Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tokenism and Identity Policing go Hand in Hand

Chally from Zero at the Bone and Feministe blogged about a case in Australia where a mixed-ethnicity woman was not hired because she didn't look indigenous enough. Chally challenged who had the right to define one's racial identity. Well, to be specific, she pointed out that Racial Identity Cannot be Determined by Casual Bystanders. Of course I agree with that.

When I read this story, it seemed to me that the point where they went wrong came long before they even interviewed Betteridge. From what's been reported, these people were looking for a token.

Some folks (who aren't marginalized on the basis of race) tend to think that they are doing those who are marginalized on that basis a favor by making sure that they include one of us in their projects. It seems we're supposed to see their efforts as somehow benevolent or magnanimous. In that view, I guess we should just be grateful that they were willing to hire any of us.

However, as I see it, the main problem with their behavior isn't that they didn't choose Betteridge because of her looks--it would have been just as problematic if they did. The problem is that they were attempting to use indigenous people as a means to an end. Having someone who looks more like the stereotypical Aborigine provides them with cover. It assuages the nagging feelings of guilt or responsibility that some non-indigenous people may harbor when they know that they are participating in systemic racism.

If we consider this story from that angle, it makes perfect sense why they would do what they did. After all, what good is such a token if they don't actually seem all that much different from you? How can you make those pesky marginalized people believe that you're "one of the good ones", if you can't get at least one of them to vouch for you? This company was looking for the corporate equivalent of a "best friend who's black".

Your "black friend" is only useful if they make it so that you don't have to do any real work to prove that you care about the lives, concerns, and interests of those other(ed) folks. Your "black friend" gives, or at least lends, you street cred. So, if you say or do something that makes marginalized people question your motives, then your token can help put things in the "proper" perspective...while you hide out in the corner, until things feel safe again.

Evidently, Betteridge didn't have enough indigenous street cred to satisfy this company's desire for a "black friend". However, in their mind, she's the one who's to blame, because she didn't figure out that they weren't really looking for someone to pass out flyers. They were looking for an actor, someone to play a role. When you're looking for an actor, it's perfectly acceptable to use looks as a criteria.

I'd have respected the interviewers a lot more if they had been honest about it and admitted that they just wanted to hire an actor who looks like a stereotypical Australian indigenous person. I mean, marginalized folks gotta eat, too. I'll never judge another indigenous person for filling the role of a token. That way, the non-indigenous folks can actually get what they are looking for and an indigenous person makes some cash that they might truly need bad enough to put up with the kind of b.s. that almost always goes along with being a token.

*By the way, I know that I'm seeing racial identity through my very Americanized eyes. I am not exactly clear about what sort of terminology the indigenous people of Australian tend to use or prefer. Chally's reminder that we should respect those preferences is definitely relevant. If anyone sees some problems with the terms I've used, I hope you'll let me know so that I can fix things.

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