Learning through Life

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Hampshire, United Kingdom
I love how our day-to-day life can teach us lessons to help us understand our past, challenge our today, and inspire our future. We can learn through experiences, situations, conversations, songs, books, nature ... the list is endless! Live with eyes ready to see, ears ready to hear and a heart ready to be touched.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The one with the Token

 I totally agreed.  Positive discrimination and tokenism were wrong.  Always.

The agreement came during a question and answer session at Inspire, the Assemblies of God Probationary Ministers' Conference last year.

The question:  All those on the National Leadership Team are white men.  Is this a fair representation and good example to the rest of the denomination?

The answer: It isn't about example, it is about choosing the best people for the job, and we believe we have.  It would be wrong to invite someone on the NLT for any other reason.

Positive discrimination and tokenism had been the subject of many discussions whilst I was at college, and I knew firmly where I stood on the matter.  So, when the National Leader of the Assemblies of God answered in the way he did, I nodded shamelessly in agreement.

According to Jeeves 'Positive discrimination is regarded as the preferential treatment of members of a minority group over a majority group, either by sex, race, age, marital status or sex orientation. It is generally considered illegal and unlawful.'  I absolutely agree. 

I had a similar perspective on Tokenism.  How could anyone expect a job to be accepted on these grounds?  How insulting to be asked to join a team or organisation as a minority in order to create a false appearance of inclusive practice?  Outrageous!

Would I accept employment based on my gender, race, age ... and not my ability?  Absolutely not.  It is both insulting and devaluing.  A role or opportunity should be given and accepted on ability and value - and nothing else!

Or so I thought.  But recently, my thoughts on the matter have begun to teeter.   Am I becoming fickle?

I don't think so.  Instead, I see maturity developing, as I begin to ask questions that force me to seek answers from a wider perspective.  A perspective that moves beyond the now and into the future.

Because, what if tokenism, or positive discrimination, inadvertently becomes the catalyst for change?

What if it opens eyes, ears, hearts and minds to something different; something never experienced or witnessed before? 

What if a 'token' demonstrates a gifting and ability that challenges prejudice?

What if a 'token' confronts agendas and structures?

What if a 'token' creates cracks in that which has always been set in stone?

What if a 'token' paves the way for change?

Would it always be wrong?

I am not so sure anymore.

So, I am challenged.  If I were offered a position as a (suspected) result of positive discrimination or tokenism should I automatically turn it down on principle?  Or, instead, is there value in seeing it as an opportunity to influence future decisions?

And if so, taking it further, should this consideration also have an impact on the opportunities that we give to others? 

Is it always as simple as choosing the best person for the job?

Or are there times we should see past the immediate performance and consider the bigger picture. 

I am beginning to think that the best person for the job isn't necessarily the person most able to perform the required task.  Instead, the best person for the job maybe the one whose involvement will challenge preconceived ideas and structures.

It is a tension between immediate results and lasting impact.

It involves risk taking, visionary thinking and wisdom, but I also think it has the potential to change the future.

Question is, am I willing to put it into practice?  I hope I am not too proud, or set in my ways to say yes.

What do you think?


  1. Hmm, interesting one Mrs Royal :)
    I think the starting point would weigh heavily in my consideration - like why is the 'token' being considered in the first place?
    If it's been genuinely recognised that previously opportunities haven't been given to the minority for reasons not based on ability, and therefore action is being taken to seek out very able people to address the imbalance then I think it can be ok. I would have more of a problem with an organisation that has decided 'on high' that they should have a certain proportion of minorities in office by a certain time purely for the sake of PC-ness but without recognising the root cause of the imbalance.
    Does that make sense?
    Of course, I've also been on the other side of the coin, and that's pretty hard too. When I graduated there was about 5 guys in a class of 40(ish) and every single guy had a job and about 10 female OTs did - although I think only one guy got a first (and there was about 10 graduates with firsts I think). I understand that OT departments are REALLY female and that a guy can add balance to that, but I don't think gender has any influence on your ability to do the job.
    So... I guess I found that frustrating at the time, but I went on to be a happily employed OT once I got my first job. Would I have been less frustrated if I'd felt there was a history of guys being told they couldn't do OT and therefore there was an attempt to balance things? Maybe. Probably not though if I'm honest - I really wanted a job!!
    This is a very long and on the fence comment - sorry!

