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TOKENISM

January 18, 2022

Time for some real chats. Some not-so-comfy chats.

Let’s be honest. We all know what “the token black guy” is. You know… Winston Bishop in “New Girl”? Raj in “The Big Bang Theory”? Okay… Token Black, in “South Park”? Or every character to die first in all those horror movies?

It’s in politics (think Mmusi Maimane). It plays out in corporate boardrooms, in some friendship groups and even… you guessed it… in academia.

Let’s start by defining it in the context of television. TV is historically notorious for superficially incorporating diversity through tokenism, in which the “token” or diverse character is used purely to give support to a white main character, or being the sole representative of their entire race. What’s more, these characters never really have real story lines of their own. They exist either to crack jokes, give a line of ‘soulful’ advice, or do something stereotypical to support the main storyline of the leading white protagonist. Now let’s take it over to academia.

Token black guy (n.)–A black character deliberately featured in a show or movie for the sake of racial diversity.

Tokenism in academia

The University of Fort Hare, in the 1900s, was the first university in South Africa to accept black students. Some of our very first black elite scholars were fostered there: Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. My own parents went to Fort Hare, met there and graduated there in the midst of apartheid. The point is, more than decades after affirmative action started being implemented in tertiary institutions, faculty of colour are still significantly underrepresented in university faculty. And so we cried out for inclusion. Universities faced some heat, and some then rushed to include people of colour to appease the masses. The problem is, when they’re not sincerely invested in transformation, universities fall into the trap of hiring black faculty, or including black students in certain roles, for the sake of the performance of racial diversity – a perfect recipe for tokenism.

The idea of, and protest against, tokenism in academia is not new at all. Martin Luther King said it perfectly when he wrote about it in the 1960s:

We must remember that the university was developed with white males in mind as students, and people of color have only recently in our history been admitted to some universities. Tokenism has sufficed to appease the masses and prevent national revolt from people of color. If we are to have a truly integrated society, it will never develop through tokenism. 

Martin Luther King Jr., March 17, 1966

The problem with Tokenism

Where do we even begin? Sigh.. Alright, let’s go.

It furthers stereotypical narratives

Tokenism leads to a narrow representation of minority groups, and this trend often perpetuates negative stereotypes. When there’s one person of colour in a room of white people, there is less opportunity to understand the diversity of people of colour, and therefore more potential to make sweeping generalisations based on learned stereotypes. According to some research on token characters in TV, the representation of underrepresented ethnicities has grown in numbers, sure… But negative portrayals remain. Statistics still largely show, among other regressive stereotypes, toxic masculinity in black males, and the hypersexualisation of black women. For black womxn in academia, this leads to more issues, like trickling down to create everyday experiences in which they have to fight sexual harassment and the gross underestimation of their intellectual capacity. I know it. I’ve been there. 

It robs us of ‘being’

And this is detrimental both for the ‘token’ black person, as well as for the business, academic, or social space they exist in. As mentioned in the TV example, the token character never really has a narrative of their own. Tokenism, used as a quick fix for the absence of representation, includes these characters to superficially support the main storyline or, in academia and other spaces, to ‘show off’ transformation and inclusivity efforts. This means that our ‘being’, our ‘story’, doesn’t really get to happen. Which is a huge loss to both parties because the truth is we strengthen any storyline, any team, any strategy, any curriculum… 

Pressure to overstretch oneself

There is also a psychological effect when you’re ‘the only’ in a particular place. It comes with that sense of pressure that you cannot mess this opportunity up, as if being in said space as the first or as the only black person, makes you the representative of every black person to follow. It can be very exhausting, but this is the reality. Everyone slips up, but when a token slips up, that’s automatically attributed to their race. Which brings me to the next issue.

Pressure to represent

A lot of the time, being tokenised creates the expectation for you to be an authority on all black people, their lives, culture, and experiences. Because you’re black, you represent or understand everyone with a high dose of melanin.  You may have heard or heard of comments like:

 “We need to expand our market to appeal to the rising black middle class. Oh yeah, call   Jabu in, he’ll tell us how!”

