Can inclusion be a synonym for tokenism?

Sometimes, the effort of organisations to be inclusive can be well-intentioned while still lacking in terms of effectiveness.

Mayabee Arannya

Mayabee Arannya

The Daily Star


Representative illustration for inclusion. PHOTO: PIXABAY

March 28, 2024

DHAKA – This year’s International Women’s Day theme was “Inspire Inclusion”, yet I believe the need to appear inclusive has mostly inspired tokenism. Tokenism is the illusion of inclusion, where one tries to appear as though they are providing equal opportunities to people from underrepresented communities while not genuinely doing so. The line between inclusion and tokenism can get blurry for many, even those working in development or social justice. We have reached the point where inclusion is simply a workplace buzzword or donor requirement.

As a young woman in the activism and social development space, I’ve found myself to be a token far too many times than I’d like to admit. I’m a convenient token; I tick off two checkboxes at the same time: “youth” and “woman”. Sometimes, I even fit “youth activist” and “young leader”, awarding organisations who work with me or invite me to their discussions bonus “inclusion points”. This is not to say I am ungrateful for the opportunities I receive – I happily attend almost every roundtable, panel or workshop I am invited to. However, every time I walk into a room and notice I’m the only young woman there, I question the intention behind my invitation. Last year, during one such roundtable discussion, the moderator directed the room to listen to the youth’s voice and then gestured towards me.

Suddenly, I became the unified voice of the youth of Bangladesh, and I had no idea such a responsibility would fall on me. That, too, without having consulted with the rest of the youth population. I am not trying to say that my voice as a young person was unimportant; I still spoke my mind while clarifying that I can’t speak for the entirety of our country’s youth. I just wished my voice was accompanied by more young people who could also share their lived realities. Thankfully, the organisers paid heed to my words, and many more young people of diverse identities were added to the invite list for future discussions. Unfortunately, such a positive outcome is not common.

Sometimes, the effort of organisations to be inclusive can be well-intentioned while still lacking in terms of effectiveness. For example, last year, I found myself at a workshop where we were introduced to a participant who had a visual impairment. The organisers made sure to teach us ways to be accommodating, and I appreciated the attempt at inclusivity by both organisers and participants. All was going smoothly until one session where the organiser asked us to stand up, watch them and follow their movements. In case you missed it, the keyword here is “watch”. Despite being so careful to be as accommodating as possible, the organiser unfortunately forgot to provide any verbal instructions to an audience that includes a person with a visual impairment. This was not the end of the world, as other participants and I managed to help our peer complete the session.

However, it made me wonder if many development organisations are merely jumping onto the bandwagon of inclusivity, inviting participants with disabilities while not being trained in how to accommodate and support them. It made me think of how many offices, event spaces, workshop resorts, etc, I’ve been to that did not have any disability-friendly infrastructure, hence automatically excluding a community of people from attending.

Another practice in the development sphere that irks me is that inclusivity is not a concept applied to leadership or management. Of course, this is not something exclusive to the development sector; however, since the field does boast its commitment to inclusion, it baffles me how we still have programs that are, for example, created for the youth while not having any young members on the organising team. In the few youth programs where I’ve taken up leadership positions, there has yet to be an instance where my expertise or judgment was not questioned solely based on my age. Surely, people must know by now that ageism has no place in inclusivity?

The saddest part is that many people I’ve met from underrepresented communities do not mind the tokenisation as it is the closest to inclusion they can usually get. Organisations shamelessly take advantage of this to fulfil whatever inclusivity requirements they have. It begs the question: Who does this “inclusion” benefit?

In theory, inclusion should benefit all parties. It gives everyone involved and affected an equal voice and creates the chance to find real solutions to the world’s challenges. In reality, those in power fear inclusion. It is a threat to their order, an unwelcome change. Somehow, people feel as though creating space for more people encroaches on their own ability to take up space. Hence, to them, tokenistic approaches are a happy solution to the problem that is inclusion.

Then, how can we be inclusive? I’d say to start from school. Include lessons on diversity and inclusion, for example, by introducing a comprehensive sexuality education program. I’ve observed how young students can be easily taught to respect the differences in people instead of resenting them by simply having open conversations about identity. And what about the adults who are still struggling to grasp the concept?

Training programs can be a welcome solution. Moreover, we need more frank dialogue where people stop pretending to be inclusive and start sharing why they feel such a barrier when it comes to inclusion. There is no longer room for people who want to be inclusive yet are scared of “sharing” power, who would rather exclude people than inconvenience themselves to accommodate diverse people, who can’t view all people as equal. Inviting minority communities to the table is no longer enough; organisations must empower them to become leaders themselves. That is when true inclusion will begin.

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