Can We Talk About Tokenism?
Ah yes, the elephant in the room that takes up so much space and no one wants to be the one to broach the topic. It happens every single day, sometimes in latent forms, and other times it is loud, blatant and boisterous. Yes, we’re going to talk about the big T: Tokenism.
For many Canadians of minority groups, and particularly for Indigenous peoples, it is our everyday reality. Many of us know when it’s happening, but are unsure what to do about it. “You want to take a picture of me beside this teepee?” “Wait…did I just get singled out in a meeting for being the only Indigenous person in the room?” “Should I check this EE box for this position that may or may not require Indigenous talent?”
Many of us wish there was something we could do about it, but remain unsure about pushing the boundaries for creating a complete culture shift.
What Exactly is Tokenism?
The Oxford definition of tokenism reads as “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of racial or sexual equality within a workforce.” Hogg and Vaughan take it a step further and explain that the effort of including a token employee to a workforce is usually intended to create the impression of social inclusiveness and diversity (racial, religious, sexual, etc.) in order to deflect accusations of discrimination (2008).
But surely (and especially in light of the Reconciliation Agenda), this can’t still be happening in Canada’s Public Service, can it?
Unfortunately, it is still happening.
And for Indigenous employees of the Public Service, it sounds a lot like the following experiences:
I will begin with my own personal experience of feeling tokenized while working in the Public Service. There were many instances, but this one stands out a little more than the others. At one point in my career, myself and another colleague were the only Indigenous employees in an office that directly deals with Indigenous peoples and issues on a daily basis. Our team, an amazing group of allies, was told by a non-Indigenous senior staff member one particularly sunny day that we would be receiving a visit from a Minister, and the senior staff member asked me to be sure to be there. Post-meeting, he thanked me for bringing an “authentic feel to the visit,” and that while my presence was appreciated on that day, he did not see my contribution to the office as “a long-term thing” (insert cringe emoji here!).
A good friend also shared a recent experience: “[…] a non-Indigenous employee pointed out how great it was that the [department] is starting to hire more Indigenous employees. Being the only visibly indigenous employee within the sector, I immediately knew I was being referred to. Although I choose to wear my traditional clothing, moccasins, and beadwork it by no means makes it acceptable for others to tokenize my existence” (Indigenous employee of a federal department, 2018). This employee was hired on a casual basis and has insisted on sharing her experience of feeling tokenized within a central agency to illustrate that there is much work to be done to address the elephant.
Another example: “I feel taken advantage of by senior government officials and ministers, who want a ‘token’ photo with an Indigenous person” (Survey respondent, Many Voices One Mind, 2018).
And: “As an Indigenous employee I do not want to feel called upon or feel personally responsible to educate, demystify inaccuracies, counter stereotypes and defend Indigenous Peoples, their histories and cultures” (Survey respondent, Ibid.).
Why is Tokenism a Barrier?
Indigenous talent takes on many different shapes and forms. Indigenous peoples carry a unique set of skills and perspectives which can and should be integral to true reconciliation. While underrepresentation of Indigenous peoples remains a concern, the fact is that many of those who are employed by the federal government are faced with more challenges than their non-Indigenous colleagues.
It has been expressed that the burden is heavy for Indigenous peoples to be educating, explaining, and defending their cultures in environments that should already be culturally aware. As indicated in the Many Voices report, “Participants expressed a sense of being ‘tokenized.’ They felt that they must constantly defend or explain Indigenous histories and cultures to non-Indigenous colleagues. Indigenous employees mentioned that senior leaders seek them out for photo opportunities. However, they did not feel they were called upon to share their Indigenous experience and knowledge when it really matters, for example, when designing a policy or program intended for Indigenous communities and peoples” (2017). After a while, this process becomes time-consuming, redundant, and quite frankly, exhausting.
And let us not forget about the label within itself. As one respondent of the Many Voices One Mind report explains, “I completed all the hoops I was told I must get through but then you hit the Indigenous ceiling and get pushed back. There is a point at which being labelled as an Indigenous employee becomes a barrier” (2017).
