On the Risks of Being a Token among White Progressives

The risks are real, but it’s time for me to speak out loud.

My husband and I are both foreigners who have found our way to Arlington, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb and mainly white town which we call “ambivalent”: it’s progressive while conservative.

After the 2014 events of Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York—where in each case a grand jury declined to bring charges against a white police officer who killed an unarmed black man—the First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington put a Black Lives Matter banner in its front yard.

The highly visible banner, located at the corner of two major commuting roads in Arlington Center, was defaced three times last year.

Funnily enough, the first defacement turned the national brouhaha of Black Lives Matter into a hyper-local movement. Other places of worship joined First Parish, and Black Lives Matter banners flourished on many church properties. Arlington has a sharp appetite for equal justice and freedom of speech. Our town by-laws vow to “value the diversity of our population. We will be known for the warm welcome and respect we extend to all.” And we live up to it! Arlington is a vibrant and welcoming community with plenty of opportunities to meet your neighbors at local theaters, yoga studios, or the art center. If you miss them there, you will find them on the bike path, an east-west greenway built on the ashes of an 1846 railroad.

This is the heads side of the coin. The tails side is, well . . . doubt.

In recent weeks, I was asked to co-chair the Arlington Diversity Task Group, a group of volunteers committed to making our town more inclusive. My husband, while very supportive of me and my dedication to the town, alerted me to tokenism. How many black people lead white-ruled organizations? While our group defines diversity as broadly and as inclusively as possible—to include race, color, religious views, national origin, gender, age, citizenship, ancestry, family/marital status, sexual orientation, ability/disability, source of income and military status—its most common denominator is being white. I recently came across an article in YES! Magazine about two things white people should never do when talking about race. One of those, associated with tokenism, is to ask the first non-white stranger “to join boards or speak at events to diversify an otherwise all-white group.”

Now I may be a foreigner, but I am no stranger to Arlington. I have done loads of volunteer work in town, and I enjoy the groups of people I got to meet. But, still, I didn’t want to be mistaken for a token.

What people might think also haunted me. While many locals are progressive, other conservatives spread nasty comments on local forums about changes they dislike. These might be anything from new traffic regulations to local policies to school challenges. I didn’t want to expose my family to more than we could handle.

Then God called me. Not literally. I wish it was that simple. But he did remind me of my year-long quest for a personal calling. And the Arlington Diversity Task Group satisfied some important things for me: intellectual curiosity, an alignment of my professional skills with the needs of the organization, and an eagerness to improve the neighborhoods in which my three-year-old daughter will grow up.

When I was still a pre-teen in France, Sue Wilson, the wife of my pastor, stood up for me. We were walking around at a local fair, and a woman said something to me. Honestly, I don’t remember what the woman said, and I did not take offense. But Sue did. Suddenly she started preaching to this grown-up about her attitude and discriminatory words.

I knew then that something was wrong. Since that experience, I have discovered the acute feeling of being discriminated against by something that you can’t fully point to. I don’t want that for my daughter. I can’t protect her out there in the world, and damage may already have been done, but until she is grown enough to understand what discrimination is, I have time to build a better world for her and many others.

Last week, I became the Arlington Diversity Task Group Co-Chair. Among other responsibilities, I will be in charge of introducing a speaker during one of our last seasonal events. In this disastrous climate of emergent racism and all the other “isms” that describe the 2016 presidential campaign, I will have to fight my token syndrome and speak out loud. 

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