Tokenism vs. Retention of
Women of Color in Victim Services
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:
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:
"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 www.NCNB.org.
This article was originally published in RESHAPE, the newsletter of the National Coalition Resource Sharing Project