Tokenism May Cause the Following Side Effects

When one of us wins, we all win. That's the mantra that marginalized folks have internalized for centuries. It's the mantra that makes us pliable, submissive, grateful. We're happy to have been allowed proxies, spokespeople. At least we have Serena Williams, at least we have Robin Coste Lewis. It's not enough. When writers of color become a filled diversity quota, it's a matter of time before we become a token. While obvious practices of tokenism and discrimination are becoming easier to spot and called out on a more frequent basis in literary circles, there still remains the psychological damage of the lack of equality in publishing.

"I wish I'd felt proud rather than grateful--intensely, almost exhaustingly grateful to just be there," wrote Saeed Jones in his important essay "Self Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer". "It's the kind of gratitude that, I suspect, is very familiar to those whom our culture has a habit of reminding they should be happy 'to just be here.'"

It's this pressure to be grateful that silences discussions of the idiosyncratic side effects of tokenism, of "diversity" rather than equality. Writers of color know the ins and outs of these effects, but we feel pressured to swallow them up, to avoid at all costs being labeled angry, and instead commiserate over happy hour or in hushed whispers at the back of a party. That's how I knew exactly what Christine Shan Shan Hou was talking about when she tweeted, "When I see an Asian poet win a literary award that I just applied for it's sad that I feel like I don't have a chance of winning it the following year." When our friends Roberto Montes and Wendy Xu joined the conversation, we were comforted that we weren't alone in our frustrations, and the shame we felt over being frustrated. It was healing for us to openly admit these internalized effects of white supremacy--especially because we all knew they didn't stop there.

1. You will get tired. You will be loved and it will make you tired.

You will be asked over and over to read to all-white or mostly-white rooms, to submit to all-white or mostly-white journals, to write in response to this or that political issue, to recommend other writers of color, to explain, the help. It will be exhausting. You'll be flattered, but you will never stop wondering if your attention and success is only because of your race or gender or orientation. You will never stop wondering if you are being exoticized.

Read the full essay on the Poetry Foundation website.