Creating an equity & inclusion team in a white-dominated nonprofit is a business fraught with peril. Picture it*: You're launching your internal equity & inclusion action team. On this team of 10, only 2 people identify as POC. Of those 2, neither has a management role, and most of the other people on the team are managers or executive level.
You're probably asking yourself if those 2 people feel tokenized by their invitation to join the team. From Helen Kim Ho:
Tokenism is, simply, covert racism. Racism requires those in power to maintain their privilege by exercising social, economic and/or political muscle against people of color (POC). Tokenism achieves the same while giving those in power the appearance of being non-racist and even champions of diversity because they recruit and use POC as racialized props.
You have one-on-one conversations with the folks you're inviting onto the team, and one POC brings up some serious reservations. Among other things, he feels:
- suspicious of what you really expect him to contribute given his non-management position in the organization;
- unsure that he will feel heard in the room;
- skeptical that he won't be putting his job on the line by speaking the truth about his experience in the organization;
- incredulous about the idea that a group of mostly white managers are going to lead any real change.
So, yeah. Serious skepticism from someone who has a right to be skeptical. In examining whether this is a case of tokenization--which, as a reminder, would be using 2 staff POC to show that the team is a diverse bunch while continuing to hoard power among the white managers in the room--you really have to ask some questions:
Why are these 2 people--and not other POC--specifically being asked to join the team?
Are the team leaders prepared to relinquish power such that the white voices in the room are not constantly centered?
These are challenging questions to answer, and the right answers are extremely hard to live up to.
This conversation brings up questions beyond tokenization, most of which are applicable to every organization I've worked with. Chief among these is the very basic Why aren't there more managers of color in this organization? Also important: Is this employee right to worry about his voice being heard and his job being on the line?
I can't answer these questions for your organization, but I can ask--and you should be asking them of yourselves.
In my real-life day job, I'd be somewhat confident in my ability to help amplify this man's voice and certainly confident in my power to protect his job. If I'm in the room when an equity team meets, I can help to de-center the white voices (though I, as a white person operating in a white-dominated organization, have to be constantly vigilant to make sure I am helping and not hurting).
Sadly, as a fish doesn't see the water she swims in, even your most well-intentioned white leaders likely don't see the white supremacy culture they are perpetuating, so yes--often, a white person in leadership has to promise to protect/lift up a person of color just so he feels like his presence on an equity committee isn't a threat to his job. That may be actual irony, folks. Get to work.
*Shout out to Sophia Petrillo, obviously.