Tokenized at Work? How to Handle Racial Stereotyping

Q. I am on a Diversity Task Force at my job. As a Filipino American, I feel honored to have been asked to serve on this committee, but I feel badly about how I am treated. I am constantly being asked to speak for Asians. Even though I am the only Asian on the Task Force, I cannot speak for all Asians and I resent the inference that all Asians are alike. We are so diverse on many different levels and I guess I expected at least members of the Task Force to be sensitive to this. I am also really tired of being characterized, even by other people of color, as a foreigner or immigrant, in many of our discussions. My family has lived in the United States for three generations. All of my education has been in the United States, but my committee members remark about how well I speak or ask me questions about immigrants. But I don't know any more about immigrant experiences than they do. How should I handle their insensitivity? I have been silent until now, being afraid to hurt others feelings, but they do not seem concerned about hurting mine.

A. Often, people develop a very narrow understanding of what it means to be a minority or a person of color in this society. We all have stereotypes and prejudices that limit our understanding of people whose race, identity, ethnicity, religion, culture etc. are different than ours.

The truth is, in this society, we lead very different and separate lives. Though we may work in environments that are diverse, and though we may have gone to school with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, quite often, we have been in the midst of diversity without truly understanding or growing from that diversity. It's like going to a symphony with ear plugs. Your resentment at being treated as if you were a foreigner in your own country is certainly understandable. Such behavior or thoughts shows just how misguided or misinformed people can be regarding the diversity that surrounds us. Your resistance to being cast as a "token" Asian spokesperson is understandable. Sadly, other people, especially people of color are not recognizing their own insensitivity.

You found the voice to express your anger or resentment or hurt through this column. In so doing, you shed light on this subject which will allow others who wish to become more culturally literate to shed some of their ignorance.

Here is a strategy to help you address your concerns with your Task Force. A Diversity Task Force has a first obligation to know itself and the issues that it needs to work through with its members, before it tries to "right" the climate for others.

Consider recruiting a facilitator to assist the Task Force in hosting a "Cultural Sharing" Experience. This kind of experience allows every individual on the Task Force to share things about their culture that others are unaware of or may not understand. It can also highlight insensitive behaviors, that others are unaware of, that get in the way of positive interactions and effective cross-cultural communications. If you are able to get such an activity implemented, commit to participate fully and candidly, sharing the things that you have shared in this letter. If you do this along with your other members, everyone will have an equal chance to learn to share, to shed light and, yes, get things off their chest, in a way that is helpful, non-threatening and growth inspiring.

A word of caution -- failing to openly communicate your frustrations or concerns conveys a lack of trust and can sabotage the best diversity efforts. Every effective diverse group struggles initially to hear the messages from the diverse voices among them. But each person must own the responsibility to communicate openly his or her feelings and perspectives. Whatever you do, do not let silence be the victor in your relationship with the Task Force. There is so much more to be gained when you develop the skill and the trust to be your authentic self and to enlighten from your unique cultural lens. There is a so much more to gained when you develop the skill and the trust to be your authentic self and to enlighten from your unique cultural lens. This is a competency that will serve you well on the Task Force and in your own professional development. This is a starting point for you. Let your voice be heard.

Linda Bates Parker is President and Founder of Black Career Women, a national professional development organization. She is the director of the Career Development Center as well as a Management Professor at the University of Cincinnati.