What I learned from being a token

Avish Gordhan, ECD at M&C Saatchi, describes what it is like to be a ‘token’ diversity hire, and offers the industry advice on how to avoid this and move forward from it.

Years ago, Mandie (my female art director) and I were hired at a new agency in Australia. At a subsequent industry lunch, I met one of the candidates who didn’t get the job. When he discovered that we’d been appointed, his response was, “Of course they didn’t go with me. A woman and a brown guy … ticks all the boxes.”

My response: “Maybe we were just better than you.”

Zing! What a comeback!

But that victory dissipated quickly, and I was left with a gnawing feeling of inadequacy; it was not the first time I’d been treated like a token.

In South Africa, despite having a kindergarten level of experience at the time, I was offered a seat on an agency’s board and a role as their ECD. It made no sense. After a very awkward interview, I discovered why they’d tapped me. They needed my skin. With the right amount of racial diversity, they could pitch on lucrative government work.

After both the lunch and the interview, I went through a journey of self-reflection that comes when you’re made to feel like a symbolic gesture rather than actual talent.

The journey starts with guilt – of having the job ahead of someone else who you automatically presume is more qualified. That’s followed by a serious case of imposter syndrome. Then there’s the why-am-I-doing-this phase. That’s followed by anger. But I’ve always ended my emotional rollercoaster with a firm and resolute determination to prove that I belong.

If you ever experience the sting of being a token, my advice is very simple.

Claim your power. 

That could mean leaving the company.

Or it could mean recognising the reason you’re treated like a token is not you. The reason is someone recognises you’re valuable, but they lack the emotional intelligence, skill or desire to unlock your value without making you feel used or excluded.

You represent a new idea, and you offer a new kind of intelligence, a new way of thinking. It is extremely useful.

Own the difference. Work hard. Trust your talent. Find your team within the broader team. Develop a thicker skin. Speak up. And don’t pretend you need to be someone else to fit in.

To businesses, don’t think of diverse talent as just diverse talent.

We have other skills besides extra melanin.

Businesses need to find the value in our differences. I’ve heard many people say, “I don’t see colour.” The problem with that mindset is that it comes with an unconscious expectation of assimilation. It’s healthy to recognise that you have people from different groups in your organisation. In fact, you could have high levels of representation from all parts of society but, if you don’t create an environment of respect, participation and connection, they’ll all feel like tokens.

Recognise the differences of diverse talent. But don’t turn them into The Oracles of Diversity. There’s a burden that comes with being a minority in a monochromatic business; you’re often expected to represent and speak on behalf of all marginalised groups. That’s an unfair expectation.

I’ve been guilty of turning someone into an oracle. It wasn’t my intention. But I made a mistake. Which brings me to my next point – own up and fix the problem if you discover one. If you don’t acknowledge how you could have been better, you build a destructive culture of denial.

Educate yourself about the people you hire. When I just moved to Australia, I was surprised when Diwali came around and no one knew that this was an important day in the Hindu calendar. In fact, I’ve been asked to work late over Diwali many times. Keep learning and be considerate.

Finally, get involved. Conversations are important and necessary; but actions move us forward. And remember, there is no action too small if it is done with sincerity and a willingness to make a positive difference.

I hope you will act. I hope future conversations around diverse hires are filled with the promise of greatness, rather than scepticism. I hope businesses don’t just open the door to diverse talent but lay out the welcome mat and put out a few snacks too. Most of all, I hope no one reading this ever endures the loneliness that comes with feeling like a token. But if you do, know there is someone who has experienced prejudice, who has been othered and who refuses to be knocked down because of it. I’m hellbent on improving things by using my voice and the combined might and smarts of our industry to make a difference. You’re not alone.

Avish Gordhan, ECD at M&C Saatchi

EDITOR’S NOTE: Avish Gordhan is part of a new campaign, Destroy This Brief, designed to break down the complex challenges of diversity into bite-size creative briefs for the industry to solve. Submit an idea here.


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