Excuse me: One person cannot represent an entire race.

Louder for the ones at the back: One person cannot represent an entire race!

The ‘better’ you perform, the farther you are from your race

Because of the negative blanketing of people of colour, the minute you do something great, there’s a notion that you’re ‘not like the rest of them’. We’ve all heard it. Something that alludes to ‘the good black’. The further your behaviour is from their stereotypical expectations, the less threatening you are to them. Joe Biden was quoted as saying Barack Obama is a “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”. Sure, he phrased it as a compliment, but you can see the insult in it,  no? Mkay let me explain.

White people are comfortable with Barack Obama because they see him differently from the way they see black people as a whole. Him being articulate, bright, and clean is the direct opposite of their expectation of black people, and how black people are portrayed in mainstream media. Loud. Angry. Violent. Lazy. 

This portrayal of tokenism is a problematic cover-up, because it helps those on the other end of it feel and pretend that racism is not a problem. Instead of facing racism where it really exists, they believe that their association with their one, ‘good’, ‘bright’, ‘clean’, ‘well-spoken’, ‘hard-working’ (i.e. ‘palatable’) colleague/friend of colour makes them not racist.

The real problem with tokenism is that “complimenting” them like that is in fact placing that ‘good black’ over other people of the same race. Essentially saying that all black people, except the token of course, are the same. The psychological effect of this on me in particular as a ‘token’ in some spaces is that I love being black, and I love black people. But to be regarded highly in spaces where we’re not represented, there’s an expectation to move away from the identity and the people that I love. It’s messed up.

Pressure to regurgitate your trauma

Being ‘the only’ or ‘one of the only’ often means you have to deal with the ‘not so woke’ comments that get passed around in jest, most of which – if you have the energy and will – result in you having to share your trauma in order to educate colleagues and make them understand why what they are saying is offensive. This is especially true in a country like ours, that has a painful and still relevant history of racism and discrimination. So, what are some examples of these ‘not so woke’ comments?

Some are overtly racist (we won’t go into that) and some come in the form of microaggressions.

Tokenism microaggressions

Not everything in this case is overt. In fact, most of the time, tokenism plays out in subtle ways; in the form of microaggressions. It can play out in the form of attributing mainstream stereotypes, phrasing it as a compliment (these are especially harmful because they’re insidious and patronising):

“You know, ever since you joined our department, there’s so much more ‘spunk’! We love it!”

In a suburban neighbourhood:

“Oh! You live here?”

I was at an international conference once, in which me and my two colleagues were the only people of colour. We had worn traditional elements in our outfits for all three days of the conference, so when we attended the closing night’s gala dinner in black lace dresses and tuxedos, we got these comments:

“Oh! Where’s the colour today?”, and “We expected more… life!

Ummm… Ma’am/Sir? Black people do not exist for your consumption and entertainment. Louder now: Black people do not exist for your consumption or entertainment!

The biggest issue with microaggressions is that, because many are phrased as compliments, if you try to defend yourself against the insult, you’re only seen to perpetuate the stereotype of ‘unprovoked’ violence and anger. So in order to further protect your identity and race, you breathe deeply, suck it up, and walk away. Only to overhear:

“Oh she’s great. Calm, hey? Yeah, really approachable.”

Ohhhhh child! Let me stop it there, before you punch your screen. It’s tiring. And it’s everywhere. How do you fight something that’s everywhere, and so deeply entrenched, and so unseen by those who do it? (and I mean “unseen”, which really just means “unacknowledged”).

Fighting tokenism 

Tokenism vs Inclusion 

Someone wise (who I’ll admit I am too lazy to look up) told us you can’t fight fire with fire. You fight it with the opposite element. So what’s the opposite of tokenism? It happens to be one of the buzzwords that it’s often confused with. Let’s distinguish between the two. One more time: Tokenism is ‘the deliberate act of recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups to create an appearance of racial or gender equality in the workplace’. Inclusion, in a professional context, is ‘the process of involving a diverse range of workers in the decision making process in the company, instead of just having them fill the seats as representatives’.

