Twitter Chat on #Untokening of Mobility Advocacy Explores Costs of Tokenization

Murals commemorating Black struggles along Crenshaw Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Murals commemorating Black struggles along Crenshaw Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“But whatever you do,” the head of the history department told me, “do not use words like ‘multicultural.’ Parents will call to ask what on earth we’re teaching their kids.”

I remember looking down at the textbook in my hands and wondering how I was supposed to teach world history without referencing multiculturalism. I had already been told straight-up that I was the token brown, non-Christian hire at their independent (read: Christian) school. But now they were essentially handing me skin lightening cream and telling me to lather my brain with it.

The shamelessness tickled me.

I was 22, in need of the job because my father was too ill to work, and unfazed. This wasn’t the first time I’d been tokenized. Nor was it the first time I’d smiled, nodded, and then gone about detonating all my bridges. A year contract just meant I’d have to be more strategic about how and where I set off the TNT.

“Of course…” I shrugged. “No, problem.”

I never felt good about being the token troublemaker. Regularly sucking all the air out of the room can take its toll on you and make you wonder about both your intelligence and your sanity. And it’s often made all the worse by the fact that most of the people who consistently put you in that position are incredibly kind and well-meaning.

But remaining silent means betraying all the realities that would rightly infringe on the ability of those of privilege to continue narrating themselves into the center of the universe at the expense of everyone else. And for too many of us that occupy the spaces on the margins, that’s just not an option.

Still, choosing to speak up is not easy. For there to be any sort of dialogue, you first have to be seen and heard by the forces you’re pushing against. And that can be a struggle in and of itself.

Within the field of transportation and mobility advocacy, there’s been a marked shift toward acknowledging the importance of equity and addressing the needs of lower-income communities of color and others on the margins. But because change is slow, white and privileged experiences remain at the center of the transportation universe, defining the parameters within which equity can be explored and rejecting issues falling outside those parameters as unrelated and unimportant.

During today’s twitter chat hosted by the organizers of the Untokening – a multiracial collective centering mobility justice, equity, and the voices of marginalized communities – participants alluded to the toll that trying to move the needle within those narrow parameters had taken on them.

Having to “educate” those around them about the ways in which marginalized communities were being left out of guiding narratives, frameworks, and planning processes, many agreed, left them exhausted, depleted their resources, did little to improve their ability to address the actual needs of their communities, potentially jeopardized their relationships in the transportation advocacy community as well as their funding streams, or rendered them impotent.

The chat was intended to open up conversations that could be continued at the Untokening California event, planned for this coming November 4, here in Los Angeles. In the process, it managed to touch on marginalized advocates’ current frustrations with just trying to be heard.

For Do Lee, a mobility advocate who has done research on the barriers and burdens faced by New York’s delivery cyclists, and Oboi Reed of Slow Roll Chicago, being tokenized means not having the value of your contributions recognized and being pushed aside when you challenge the status quo.

In response to the question about how tokenization impacted participants’ ability to do the work of advancing equity, former LACBC Executive Director Tamika Butler explained that the personal costs are high.

Former Director of Advocacy for the LACBC Monique Lopez and anthropologist Adonia Lugo pointed to the potential for successful equity advocates to – either knowingly or inadvertently – become gatekeepers (someone brought on to represent marginalized groups because they are unlikely to challenge the status quo in a meaningful way).

Both can complicate the ability of more marginalized voices from those advocates’ communities to be heard as well as the effort to build power within or across marginalized groups.

Butler spoke to this problem as well, confessing her fear that she could become a “shield” organizations wielded against others and pointing to the importance of accountability in keeping advocates grounded.

Anyone that listened to the “Walking Towards Justice” webinar from last week in which Tamika, Sonia Jimenez, Charles Brown, and myself questioned The Color of Law author Richard Rothstein regarding his thoughts on white privilege knows that Tamika is not in any danger of pivoting away from uncomfortable topics.

But staying cognizant of the extent to which you are tokenized means constantly having to question yourself, your relationships, and whether you’ve gotten too comfortable. It’s not a fun place to be by any means.

Inevitably, you are pulled in too many directions.

And more likely than not, you are going to have to compete with others to be the most authentic or representative voice of your community, at some point, as Multicultural Communities for Mobility (MCM) notes.

