Refusing Tokenization/Racial Fantasy

February 14, 2020 at 4:53 am

20200123_2004321436008444149919509.jpgA few weeks ago as I read Nadia Owusu’s article “Hiring a Chief Diversity Officer Won’t Fix Your Racist Company Culture,” I recalled various moments in which people have projected their racial fantasies onto me. While I’m not a “diversity officer,” I have found that some people believe my role as a curatorial fellow through a diversity initiative entails
serving as the institution’s racial conscience. They demand that I change aspects of the institution that they find racist. In their minds, I am the one lone Black Wonder Woman who is supposed to save everyone.

That is not my work. I couldn’t succeed at that even if it was, I wanted to, I tried.
No! Trying to fix institutions by myself is basically a rat wheel that would result in my pre-mature demise. I’m pretty sure that track leads to anxiety, hypertension, cancer, and other aliments. It kills us.
Undoing racism requires collective work. It’s unfair and uncaring to project this demand on a Black woman who is in a low-level, non-supervisory, temporary position.

This fantasy is a facet of tokenization. It derives from a lack of critical consideration of the various forces that create institutional inequities, my actual duties, my access to power and support, the day to day overall environment, and intersections of oppression I battle daily outside of the workplace. The idea that one Black woman is responsible for changing institutional culture by herself once she has battled her way into a temporary job in an exclusionary field is racial violence.
This form of racism is particularly treacherous because it often comes from other Black people, even Black women, who as a group experience various interlocking forms of oppression. Yet many of us also are entrenched in racist, sexist, and colonialist thinking.

As someone committed to collective liberation (in other words, the dismantling of White supremacists logics* rather than the management of race), I will continue to fight racism and colonialism through my curatorial praxis, cultural organizing inside and outside museum spaces, and work as an educator. My methods include rejecting racial fantasies. I’m interested in building with those who can see that something more than selective inclusion of a few Black people is necessary to uproot racism in the museum field and broader spheres.

In the past year, more than once people who don’t know me have criticized me for not doing enough to end racism. Stop!
I’m done experiencing that violence. I recommend reading the work of Black feminist authors as the first step to curing oneself of being steeped in racist, sexist, classist, and colonialist thinking.

  • In the Black feminist tradition, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Thick: And Other Essays stunningly reflects on the intersections of the personal, social, and political.
  • Another key text- bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. hooks spotlights the historical factors that have shaped contemporary misogynoir (hatred of Black women).
  • For specifically examining the institutionalization of diversity and inclusion measures Dr. Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Through her interviews of university diversity officers, Ahmed provides a critical study of why and how institutions perform representational action. She also reveals how fantasies of togetherness and repair are both integral to diversity work and are also methods for perpetuating violence.
  • The motherlode– Rinaldo Walcott’s essay “Against Social Justice and the Limits of Diversity: Or Black People and Freedom,” in Toward What Justice: Diverse Dreams of Justice in Education. When I first read this essay last fall, it shook me. Walcott exposes the foundational role of antiBlackness in much of  the diversity industry. Akin to Christina Sharpe’s brilliant rumination on the endemic nature of antiBlackness in her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Walcott’s essay highlights how the standpoints of “diversity, equity, social justice, and anti-racism still too often rely upon the rhetoric of the institution and its structural apparatus as the bias of its critique, as though the institution itself is power and not a performative representation of power at work.”** As he obliterates fantasies of tokenization, he calls for a deeper, groundbreaking decolonial project that would develop entirely different relations of power.

I’ve outlined just a few excellent resources for understanding, strategizing actions, and organizing for building something better together. Notice that I used the word- “together” as I refuse antiBlackness’ incessant calls for exceptional, lone Black saviors/martyrs.
Collective liberation requires collective, decolonial action.

* Walcott, 93
** Walcott, 95

Entry filed under: Art.

“By Any Means Necessary: Racial Justice and Representation in the Arts”


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