Tokenism vs. Retention of Women of Color in Victim Services (2001)

By Laura Zarate, Arte Sana

I clearly remember my expectations of a particular conference that I was given the opportunity to attend.

Training opportunities were limited at the Hays-Caldwell Women's Center, where I had been hired as the only Spanish speaking staff with the sexual assault program, so this opportunity was especially cherished for it offered a special institute just for women like me. The last NCASA conference that was held in Atlanta and included a Women of Color Institute was my first experience at a national gathering of women of color sexual assault advocates. I was very excited about the prospect of meeting and sharing with others who may have similar concerns regarding limited institutional outreach commitment, over extension and very limited resources to address survivors of color. The WOC Institute workshops were very informative and the collective experience itself was enriching in a bittersweet kind of way, for it allowed women of color to connect and feel a sense of safety and sisterhood that was very empowering. The impact was especially great for those who were feeling isolated, and who were suffering the debilitating effects of tokenism and the constant stress of not only having to do it all (with, and on behalf of the particular group that they represent), but also having to be an "expert" at it as well.

Subsequent to this gathering, I found myself compelled to try and connect with other women of color advocates in Texas first in collaboration with, and later from within the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA). An informal survey was developed to promote the formation of a women of color task force in Texas and was administered to sexual assault advocates attending the 1999 TAASA statewide conference. The survey tool reflected the following realities of women of color sexual assault and domestic violence advocates:

* Women of color experienced lower levels of job satisfaction especially when they were the only women of color at their center, * Many women of color felt singled out, over-worked and isolated. The Pressure of not only having to work twice as hard to dispel negative racial and/or ethnic stereotypes, or the possible assumption that they were hired because of their racial or ethnic identity was exacerbated if they were the only staff of color in the office. * Often introduced as "our new Hispanic" or "African-American advocate", these women already had their area of contribution clearly defined and limited.

Those women of color advocates who manage to make it to the coalition level may also feel much of this stress and frustration to a greater degree.


According to Brad 'J' Hall, Assistant Professor from the University of New Mexico tokenism involves "the giving of a token or relatively unimportant, but positive item while withholding more substantial or significant assistance or involvement. The giving of the token is argued to be proof that the person is not prejudiced and allows the person to avoid engaging in more meaningful acts of equality." In victim service organizations tokenism might be evidenced by the hiring of women of color, more out of a sense of compliance rather than commitment, hence the often heard "We NEED to hire a (fill in the blank) to help us reach the (fill in the blank) community."

The consequences of overt and covert tokenism for women of color may include any or all of the following:

  • Feelings of guilt over not being able to represent and/or be an expert on one's own particular group.
  • Impotence over not being able to impact the provision of services to communities that continue to be under served (especially if one is a survivor, or knows of survivors who were not able to access services due to institutional racism).
  • Inadequacy over having to assume the role of office authority on diversity issues.
  • Over-extension and demoralization after realizing that as the only bilingual staff, there is an expectation that they will provide all trainings and /or translations to a particular population. Further, that this expectation in itself represents a lack of institutional commitment to multi-cultural accountability.

While some women of color are able to survive the initial toxic effects of tokenism and last long enough to impact the office culture's evolution towards a healthier level of true advocacy and accountability, the unfortunate exit of others represents a loss to the movement that it cannot afford.

Some Suggestions for Preventing Tokenism:

  1. The organization has to have a willingness to change and to implement change, based on input from women of color. Start with a firm multi-level commitment to diversity. Facilitate the participation of women of color to help your organization develop a strong diversity statement that reaches beyond the EEOC non-discrimination mandate. Put the diversity statement in writing, announce it, and model it.
  2. Remember that no one wants to fill a quota; a single individual should not be expected to and cannot represent an entire population group. Develop avenues and find ways to incorporate the input of several members from particular groups in the planning, goal setting, work plan development, and administration levels of the organization. Focus on the organization as a diverse mixture, not on individual representation.
  3. Promote a sense of ownership by women of color in the organization by facilitating meaningful participation opportunities at all levels. Advocates of color should not be defined by their skin color, last name, or ethnic origin. Many talents, skills, and possible areas of contribution may be overlooked by directors who hire women of color solely to fulfill specific (previously neglected) outreach goals for which everyone should be accountable. Assign tasks independently of cultural or ethnic background.
  4. Avoid assumptions associated with race/ethnicity and politics. Women of color experience different levels of acculturation and assimilation and cannot be expected to share the same political positions. Women of color should be encouraged to contribute to the philosophy and ideology of the coalition and have their own definitions of feminism validated and respected. While there are some women of color who don't like to be on the front lines and would rather come to work and quietly do their projects, there are other women of color who may have a strong sense of duty and commitment to the "causa". Conversely while the very history and nature of sexual assault advocacy work includes activism, factors such as the developmental stage and geographic location of a coalition may also affect how welcome some women of color activists may feel. While we may not all be on the same page, it is important we at least be in the same chapter.
  5. Implement and learn from the exit interviews of both those who have chosen to leave and those who may have been asked to leave. An inevitable part of our work includes ongoing staff turnover. Unlike other professions that offer a variety of opportunities to stay in the field, the exit from a sexual assault agency may also signify the abandonment of this area of work. Offer a non-threatening opportunity for the exiting staff to honestly share either why the decision was made to leave, or how they perceive the conflict that led to the dismissal. This simple, yet crucial act of honoring individual perspectives may not only contribute to the growth of the organization, but also to the development of a truly synergistic work environment that is able to include and honor the gifts of all.

"Change means growth, and growth can be painful. But we sharpen self- definition by exposing the self in work and struggle together with those whom we define as different from ourselves, although sharing the same goals. For black and white, old and young, lesbian and heterosexual women alike, this can mean new paths to our survival." Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 1984


Why are some minority faculty unhappy?? By Bridget Murray, APA (American Psychological Association) Monitor staff.

Prejudice By Brad ?J? Hall, Assistant Professor from the University of New Mexico, Leading from Within: "Transforming Identity in Organizational Life", As presented for Leadership at 20, Porter and Green, the Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, College Park National Center for Non-profit Boards question archive

This article was originally published in RESHAPE, the newsletter of the National Coalition Resource Sharing Project 

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