On Tokenism

A reflection by Lindsey

I’ve been meaning to write this reflection for months. The idea came into my head when Jake Dockter started tweeting various Christian conferences about the diversity of their speaking lineups. Jake’s questions focused on why so many conferences tend to headline older white fathers. If memory serves me correctly, one particular conference he pointed out had over 30 speakers where only 4 were women and not a single speaker was clearly non-white. Then a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post discussing why it matters when white people don’t have black friends. I figured now is a good time to write down some thoughts on tokenism.

If you’ve ever been the minority in any context, chances are reasonably good that you been tokenized in one way or another. As one-half of a celibate LGBT Christian couple, I often feel like I’m a minority within a minority within a minority. I wonder why people value diversity, especially when it seems that “being diverse” seems more about filling a dance card with people who are different from one another than it is about being inclusive.

I think we hadn’t been blogging for more than a month before we received our first inquiry about whether we would consider a speaking engagement. We were thrilled at the possibility of speaking because that particular organization has a reputation of hosting a wide array of LGBT Christian speakers. We could appreciate how our being a celibate couple would offer a different perspective than other speakers who were invited. However, we’d hesitate before accepting an invitation to speak at an event for any organization wanted to promote our way of life as the “answer” for LGBT Christians. The first approach is about being inclusive while the second approach strikes me as checking the “diversity” box.

I don’t want to be anyone’s “LGBT Christian friend.” I can always tell when I’m in that role because I shift into having to educate other people more often than usual. It’s exhausting. I can respect the fact that because I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about what celibate living might look like for a lay person, many people are interested in hearing my thoughts on celibacy. Yet I cringe every time I hear someone say, “This is my friend Lindsey, an LGBT person living celibacy.” Even other celibate LGBT people can weaponize Sarah’s and my stories to say that anyone is capable of living a celibate vocation.

I hope that more people can begin to see tokenism for what it is. Tokenism happens when we are interested in checking off a box. Once someone has a gay friend (or a black friend or a hispanic friend), then he/she can stop making efforts. I’d contend that being inclusive is remaining open to letting one’s friend circle grow and stretch through conscientious engagement with the world.

I don’t mind being someone’s first LGBT friend. I consider myself to be a worthwhile person to know, and if my new friend hangs out with me for any length of time, then he or she will likely realize I have other awesome friends. I didn’t consider any black people among my circle of real friends until I lived with my black roommate during my sophomore year of college. Chris and I had a habit of going out for chai tea and playing cribbage whenever we were stressed about anything, but getting to know Chris as my friend helped me respond better when other black students I knew tried to increase my awareness of social injustices facing black Americans. As Chris and I sipped chai tea, we had a natural place to share our lives, to ask questions, to listen to each other, and to grow as human beings. Getting to know each other helped me do the hard work of reflecting on my experience of whiteness and made it easier for me to build friendships with people that have very different experiences with regard to race and ethnicity. My friendship with Chris and working through my own experience of race and ethnicity helped me be more inclusive because I could see some social structures a bit more clearly. One reason why I feel so adamant that people not represent Sarah’s and my stories as absolutely representative of all LGBT people is I know for a fact that our stories are different from those of most other LGBT people.

Our friendships with people different from us cause us to think more deeply about our own experiences, enabling us to empathize with each other. When we learn this empathy, we can move beyond tokenism and into a more naturally inclusive way of living.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Leave a Reply