In academia, Tokenism would be to hire a black lecturer to put on the website and report as a statistic at the year-end’s diversity and inclusivity report. Inclusion in academia would be to hire a black lecturer in order to question whether Western practices are “all that”; in order to promote indigenous knowledge practices; in order to normalise the celebration of their intellectual contributions; in order to create robust curricula as opposed to the one-sided, narrow, Eurocentric curriculum we’re all used to.  

Dealing with tokenism for yourself

There’s a long way to go before that real inclusivity is entrenched. So how do you maintain your mental sanity while waiting for society to change? Unfortunately, it still involves a lot of work. A lot of self-talk, and reminders of your worth, educating others. Sometimes it’s going as far as not being yourself because you will be misunderstood, seen as loud, angry, unruly, with negative consequences for your race. Which in my opinion is exhausting and completely unfair. But ke.

We have such a huge burden on us as black people to repaint the way society sees us; which is a result of the oppressions that the very same society imposed on us, that led to the frustrations in the generations before us, who fought for us to not to have to feel this very way. When will this cycle end?

I’d love to engage more with you on this topic; drop your thoughts in the comments section below and share your experiences. Let us have these conversations and help each other navigate our responses and also take steps towards ending the cycle.  

Your in glamorous writing…

Psychosocial Support

Battling Impostor Syndrome with your postgraduate degree.

November 9, 2021

What is impostor syndrome?

My favourite dictionary describes impostor syndrome as “a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments, accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success”. (Merriam-Webster)

I want to highlight that impostor syndrome is, in fact, a real thing, and many people experience it. If you have ever felt like you are incapable of doing or completing a particular task that has been assigned to you; or you feel like you could never succeed in that job you applied for; or have felt that you are deceiving those around you into thinking you know more than you really do… Then you have experienced impostor syndrome. 

Impostor syndrome is that very uneasy feeling that can almost cripple you into never-ending procrastination, purely because you are afraid of failing, being ‘exposed’, or not achieving the task at hand to your sometimes ridiculously high expectations, or the expectations of your supervisor/boss/family or whomever else you hold in high regard.

What causes impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is a result of various factors and it is dependent on the individual’s personality traits, their surroundings, culture and upbringing. If you are someone that comes from a family of overachievers and you haven’t necessarily achieved as much as you perceive your siblings have,, you start to question whether you are actually good or smart enough. Another example is in the work space, where you may work in a team but you feel as though you don’t have as much to offer as the next person. That self-doubt is a result of impostor syndrome. Now I want to stress that just because you are feeling this way, it does not make it true. Louder for the ones at the back: It is not true! You got that job because you are qualified for it, you got accepted at that institution to pursue your postgraduate degree because you qualify. These positions are not given out of pity, or for any other reason other than that you are competent, and you are adequate. 

What are the common types of impostor syndrome?

There are generally 5 types of impostor syndrome, and many combinations and variations in between. Identifying the “type of impostor” that you are can help you solve or figure out how to manage your mind so that it works for you and not against you. Let’s have a look at the common types below. See if you identify with any of them; it might be more than one – there is nothing wrong with that. 

  1. The Perfectionist

This is the type of person who wants everything done exactly how they think it should be done, the ‘cross every t, and dot every i’ type of person. They tend to be control freaks and feel that if something is going to be done right, ie. to their standard, they need to do it themselves. This is because they are afraid of being shown out, or being seen as a failure. If you’re wondering if you fall into this category ask yourself the below the below questions: 

  • Do you find it difficult to delegate? And when you do, do you find that you get disappointed with the results, and that you could’ve done it better yourself?
  • Do you feel that you can’t submit something until it is 100%, 100% of the time?
  • When you don’t achieve that ridiculously high mark on an assignment or task, do you get the sense that you are “not good enough” or “you are not cut out for it” and you mull over it for days?
  1. The Superwoman/man

These are those people who feel like they can take on multiple roles or wear multiple hats and succeed at each one perfectly at all times. This, I feel, is mostly common in womxn, especially black womxn. I know many womxn who are climbing the corporate ladder, while being mothers, wives, postgraduate students and pushing side hustles. Always looking for that next thing to add onto their plate to show the world just how “super” they are, most times to the detriment of their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. 

Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself:

  • Are you the last to leave the office in your team? Even after you have completed the day’s work?
  • Do you get agitated when you are not doing anything, or do you feel like rest is a waste of useful time?
  • Do you feel a sense of pressure to work harder than those around you to prove your worth, even though you have multiple awards/certificates/degrees that attest to your worth?
  1. The Natural Genius

This is the person who believes in getting it right the first, because if you don’t then you’re just not that smart. The natural genius judges their competence based on speed and ease, and not on effort. Like the Perfectionist, they set their standards really high, and make it a point to get it right the first time. 

Are you a natural genius impostor?:

  • Are you one of those A student types of people? Do you feel you don’t have to study as much as your peers for that big exam?
  • Do you dislike the idea of having a mentor, because you feel like you can handle things yourself?
  • Do you avoid new challenges because you’re afraid you won’t get it right the first time? 
  1. The Soloist 

This type of impostor believes in going at it alone. I could argue that this is probably the most dangerous type of impostor syndrome, because these people feel as though asking for help is a sign of weakness; they’d rather figure it out on their own and prove their worth. Their pride could be to their detriment. If you are a Soloist, you’d answer ‘yes’ to at least one of these:

  • Do you find it difficult to ask for help when you’re in a tough situation?
  • When you do ask for help, do you phrase it in terms of the project or task, instead of phrasing it as “you” needing help?
  1. The Expert 

These are the know-it-all versions of the Perfectionist. They focus on what they know, how much they know about how much, or how much they can do. They feel that if they don’t know enough about everything, they might be seen as inexperienced. 

  • When you look at the job spec, do you feel you shouldn’t apply if you don’t tick all the boxes?
  • Do you feel like you still don’t know enough even after doing something or being in a role for many years?
  • Do you have a relentless yearning to keep learning more about a subject? 

How to deal with impostor syndrome 

First, accept and embrace your feelings. Ignoring the problem only means you are not addressing it.  When you have identified the type of “impostor”  you are, there are a number of ways to deal with it. My main go-to is to first breathe deeply, and tell myself that my mind is powerful – but it can also be a liar. I tell myself that my fear is illogical. And how do you fight something illogical? With logic, of course! So I counteract said fear with logic. I follow these steps in particular:

  1. Get a paper and pen and split it vertically into two columns
  2. In the first column, write the ‘fear’, or ‘belief’.
  3. In the second column, write an indisputable fact that counteracts the fear/belief in the first column.
  4. Repeat the logical fact to yourself, as you continue with your task. Even if the fear doesn’t subside – you can’t fight facts. It works.

For example, I may fear that “I will give up and fail on my PhD because I am not smart enough”. My counteracting fact would be “My application was run through a panel of academics whose job it is to determine whether or not someone has what it takes to complete the degree, and I made it. The fact is that I am smart enough, no matter what my brain tells me”.

Depending on the environment that you are in, ie: work, studies, relationships; there are various steps you can take to deal with impostor syndrome. I also found these steps to be useful for me in my postgraduate studies. 

I hope this blog helps you deal and I hope you come out on the other side stronger and more confident. Remember, it may be that you triumph over impostor syndrome today, but that it may flare up again tomorrow. It is a constant battle. So, fight again.

Yours in glamorous writing,

Personal PhD Journey Psychosocial Support

To PhD or not to PhD? 5 Reasons to think about…

January 25, 2021

Hello hi, fellow academics!

I am currently doing some heavy brunt work for my thesis, and sometimes when that happens I find myself asking “why am I even doing this?”… Which takes me back to my reasons for starting in the first place. Please read on if you are currently thinking about doing a PhD, but are hesitant about taking the leap.