The expectation on the part of more privileged advocates that there can be just one representative black, brown, queer, etc. voice or set of voices – or that just one is enough to make a program or project “diverse” – also helps elevate gatekeepers and shut out more radical perspectives.

The diversity of answers to the question of what organizers should put on the agenda for the November 4 event aptly illustrated what can be lost when marginalized voices are essentialized.

We’re still debating what a vision of “equity” entails.

We’re still trying to figure out the best strategies to make change in white-centered spaces.

We’re still trying to figure out who to target with those strategies…

…and how to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves in the process,

while making sure that we’re bringing others along with us.

You can find more of the conversation on twitter, here: #untokening or check the storified chat. Read more about the origins of the Untokening movement or visit the Untokening website for details about the upcoming November 4 event.

  • We gotta fix this. People who aren’t as invested in our issues as Tamika and Oboi will just ghost — not stick around try to explain why they were alienated.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    I really want to understand where these people are coming from. And I’m willing to approach them in their niches. I’ll even do most of the walking to get there. But are they willing to make even one concession–a single step or two outside of their usual direction?

    To put it more literally, are the writers of articles like this really so solipsistic to think that only POCs feel alienation in their lives? Or is this merely reinforcing the notion that lemmings have been pushed to the edge of their big-city cliffs, as they remain steeped in academic orthodoxy?

    Our great urban centers are diverse by culture but profoundly homogeneous in terms of thought. Their inhabitants seem to have decided that, rather than opening the doors to their echo chambers to hear what all those “bigoted” Middle Americans think about their trendy neologisms, they must reinforce those chamber walls. It’s not working. Not all ideas born from cities are brilliant, and the mainstream rejection of bad ideas is not synonymous with prejudice.

    But in these sensitive times, it’s clear: the self-declared “marginalized” are not winning over people from the middle, and more people on the fragile precipice are either jumping off or they’re venturing into the suburban hinterlands (ideologically if not geographically), which have become considerably more diverse and actually tolerate a multitude of ideas.
    Progressive media outlets are failing (Gawker, Salon, BuzzFeed). The perceived worth of a university education has plummeted. Reach out to your middle-of-the-road allies. Express your ideas, but allow them to share their divergent views, just as you have long disagreed with them. With few exceptions, the middle-of-the-roaders don’t hate cities or minorities. But, regardless of their ethnic heritage, they don’t obsess over melanin, and they DEFINITELY won’t spit out their equivalent of the word “whiteness” with the same venomous contempt that they apparently do at the Untokening.

  • sahra

    Everyone feels alienated at some point. There is a significant difference between feeling alienated and being denied voice or power or opportunity. That that understanding eludes you suggests you haven’t walked nearly as far as you think you have.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    Thank you for the response. I guess you’re right: this understanding eludes me because I have decided not to steep myself in victimhood–a contrast with the people you champion. Everybody has an opportunity to speak, to make him/her/zirself powerful in a fiercely competitive, supremely complicated and wonderful world. Not all ideas are well-articulated or worthy of widespread acceptance, which is something we all have to face. And while life never is nor will be fair, we all can make the most with the abilities with which we are endowed. By contrast, those who are dead-set on seeing prejudice and oppression in everything are always going to find prejudice and oppression. That sounds exhausting and demoralizing. Oh well–their lives, not mine.

    One of the reasons we’re still debating a vision of what equity entails is because we keep moving the goalposts for what constitutes equity. And we always will. Gotta find new dragons to slay. Feel free to keep castigating the middle though. This same middle has been offering its referendum on the vengeance doctrine of the “justice and equity” crowd for the last few years…quite effectively.

  • sahra

    I feel like you must be a bot. Otherwise it’s hard to explain the poor reading comprehension. There is no victimhood. We have no relation to Gawker (which died last year, I regret to inform you). And there is no castigation of the “middle.” I mean, I could castigate the middle – that story of the school I relate actually happened in small-town Wisconsin, where I grew up – but that’s not an interest of mine. The interest of the people cited above was in illuminating the barriers they come up against. You took that as an opportunity to claim victimhood over having such things thrust upon your delicate eyeballs. I’m sorry for the great distress it has clearly triggered in you. Even if you are a bot.

    All my best,

    sahra

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