A Quick Thought on Tokenism

The standard story, now being recycled in the media, has two symmetrical sides. On the one hand, someone breaks through a barrier, setting an example and inspiring others to follow. We can all recite examples of the first woman this, or the first African-American that, or the first openly gay, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever something else. On the other hand, there is typically a “backlash,” or the ostensible reaction of a retrograde plurality demanding a return to status quo ante and heaping abuse on the pioneer. (See Barack Obama.) What this dialectical movement is missing is its proper synthesis: there is no backlash, because there is no pioneering. The entire procedure is from the start a ruse of the power edifice, which invites the token in precisely in order to heap abuse on him/her. 

Note that this is different from mere inoculation, wherein the token serves as “proof” that the system is inclusive. Instead, it’s akin to lynching—a gruesome public spectacle devised to affirm the privilege of those in control. Once “inside,” the token is open to “normal criticism” to which anyone occupying the position is routinely subjected. This is what licenses the abuse; after all, political opponents are rightfully entitled to “disagree” or “object” to their adversaries. Kept outside, s/he cannot be disparaged without risking accusations of bigotry; inside, there is a convenient fig leaf for it. No wonder those in power gleefully support including the token. They’re not fending off the appearance of bigotry; they’re gaining license to indulge it openly.

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