The PhD is a monumental step, so naturally it will bring up many questions or doubts about pursuing it. Those questions usually begin with whether or not it’s a good choice for you. Although there are many reasons one would not want to do a PhD (it’s draining; mentally, financially, emotionally and physically), I’d like to focus on the reasons why you would want to do a PhD. But before I begin this listicle, I’ll share why I find joy in mine.

When I was in primary school, we had one of those orientation days where we were asked the all-too-familiar question of what we wanted to be when we grew up. All the kids around me were quite focused, explaining how they wanted to be an accountant, or a doctor, or an astronaut. When it was my turn, I said “I want to be an actress, an author, a lawyer, a traveller, an artist, a teacher…”, and the whole hall erupted with laughter before I even got to the end of my list. Being an academic, and doing a PhD, was never on it. But when I got into it I realised that it has, in fact, allowed me to be all of these things. Writing these articles, writing research publications, writing motivations for applications and scholarships, and writing my PhD has made me an author. Presenting at conferences and symposiums, and standing in a lecture hall in front of hundreds of students, has in a way allowed me to embrace the actress in me. Fighting for equality and transformation in academia has appealed to the lawyer in me. Using my creativity to teach and research in innovative ways has made me an artist; and teaching, supervising and mentoring my students has made me what is pretty much at the core of who I am: A teacher. And as a bonus, travelling (before Corona) is something I have been very privileged to pursue while doing all of the above. In short, my road to the PhD has actually allowed me to be everything I wanted to be.

I didn’t always know why I really wanted to pursue a PhD though. I had a conversation with my Father at the beginning of my journey about my reasons for doing it. I told him I just want the Doctor title. That I’d love to hear my name with a “Dr” before it. I’ll make all my students, family and friends call me Dr. I’ll sign off every email and letter with “Dr Bundwini”. I’ll never even make a restaurant reservation without the title. He didn’t crack a smile when he said “When you get to the end of your PhD, you will know what it takes to get there, and you will respect that title”. Now, in my second year, I can tell you that I am definitely starting to respect it! It is a journey unlike anything you’ve ever embarked on before. So I suggest you put some serious brain juice into weighing up the reasons to PhD or not to PhD. Let’s talk about the reasons you would:

  1. You want to invest in yourself. Doing a PhD is an extrinsic investment, but it is mostly intrinsic. Your PhD teaches you and inspires you. It builds a myriad of skills – writing, problem-solving,  communication and presentation skills, time management, synthesising information, networking, and countless others. Point is, you will never come out on the other side being the same person you were when you went in. If your motives include transforming yourself – this is a solid reason to do your PhD.
  2. You thrive on overcoming challenges. This journey is riddled with obstacles. One day, you’ll feel inspired and on top of the world, and the next you’ve hit a brick wall. Sticking it out and doing everything in your power to get through that wall can be the most euphoric feeling. Getting from “I have no idea how” to “I did it!” can be a very addictive rollercoaster, and I live for the highs of it. If this is you too, then I can confidently tell you that a PhD is the gift that keeps on giving. 
  3. Money. Gwap. Chankura. The bag. Okay, before I get ahead of myself, I’m not saying that doing a PhD will have you rolling around a room full of cash. But I am saying that it opens doors for potential additional income. After spending years immersed in one topic, you automatically become an expert on the matter. This means you can exploit opportunities such as consulting, presenting, writing content, reviewing others’ content, or even publishing your own works on various platforms. I am in no way blind to the fact that there are people who remain jobless with PhDs. This is an inherent, systematic problem of access and opportunity in the context of our continent. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, if you are wondering what the financial benefits of having a PhD are, cast your mind beyond just an academic or corporate position and think about the ways in which you can use the skills learnt to explore additional streams of income. Think about how you could patent your intellectual property (IP), or start a consulting business, or share your knowledge on online platforms. And please (specifically talking to womxn of colour here), nothing for free! 
  4. You’re passionate about a topic and you want to contribute to creating knowledge about it. This one pretty much speaks for itself. Research, especially at PhD level, is about creating knowledge, adding something new and of value, that can be used to inform, enlighten, and even effect change. If a topic makes your eyes light up, or your mind race (in a good way), this is an essential reason to pursue a PhD.
  5. You want to have a career in academia. I get it, not everyone is chasing academic tenure or professorship, but if you are one of the very few who are then a PhD really is your starting block. A Professor once told me “No one will ever take you seriously in academia without a PhD”. Yes, it sounds cold, bit it’s a bit of a hard truth. Your PhD is the evidence that you can conduct groundbreaking (hopefully) research, which is partly what academia is about. It also gives you, almost forcefully, all the armour you need to be an academic. Without a PhD, without the skills it gives you, academia just doesn’t let you in very far. And you wouldn’t be able to embrace it fully in return.

