One time about 6 years ago, I was asked to talk to a group of 7th graders at an “inner city” public school about scientific research. Of course I was. I was the only black student in natural sciences at the local university, often referred to by my friends as the “token black student,” and they needed to get the city kids to participate in some research.
I felt a little paralyzed because I was tasked with “making research sound fun.” Looking out into the group, all I saw were black and brown students, poor white students, people who aren’t represented in science much at all. I decided to wing it. “Right now, when I say the word ‘scientist,'” I told them, “describe the first image that comes to your mind.” Compiling the students’ answers, the image amounted to something like this:
Big surprise. As I was standing there, it hit me: why would these kids care about participating in science if they don’t see themselves in the picture? It was then that I realized that my story, my blackness, mattered immensely in that moment. It’s cool if I’m the token. I started speaking like I do when I’m back home on the block, in a way that illuminated a level of commonality between us that they may not have known was there. It was unbelievable how, almost instantly, the entire room seemed to open up, trusting me with their thoughts. It was a scientific-research-brainstorming-party after that.
I’ve been the only black person, or one of no more than 3, in every job and class relating to my profession. I am constantly asked, both from within and without, are ‘they’ using me as the “token” black person?
tokenism: “The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.” Oxford Dictionary
The thought that I may have been selected for such a superficial reason is not a good feeling. But, regardless of any institution or individual’s intention for selecting me, let me tell you why I don’t run.
One day, the smartest friend I have, microbiologist Dr. Ciara Reyes-Ton, asked me a very important question (good friends ask you good questions):
“What do you think nature can tell us about the importance of diversity?”
My mind skated across some basic answers, but then I nearly choked when I realized what she was trying to dig out of me by asking that question.
Think with me for a moment about genetics. Populations of any single species are healthiest, strongest, when there is a lot of genetic variation–the populations aren’t made up entirely of closely related individuals (which would make them nearly genetically identical). When a population comes in contact with something like a deadly disease, if everyone has the genetic makeup that makes them susceptible to the disease, it will kill off the entire population. But, if the population is genetically diverse, you are much more likely to have individuals with a genetic makeup that contains an immunity to the disease, or the answer to any problem putting pressure on the population.
Lets take it up a notch! When you look at an ecosystem, an area containing all different kinds of plant and animal species that interact with each other, the more diversity of species (biodiversity) there is, the healthier the ecosystem. Different species make different contributions to the ecosystem: seed dispersers (i.e. berry-eating birds), pollinators (i.e. butterflies, God bless them), decomposers (i.e. fungi). If you don’t have all the species needed to make these contributions, your ecosystem will likely collapse.
Now, apply these ideas to groups of people in a place like the United States. In any community of people, whether a church, a group of scientists, a civic engagement organization, etc., diversity is paramount. When that community is faced with problems that need to be solved, they will be much more likely to find the answer when they have a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives represented in their ranks. When that community is attempting to accomplish any goal, that same diversity will give them access to a wider array of skills, abilities, viewpoints, and other assets to get the job done. Diverse communities are better equipped to withstand the pressures that come with existence, and maximize their contribution to the world.
By the time I finished answering her question, I was yelling and crying my words through the phone. Ciara, being the kind, even-tempered human that she is, calmly reaffirmed my thoughts.
Sure, someone may ask me to be part of a project, organization, or initiative because having a little brown in the mix makes them look good, allowing them to reap the benefits of appearing to be inclusive. But you know what? I no longer care to dissect their intentions. I know the importance of my perspective, my melanin, and my story to the mission; I take the position and I grind, choosing everyday to play the long game.
Know this: I’m bringing my people with me every chance I get.