Being a Token and a Target
One of my students recently spoke to me about “The fear of being a token and being a target.” As we continued, he explained that sometimes when he speaks, it feels like he is being viewed as the token representative, a spokesperson for everyone who looks like him. For example…
why don’t you give us the perspective of black people?
why don’t you give us the woman’s perspective?
as an Afrikan, tell us how Afrikans will take this.
On being a target, he expressed feeling that some listen to him as if to identify weakness in his argument or look unnecessarily for errors to say…you see, you and your kind are not as bright as you think.
While I could not put it as eloquently as the student, I can relate to those feelings. Perhaps that is why he felt comfortable sharing. In academia, as it is in many workplaces, it is easy to dismiss these feelings by lumping them under the label of imposter syndrome. But I think it is more than that. One can overcome the imposter syndrome with time and comfort in spaces and even with upping one’s expertise. The feeling of being a token and being a target is a bit harder.
The fear of being a token and being a target can perhaps be overcome when one is no longer the only one, the sole minority or when being the only one is not weaponised. It is hard to overcome this when doors are closed off to some. It is hard to overcome with expertise because no matter how many credentials you amass, some people will put you in just that one box.
I experience this in many spaces. Once it happened while I was accompanying my dean to promote the online teaching certificate that our program offers. When someone found out where I was from, they asked me to explain why there are so many child marriages in Afrika. A few seconds before, I was the person they invited with expertise in Learning, Design, and Technology that can be leveraged to assist with their online program. So I went from, one minute being listened to for my expertise in online education. The other minute I am token Afrikan in the room who must explain why the continent has child marriages. No transition, just explain to us on behalf of all others.
The so what of this blog is perhaps a reminder (probably more to myself) to listen a bit more and not simply dismiss students’ uneasiness as a matter of imposter syndrome. To realise that sometime quiet comes from a place. To try to understand that it is not only about not being worthy, or because one cannot understand the reading materials, or that the student feels behind or just experiences with the ups and downs of a PhD program. But rather, sometimes there is a different issue. And maybe the other hope here is that spaces open up more so that the extent to which marginalized, disadvantaged, and ignored groups feel like tokens or targets are lessened.