenism is the practice of cherry-picking a handful of societally underrepresented individuals, as a perfunctory effort to appear diverse and representative of the larger society. But in reality watch a movie or a TV programme and it’s guaranteed that the minor, usually stereotypical roles will be given to BME actors (who are also often the first to die). Meanwhile white actors are given greater freedom to act outside of their racial identity – as seen with Scarlett Johansson’s recent casting for the upcoming film, Ghost in the Shell.

Diversity and tokenism also comes when organisations employ people to enhance diversity, but then assume the skills and competencies of the individual are trapped within their identity. It becomes a problem when their identities are assumed to not be compatible with the mainstream. Within journalism, they are then only asked to write about black issues or Muslim issues, as opposed to being allowed to explore their careers and abilities in any area they feel interested in.

The nuances of experiences within the BAME community are often ignored by the media and there is a perception that all PoC think the same, which is false and ignorant. This in turn places greater responsibility and pressure on the 5.4% of ethnic minorities making up the creative industry to speak for all of their social category. Again and again BAME individuals within the creative industries are pigeonholed into representing parts of their identity, stunting their abilities to thrive outside their societally perceived self’s and thus perpetuating racial stereotypes and hindering their ability to speak on other issues.

There is also a sense of obligation that comes with this tokenistic approach, with PoC individuals feeling pressured to encompass a “black voice” for example, and to educate the larger society by speaking as a sort of representative.

As gal-dem illustrator Leyla Reynolds observed during her time at university: “I’ve definitely experienced tokenism in seminars and class room situations, where I’m either looked to as the token ‘other’ voice or the lecturer takes great pains to avoid my gaze for fear of being seen to be singling me out.”

It is this “black voice” which poet Audre Lorde, novelists Zadie Smith and Alice Walker constantly encountered and resisted throughout their careers. As Irenosen Okeji wrote in the Guardian: “It seems the industry likes to champion one or two of us at a time, but no more. There also seems to be few black and Asian male writers. Lack of diversity overall is a problem on the literary landscape.”

Whilst I don’t support whitesplaining, where racial topics are handled insensitively by white people, the media does need to find a midway point. Topics on race, religion and sexuality should not be expected to solely fall on the shoulders of those within those categories, and should be vocalised sensitively and appropriately by those that feel passionate about such issues. This will hopefully broaden the conversation, enabling BAME voices to speak beyond their social categories, just like their white counterparts.

That is why platforms such as gal-dem are so necessary, enabling more freedom within the media for BAME voices to speak on a range of issues, without the pressure of being typecast. Yet beyond these platforms, much more work is needed to re-evaluate how certain topics are handled, with tokenistic practices wrongly ascribed as being diverse, when in reality the creative industry still has a long way to go.