October 19, 2020

The Grey Area

It’s Black History Month, so of course I’m writing this now. I feel like all black creatives need a clause in their contracts that bumps up their pay by 10% every October.

Being honest, I’m one of two people at my agency who’s looked to write content or think of something for Black History Month. And at the time of writing, the other person’s on holiday.

Tokenism, by definition counts as “actions that are the result of pretending to give advantage to those groups in society who are often treated unfairly, in order to give the appearance of fairness”, if you were to check the Oxford Dictionary.

Tokenism in real life is a lot less defined. Which makes it a lot harder to call out. 

A 15-year study hosted and written by Marla Baskerville Watkins, Aneika Simmons and Elizabeth Umphress helped to put some numbers behind the definition. 15% or less, in fact. If you’re part of a team that includes 15% or fewer people like yourself, then you count as a token.

Even then, the lines are still blurred. If you’re part of a 30-strong design team and you find yourself isolated in that 15%, then it’s pretty clear where you stand. And where your employer stands.

And then take myself, for example. Within the team of copywriters here at Pink Squid, 25% of our team is black, and 25% of the team is male. Seems pretty balanced. 

But since I’m 1 of 4, I make up that 25% alone. You could argue that my race being the minority puts me at a disadvantage. And in the same breath, argue the fact that I’m a man gives me an advantage, despite my gender being the minority. 

Not exactly black and white.

Token employees often find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. “We’re struggling to see how this is unfair – we’ve given you plenty of opportunities.” A lot of companies have holed up in the proverbial sweet spot of ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘keeping things the way they are’. In other words, the bare minimum. And why wouldn’t they? It’s easy, and works in their favour.

So, where do we go from here? 

Fair, a token employee may be the minority. But progress in a new direction often comes from the minority.

Black heroes are celebrated for their pioneering achievements every October. But it’s easy to forget that at the time, they were opposed and told to get back in their place, every day of the year.

To change the things they did, they had to either take up space, or make space themselves.

They had to take up space, as in stepping into environments where they would’ve been considered ‘token’ and opened the doors for others like themselves. Or make space – run by people like them, for them.

And while the minority today are facing completely different challenges, the answers are still the same. And that goes for every minority.

A lot of us will end up as a token at some point, but that puts you in a great position to either start making where you are more accessible, or gaining the experience to create your own space.

We can either take up space, or make it ourselves.

So, yeah, here’s my blog for Black History Month.