The rabbit hole of barriers is deep, dark and complex. It is important to keep in mind that they are all interrelated and that we can’t uproot one as large as tokenism without unpacking the rest. But do not fret. We will dive down that rabbit hole hand-in-hand at a later date.
For the intent and purposes of this post, what we must acknowledge here is that tokenism not only creates a discomfort for Indigenous employees, but it has also created a superficial appreciation for Indigenous talent.
Why is This a Problem?
By tokenizing Indigenous peoples and talent, it is not only dehumanizing, but it also removes the responsibility from managers and government to be aware of the issues and of the harm which is created by tokenism. Let’s not forget about the fact that it also perpetuates the many stereotypes (a topic also worth dedicating a few pages to!).
Creating token employees is merely a patch to disguise the bigger issues. For managers who do it, it removes the pressure of making a genuine effort to expand a team’s diversity and of providing meaningful opportunities to Indigenous employees.
Why is it happening?
Not all managers are merely looking to check the EE boxes. Many employers want to add to the diversity of their teams and want to make a difference. BUT. Not nearly enough managers are being asked, or asking themselves: “WHY? Why am I seeking Indigenous talent? Does this position actually require Indigenous talent? Will I be able to support Indigenous talent, and meaningfully include their perspectives? Or am I just another manager trying to meet a quota?”
How do We Address the Elephant?
If managers are nudged to rethink their intentions in looking for Indigenous talent, they would be breaking the trend of creating tokens.
How can we unlock the full potential of Indigenous talent if hiring managers are merely looking to check off a box?
A participant from the Many Voices One Mind report seems to be on to something with these thoughts: “I have had many good experiences over the years that have had big impacts but those windows for going in and making a change or having an impact have become increasingly more difficult to do as the years went by—it is starting to get harder to have an influence on decisions that impact Indigenous people” (2017).
How Will Addressing the Elephant Reduce it?
Priority should be given to Indigenous talent for positions that deal with policies affecting the communities.
Priority should be given to Indigenous talent for positions that require unique knowledge about the issues that directly affect Indigenous peoples.
Positions should be created for more community liaison, engagement, recruitment, advancement and retention of Indigenous talent.
Indigenous talent should be recognized and compensated accordingly. For example, there are many instances where Indigenous language speakers are asked to perform translation services on an ad hoc basis, but are not receiving acting translation salaries.
Considering the Reconciliation agenda, there should be translation positions created for Indigenous speakers to flex their language muscles. And for those who use their languages in their everyday positions, why is government not recognizing these languages with bilingual bonuses, at the very least?
Exemptions of Official Languages must also be considered, and thankfully, the work here is being explored by Indigenous employees of the federal government. The Indigenous Federal Employees Network (IFEN) is chipping away at this barrier and will continue to do so for as long as it takes to break it down.
Ultimately, hiring managers need to ask themselves: WHY!
How Should it Feel WITHOUT the Elephant?
When we look at how it feels to be tokenized, it is equally important to look at how it feels to not be.
When we become part of a team which supports, values, and incorporates Indigenous knowledge, not only do we begin to feel valued, but we also WANT to contribute to the dialogue of “reconciliation”.
Ignorance is a contributor to tokenism. When teams take the time to understand the issues of Canada’s colonial history, its impacts, and its ongoing legacy (colonialism is still very much alive), they begin to break the cycle, and (perhaps even unknowingly) become valuable allies.
An Indigenous employee who is not a token should feel as though their voice matters. They should feel as though they are as much a part of the team as their non-Indigenous colleagues. They should feel as though they could move along the corporate ladder and not feel stuck under the “Indigenous ceiling”. They should feel supported (not coddled - huge difference!) by their managers to seek out opportunities which will build and develop their unique talents. They should feel proud of the work they are performing.
Above all, they should feel safe to be Indigenous, and to speak out when they do not.
By protecting and creating culturally-safe environments for Indigenous talent to thrive, and not just for the sake of checking that box or taking the photo, we will surely see a rise in the value of Indigenous talent, and consequently, a reduction in tokenism.

Written by

Anishinabekwe always pushing for better.

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