If you’re on the fence, I hope this helps you in making a decision. Lowkey, I am hoping I’ve convinced you to go ahead.

Yours in glamorous intelligence,

Personal PhD Journey Psychosocial Support

Begin, Anywhere: The Story of Document 1

January 11, 2021

Given that it’s a new year, many people have goals but are still at the very beginning of going for them. I find it fitting then to share this personal story before getting into other academic topics.

In late 2019, I was a new academic and had just registered for my PhD. I was ashamed then, but am not ashamed now (because growth), to tell you that I had absolutely no idea what a PhD was. Not a clue. A whole academic, but if you asked me what the difference was between a Masters and a PhD, I would have stared at you blankly and disappeared in a cloud of shame and anxiety. I had a broad idea of what I wanted my topic to be on: the cannabis industry. It’s a new industry, which is something we don’t get to see much in our lifetime, so I wanted to be a part of it, but I had no clear angle. Time flies when you’re confused. So when I realised I only had only 2 months to go until I had to defend my proposal to a panel of esteemed professors that would either accept or reject it, I panicked.

I sat down in front of my office computer, and I opened a new Word document. After crying for an hour on the phone to my best friend “I can’t do it, I should just deregister, I’m dumb, I don’t know what I’m doing” (the typical negative self-talk), I had no choice but to come face-to-face with my unwritten proposal. I looked at the blank page: ‘Document 1’. We had a straight up stare-down. I blinked a few times at the flashing cursor, and it blinked back at me, almost menacingly. And let me tell you this for free – I had nothing. I whipped out my phone and took a short video of that blank screen and that flashing cursor. And then I saved Document 1 (blank as it was) – named it ‘PhD proposal draft’, packed up my bags and went home.

I wasn’t sure at the time why I saved a completely empty document. Maybe I thought that if I named it, words would magically appear and fill the page? Maybe I thought that if it had a name, it would compel me to write because a document with a name is harder to ignore than document without one? But two months later, I stood in front of those professors defending my proposal and I realised why I did it. In that moment of hopelessness in my office, all I saw through my tears was a blinking cursor. But I had to have known, somewhere very deep down, that the story of Document 1 would be the first of many stories to share of my journey to becoming a Doctor. All it would take was a decision. To fight. And to commit to that fight because, as you may already know (and if you don’t know, now you know), postgraduate degrees are war. War with many battles on the way. Some will be won, some will be lost, some will be abandoned. But in the end, the war will be won if you make the decision. The ‘how’ will come later.

I still whip out that short video from time to time, to remind me: you will feel hopeless sometimes, like you have nothing to show but a blinking cursor and no words. But looking back at that video now, I realise the cursor wasn’t actually menacing. It was anticipating. It was calling out my potential. Every flash of the cursor is a nudge, telling you you just need to begin. Begin with procrastinating (yes, it’s a natural part of the journey). Begin with tears. Begin with calling a friend. Begin with one word; begin with two. Begin with Document 1. Begin, anywhere. Just begin.

Yours in glamorous intelligence,