A long overdue discussion on tokenism
Editor's note: What follows is the third in a new series of monthly columns written by members of Lake Oswego's Respond to Racism group. The goal is to shed light on issues related to diversity — or lack thereof — in Lake Oswego and spark dialogue about how racism affects people.
I must admit, I have mixed feelings when I see Lake Oswego residents praising the history-making efforts of people of color in this town. On one hand, I have nothing but the utmost respect for people like Christine Moses, communications director for Lake Oswego School District, David Salerno-Owens, LOSD's first director of equity and strategic initiatives, and Daniel Nguyen, the first person of color ever elected to LO's City Council, because I see and hear about all the things they have to do that go far beyond their job descriptions but must be done to tackle equity with the seriousness it deserves. That they effectively serve as superheroes in the face of immense isolation is commendable to say the least.
However, putting the weight of the world on their shoulders and then celebrating that dynamic as "progress" is a problem. Specifically, it's textbook tokenism. Tokenism is the practice of using one or a few members of an underrepresented group to portray an image of equity that doesn't exist in reality.
You don't need a Master's Degree in Ethnic Studies to know that isolating people of color and putting the full burden of cleaning up LO's racism problem on their shoulders is not sustainable. For example, while I'm as excited as anyone about the impending arrival of new LOSD superintendent Dr. Lora de la Cruz, I think we must be careful about framing her as a savior. Likewise, I think it's irresponsible for the City's new DEI Task Force to allocate all of one spot to address all of the unique issues facing LO's various communities of color. This is setting people up for failure by shifting the long-abdicated responsibilities of LO as a whole to individuals and creating the expectation that if they don't succeed, then the town did all it could do and is officially off the hook.
Is this better than doing nothing? Sure, but once again, this is not a dynamic we should be celebrating. It's also not a problem for which there are no models for addressing. There are no shortage of institutions (especially in education and business) that have DEI departments and nowhere near LO's horrible reputation for racism. Similarly, while LOSD has done a better job in recent years to nurture culturally specific student groups, many colleges and high schools are lightyears ahead in providing resources and creating sustainable spaces for these groups to feel safe and build community. Far from just kind gestures, university after university has conducted studies proving these efforts tangibly improve retention rates for students of color at predominantly white schools.
Personally, I'm part of the Mercatus collective, which is an effort by Prosper Portland to promote and build community amongst entrepreneurs of color in the PDX Metro Area using media, events like My People's Market, and activities like informal POC (people of color) get togethers to build trust and support amongst each other.
Judging by the recent Lobster Feed and the man who crowdfunded for the Notre Dame Cathedral, I have no doubt that the LO community has the money to put real resources behind its DEI efforts and more importantly, the people of color we put on a pedestal to represent all our supposed "progress." The question is, will we?
Respond to Racism celebrates its two-year anniversary Monday, July 1 at its normal meeting spot at the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ. Featured speaker Christine Moses, the director of communications for Lake Oswego School District, will speak about "Designing a Thinking Approach to Creating a Community of Belonging." For more from RTR, visit respondtoracism.org.
Bruce Poinsette is the media action team leader for Respond to Racism and a 2007 graduate of Lake Oswego High School. He currently works as a freelance writer who specializes in covering education, culture, business, and social justice.