    1. Great conversations :) Hannah - I hadn't considered it from the perspective of those overlooked due to tokenism - but I can understand how frustrating this would be.

      However, I can't quite get the future benefit out of my thoughts - what if the guys getting in to OT (to be the token?) changed the future - and made it a role where both sexes were equally welcomed into training, and accepted in the OT environment. Difficult for the now but improving the future? Would I be saying that if I had experienced being overlooked though? I don't know.

    2. Hm, it is a tough one - I honestly believe male OTs have a lot to bring to the profession - and hopefully they will continue to do so. I suppose the distinction I make is a small one (and very possibly not even correct) and that is around the origin of the prejudice. Because any guy can train to be an OT, nobody is out there saying that they shouldn't be. Gender stereotypes may suggest that it's not the most butch of careers and may not bring boys up to think that caring professions are manly but there is no glass ceiling there - no university or employer would actively turn you away because you're a male OT. I would therefore suggest that it's the men themselves who are choosing not to train, not that they're being denied the opportunity.
      That's not the same in all roles though - I was hazing around the church thing before but as it's already been brought up I can probably stop doing that now. There is active discrimination against women in the church (a very blanket, non denominational comment - I know it's not true of all congregations) and therefore I would say there is more worth in considering positive discrimination or tokenism so that can be addressed. It won't be for all women - not all will be called or have the skills to lead or the desire to do so but the important thing should be that the opportunity is there for them to do so if and when it's right.

  2. I think it's more complicated than choosing 'the best people for the job' though. For me it holds a great sense of sadness that the people who are in a position to be the 'best people for the job' are all white men. It's to be expected in a culture where it's those people who are often those for whom the path to success is made easier by the cultural framework.

    I don't know much about national AOG leadership, but in two successful churches where I have worshipped women are often only in leadership alongside their husband and when you get to the bare bones it's their husband who appears as the 'senior'person. I find that sad.

    1. Craney - I agree that it is more than choosing the best person for the job. I think this is what I have been exploring recently. AoG do train women pastors (I have just about completed my ministers training with them) and they are able to lead churches (although - this really isn't as open as it seems to be ... not going there now though!) Positive discrimination may be required to challenge leadership at all levels - and allow different leadership styles and formations to be modeled. Some people need to see to believe.

    2. Am @secraney on twitter btw ;)

      Sexism exists in all denominations of course, and speaking for my own - even though Baptists have been training women pastors since the 1920s there's still a lingering sense in many churches that you are looking for the 'right man for the job'. I'm an associate but the amount of female 'senior pastors' is almost 0 because of the structural bias and amount of theological objections which still remain within many churches.

    3. Ah ... I was trying to work out who you were! :) Structural bias is a biggie - and one that may just be influenced in the long term by the 'token'. Of course - I am not advocating asking just anyone to take up a role to see where it goes - there has to be wisdom, gifting and calling, but perhaps, positive discrimination could choose an appropriate woman for the role - in order to advance it in future. That was really not well worded - but you know what I mean!

    4. Indeed, I am so grateful to the women who have gone before and suffered the sense of 'tokenism' even if it wasn't actually the true reality. Often when I meet with groups of ministers it is siting in rooms as the only woman (and often only under 50 until recently!) and it can feel isolating.

  3. I agree - that was sort of what I was trying to get to in my first comment. For things to really be equal, and avoid 'tokens' then you have to really look at why things are the way they are. If the sub-textual message to women is that they can't lead (by giving fake titles, or encouraging them to arrange flowers, whatever) then they won't be in a position to learn how to lead and therefore chances are they won't be able to do it well.
    If you can look at a given organisation and see the trends that are causing that and make a move to change things - really change things so that the sub-text matches the official stance and then give opportunities for minorities to develop their giftings then it should be worthwhile. I just guess it's something that takes time and corporate effort - it's not going to change overnight. Therefore, Jo's thoughts on tokens are totally valid - what if 'tokens' are one of the ways of changing corporate views of female leadership/eldership?

