Racism is real. We often like to ignore this monster and act like it doesn’t exist, but it does. Purses are clutched when young black men walk in the street; Latinx people are bombarded with ‘’build the wall’’ propaganda.
Our country still has a long way to go. With college deemed a place of intellectual consciousness and progress, it is unfortunate that we have not awakened to the reality that often exists right in our classrooms and lecture halls. From unconscious bias training to diversity and inclusion initiatives, we have tried to tame the beast but have failed to tackle the more implicit issues regarding racial equity, like tokenism.
At Penn, tokenism exists in fraternities, sororities, non-culturally themed clubs, and leadership boards with one black or Latinx person. This is problematic because it further contributes to the racial divisions that already exist at this university. It has the potential to exist among many student leaders in organizations with little to no racial diversity that may feel the pressure to find someone to fill a quota. As Penn students who pride ourselves on being leaders and civically minded, we must tackle this issue head-on.
Social groups are often established on racial and cultural similarities, with few genuine cross-racial interactions occurring outside of the classroom. With the exception of the cultural groups, clubs should model the diversity of the university. The practice of tokenism is unacceptable on a campus of equally talented peers across all racial identities.
Penn needs to create mandatory organizational diversity requirements. For example, the Wharton management elective ‘’Leading Diversity in Organizations’’ is the only Wharton class dedicated to diversity and is not mandatory for Wharton students. For our country’s future leaders to break the cycle that has created a racial gap in high-powered spaces, they must receive sufficient education on the various ways diversity manifests and why an increasingly diverse workforce is important. Discussions about how one’s race affects all areas of that person's livelihood, including their socioeconomic status, should not be avoided. Being politically correct and never addressing these issues only worsens the situation. Only when we open ourselves to having these important and often uncomfortable conversations will we begin to see lasting systemic change.
We all want to know how we can promote diversity and inclusion, and improve things for ourselves and the generations to come. The key is to find a win-win situation, one which simultaneously honors diversity and inclusion. For some, a course on diversity can be the catalyst in helping them achieve their diversity goals.
Tokenism views people on a superficial level, using them as diversity props to justify their own moral righteousness. What’s seen as ‘’progress’’ and ‘’inclusivity’’ often forces to those that are being tokenized to confront a plethora of side effects relating to their position as the only or the exception.
By allowing students of color to share their experiences without fear of judgment or ridicule, we can take a major step in counteracting tokenism.I’ve been in classes where I was the black voice only called on to address issues involving chattel slavery or civil rights.
I've also been in classes where I felt comfortable enough to share my experiences. I recently experienced a breakthrough moment when I explained the politics of hair texture to a room of students that didn’t share my ethnicity. We need more of these moments. Moments where we can take ownership of our narratives. Like the Penn TA who admittedly called on black women first, we need to create the space for underrepresented voices to be heard.
We must accept that there is something wrong with the status quo to change it. Ernest Owens, Penn graduate and former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist, details how we can shift the narrative in an article in the Huffington Post. Although the article focuses on the experience of African Americans, his advice applies to people of all racial identities. He details recommending diverse candidates from marginalized communities for leadership positions. Everyone should be a champion for social change and a leader in the need for increased inclusion. We need more student organizations that aren’t superficially diverse but multicultural. Diversity means nothing if we don’t value all backgrounds and experiences.
There are actionable steps we all can take. If you are a part of a club that isn’t centered around a specific culture, but isn’t very diverse, ask yourself how can you increase diversity? How can you alter recruitment processes to ensure that your club attracts a broad array of candidates? For us as individual students, how can you work to become an advocate? You can start by making sure that the people of color in your group projects gain a sufficient chance to be heard. Ask them for their opinions. Ask them about their experiences. Research topics like stereotype threat and microaggressions.
In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘’We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.'' We must be the change we seek.
SURAYYA WALTERS is a Wharton sophomore from New Rochelle, N.Y. concentrating in Marketing and minoring in Urban Education. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.