3 Ways Creatives of Color Can Battle the Self-Doubt That Tokenism Breeds

It makes employees wonder if they were qualified or if it’s good optics for the organization

photographer focusing a camera surrounded by people looking at computers
As clients add diversity to the criteria by which they measure agency partners, the authenticity of diversity initiatives becomes harder to decipher.
Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Unsplash

I have been in advertising for about a decade now, and I have yet to work at an agency with a black account director. In the early stages of my career, I found that odd, but as things progressed and I moved from agency to agency, I soon realized it was an unfortunate norm.

So, when the opportunity to attend a conference aimed at building a supportive community for people of color in the ad world presented itself, I jumped at the chance. The topics there ranged from the challenges of being a creative POC in the industry to the impact of workplace trauma on an individual’s mental health. The speakers and panelists were outstanding, each one sharing a wealth of knowledge, experience and perspective.

After returning from the conference, I felt a renewed sense of confidence that, frankly, had been chipped away at with each year in the industry. While there can be any number of reasons for self-doubt to grab hold in any job or profession, there is one reason for me that hits hard: my personal struggle with the effects of tokenism.

According to Merriam-Webster, tokenism is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.”

I often find myself asking, “Did I receive this opportunity because of merit, or am I being used as a symbol of the agency’s forward progress?”

As clients continue to add diversity to the criteria by which an agency partner is measured, the authenticity of diversity initiatives becomes harder to decipher. From being asked to be front and center in a group picture for an agency’s website to being tapped for a new business pitch with prospective clients that are keen on representation, I often find myself asking, “Did I receive this opportunity because of merit, or am I being used as a symbol of the agency’s forward progress?” Said another way, “Am I the best candidate, or do the optics look good?

These types of questions have been ever-present at each momentous turn in my career, changing what should be a celebratory occasion into an insidious game of mental tug-of-war. And when I start to think about how my colleagues may perceive my successes, the rabbit hole gets even deeper. It is exhausting.

So, my ears definitely perked up when an HR professional at the conference posed a question to the panel about one of his ongoing challenges with tokenism. As a recruiter, he was faulted for the lack of diversity at the office, and at the same time, criticized for hiring diverse applicants for show. He asked, “How can I seek out diverse applicants without it being misread for tokenism?”

This question alone helped me understand my challenge from a different perspective. HR professionals must be faced with this conundrum quite often. The response from the panel, which was equally important in helping me work through my own personal issues, was to implement diversity and inclusion initiatives outside of hiring diverse talent. When these initiatives are embedded in the culture of an agency, the authenticity becomes harder to question.

Tokenism was revisited many more times over the course of the day. In the end, I left with the following three key takeaways.

Impact matters more than intention

It really doesn’t matter why an opportunity presented itself. Intentions matter way less than we think—especially other people’s intentions—because we have absolutely no control over them. Intentions cannot be measured, only the resulting action or outcome can. So, if the action or outcome is positive, there is little need to fret so much over the why.

Take full advantage of opportunities

What matters more is how an opportunity is leveraged. What did you make of the opportunity given to you? Knock it out the park, and there will surely be many more chances at-bat to come.

Take matters into your own hands

If you still find yourself questioning the authenticity or motives of certain actions, consider leading the creation of initiatives that help ensure the agency culture is one you can be proud of.

I am in no way discounting tokenism because it is real. I have experienced it firsthand, and it doesn’t feel good. What I am suggesting, however, particularly to people of color, is to step boldly into each opportunity as if you deserve it—because you do.

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