  4. I like the idea that the best person for the job might be the one that challenges the existing structures. There is so much structural sexism in so many places that perhaps sometimes a 'token' is needed to open the possibility of a woman or a black or asian person doing a job.

    I almost hate myself for saying this but I think that is what Margaret Thatcher did; criticise her record we might, but because of her no-one can say a woman can't be Prime Minister, no-one can say a woman can't lead a country in war, no-one can say a wife and mother can't also be a senior politician etc etc. So in that sense she functioned in the way you're suggesting.

    1. Sarah - yes, I agree with your comments about Thatcher - and this post probably started floating around as random thoughts after watching The Iron Lady. (Great film I thought!)

  5. I’m afraid I’m somewhat rather opinionated on the matter – Tokenism is always wrong. Tokenism only promotes prejudices, by its very action, and does not solve, or even challenge, prejudicial constructs or views. What is better is the sustained defiance of prejudicial views that result in revolution. I do believe that tokenism undermines the efforts of many who seek to transform prejudices through wider campaigns. As a man of Chinese heritage I do not want to see tokenism used in order that I may become educated, employed or promoted based on my ethnicity. Apologies for the strongly worded response but it is a matter I feel quite strongly about.

    1. Hey Luke - nice to hear from you on the blog - and no need to apologise at all. I understand what you are saying - and when it is put like that I agree with you. But I guess I have been looking at tokenism (or actually, positive discrimination started it off!) from a different angle. I do think it is possible to challenge (and potentially solve) prejudices by choosing to promote or employ someone out of the norm - ie - a female in an all male environment. Let's use the women in leadership issue as an example (which, I am sure you can work out is where I was coming from originally!) - if women aren't chosen to lead because it has always been men, and therefore, the assumption is that men can do it more effectively, then will it ever change? But what if a woman were chosen over someone that actually may have more experience (which would figure!) and then demonstrated that women can lead? Some people need to see it happening in order to even begin to revisit their views. Whilst I wouldn't like being chosen for this reason - (tokenism, positive discrimination) - I could be persuaded to hang on in there, give it all I have got, in the hope that it might put a crack in the foundations and begin to change things for others in the future. My thoughts on the matter are not set in stone yet - but flitting about considering different possibilities. Thanks for commenting :)

    2. I’m afraid I have to disagree. I find tokenism or positive discrimination (which is discrimination all the same) unpalatable in any circumstance. Several examples have been given in which tokenism is “acceptable” but the crux of this clearly demands prior and certain knowledge of the future. Let me provide an example of my own. The medical surgery profession is dominated by male surgeons. It would be very unwise to employ a female surgeon based upon tokenism instead of employing the most able candidate - man or women. That aside, discrimination and prejudices are based on ignorance and misinformation. Therefore education is the only route that solves these prejudices. People will perhaps alter their views when the origins of their ideologies are challenged and revised in light of education. Churches that use tokenism in the instance you’re suggesting shouldn’t be surprised if they are assumed to be pro-racists or pro-ageist or pro-sexist as a direct result. Forms of martyrdom are possibly a better way of immediately challenging the system. Apologies for yet another strong response but again, as I say, I find it [tokenism] in any form wrong.

    3. Apologies if this is a stupid question - but what do you mean by martyrdom in this context? I just can't work out what it would look like. Tend to think of it as sacrificing oneself to a cause (and generally death) and I'm not sure I could advocate that as a 'better way'...
      I agree with your example of surgeons and that in general principle tokenism is wrong, I just wonder if there are some very specific circumstances where it should be considered. I'm not sure I can think of any other examples other than leadership positions in the church and the historic gender inequality though. Even then I think the idea of tokenism is an interesting one - because surely you'd want to appoint the person anointed by the Holy Spirit to lead, regardless of what you thought you were looking for?

    4. Hey Hannah. The last part of your recent comment is obviously important. I totally agree. I really do. But - I think sometimes our preconceived ideas or ideologies can blur our vision - potentially resulting the 'anointed' person to be overlooked - but I think I am possibly going off on a different tangent now. I still think leaders have a lot to weigh up when choosing people for various roles - especially if the solution isn't obvious.
      I have definitely been challenged whilst thinking this through - and appreciate all your comments. Now off to drink tea and think it over a bit more! :D

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