Reassuringly Restless 2: representation or tokenism? 

(Blog post two of twelve)

The deeper you get into this activism life, the more you’ll hear the following: “participation” “representation” “meaningful engagement” - buzz words that soon lose their flavour if they are not backed up with spicy action. 

Using your voice and encouraging others to do so can feel empowering. It is, but when you strip it back is it representation or tokenism? Is representation even enough? 

First, let’s talk about using your voice. When you think about social movements, you may think of someone standing in front of a large group of people. That is one way, but that is not the only way to use your voice to make an impact. Here are a few: 

  • Talking to your friends/family (which is often the hardest) 

  • Signing petitions  

  • Taking part in consultations (face-to-face, surveys, etc.) 

  • Attending meetings to feedback on ideas 

  • Volunteering for an organisation whose message/actions you believe in 

 
The list is endless, the most important thing to remember is: public ≠ effective. 

 

Example 1:  

There is a group of young people, who are members of a youth trials board. Collectively this group gives feedback to researchers and they develop youth friendly material to improve how young people take part in medical clinical trials.  

The group does this in private and only the researchers and coordinators know their names, but they influence the direction of research. 

 

Example 2: 

A young girl gives a speech to hundreds of people at a conference. The conference is full of people who influence the policies and funding streams that impact her life. She is giving a speech about the project that they have funded, which she has taken part in. She does not know the names of anyone in the room, how they will use her feedback or how to contact them after the event. She has been given five minutes to talk about the project and her experiences as a participant. 

Her speech goes viral, everyone knows her name. 

 

Representation or tokenism: a matter of ethics 

The size of the audience does not matter, if you are just being used as decoration. Knowing whether it is representation or tokenism is largely to do with ethics. Ethics underpins whether your voice is being used in a representative or tokenistic way. Looking at the ladder of participation is a helpful start. Below are the different steps of the ladder (a sliding scale of participation). To bring this theory to life, I have used Black women’s (lack of) representation in British media as an example.  

 

Ladder of Participation by Arnstein 

Non-participation 

  • Manipulation: the mainstream magazine may have pictures of Black women on the front cover of its magazine (when none of the content creators are Black women). 

  • Therapy: the mainstream magazine may work to change Black women’s perception to not see the lack of their representation as a problem, but celebrate that the general representation of (White) women. None of the content creators are Black women. 

 
Tokenism 

  • Informing: the mainstream magazine may tell Black women how the media platform is relevant to Black women, without asking them if they agree. Still, none of the content creators are Black women. 

  • Consultation: the mainstream magazine may ask Black women to fill out surveys on what they would like to them to do to include Black women. They probably won’t make drastic changes – but they get to say they spoke to Black women. Still, none of the content creators are Black women. 

  • Placation: the mainstream magazine may get a small number of Black women to sit on the magazine’s decision-making board, but won’t listen to what they say (or give them enough insight to make informed contributions). Or the mainstream media platform may include a small number of Black female content creators, but only letting them write about Black issues

 

People power 

  • Partnership: oh my days, Black women are starting to have an actual influence! Here the decisions makers and content creators will include a significant number of Black women (so much so that can influence all decisions and content at the mainstream magazine) 

  • Delegated power: the mainstream magazine may ringfence funding for Black women to build their own sister media platform. The majority of decision makers and content creators are Black women, but they may need to report back to the mainstream magazine on big decisions 

  • Citizen control: Black women create their own media platform that is for and by them and source their own funding. They have complete control on how Black women are portrayed in their platform. Only Black women are the lead decision makers content creators  - shout out to Black Ballad

 

The people power part goes beyond representation to self-organising. Why is that important? Cue Melz with a necessary shakeup:

Daily reminder: REPRESENTATION WILL NOT SAVE US It mostly just legitimises our racist fucked up society. Allowing certain black folk to rise up in capitalism whilst many, many more fall Shit needs to be contextualised - representation cannot be the end goal of our movement 

 

Take the context and relate it back to your movement. This is where you need to decide what change you actually want. What type of activist do you want to be? Are you fighting for inclusion/representation or are you fighting for systemic change? It is a bit unfair for me to put them completely at opposite ends (because you may wish to get within the system to then burn it down)… you get the point. 

How you use your voice will determine what space you will be able to get into, who accepts, berates or upholds you. Pay attention to who celebrates you – it will be a good indicator of which camp you are in. Constantly re-evaluate, we all run the risk of sliding into tokenism and meaningless noise when unchecked. Representation or tokenism or something more – your choice. 

 

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Can activism really change the world? I think it’s the only thing that ever has, but we need to be strategic with it. This is the second of a monthly blog series. If there is anything that you would like me to discuss in future blog posts, please email admin@bakitakk.com  

 

Bakita Kasadha (aka BAKITA:KK) is an HIV activist, associate trainer and writer. She is the Chair of the Global Network of Young People Living with HIV. She is interested in self-care, ethical engagement and power dynamics within social movements.  

Through this blog series, she aims to share some insight to navigating activism and advocacy spaces, for those thinking about it and for those figuring it out. All opinions are strictly hers. 

Artwork by thecamru