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Twitter Chat on #Untokening of Mobility Advocacy Explores Costs of Tokenization

Waiting for the bus in South Central. Image: Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

"But whatever you do," the head of the history department told me, "do not use words like 'multicultural.' Parents will call to ask what on earth we're teaching their kids."

I remember looking down at the textbook in my hands and wondering how I was supposed to teach world history without referencing multiculturalism. I had already been told straight-up that I was the token brown, non-Christian hire at their independent (read: Christian) school. But now they were essentially handing me skin lightening cream and telling me to lather my brain with it.

The shamelessness tickled me.

I was 22, in need of the job because my father was too ill to work, and unfazed. This wasn't the first time I'd been tokenized. Nor was it the first time I'd smiled, nodded, and then gone about detonating all my bridges. A year contract just meant I'd have to be more strategic about how and where I set off the TNT.

"Of course..." I shrugged. "No, problem."

I never felt good about being the token troublemaker. Regularly sucking all the air out of the room can take its toll on you and make you wonder about both your intelligence and your sanity. And it's often made all the worse by the fact that most of the people who consistently put you in that position are incredibly kind and well-meaning.

But remaining silent means betraying all the realities that would rightly infringe on the ability of those of privilege to continue narrating themselves into the center of the universe at the expense of everyone else. And for too many of us that occupy the spaces on the margins, that's just not an option.

Still, choosing to speak up is not easy. For there to be any sort of dialogue, you first have to be seen and heard by the forces you're pushing against. And that can be a struggle in and of itself.

Within the field of transportation and mobility advocacy, there's been a marked shift toward acknowledging the importance of equity and addressing the needs of lower-income communities of color and others on the margins. But because change is slow, white and privileged experiences remain at the center of the transportation universe, defining the parameters within which equity can be explored and rejecting issues falling outside those parameters as unrelated and unimportant.

During today's twitter chat hosted by the organizers of the Untokening - a multiracial collective centering mobility justice, equity, and the voices of marginalized communities - participants alluded to the toll that trying to move the needle within those narrow parameters had taken on them.

Having to "educate" those around them about the ways in which marginalized communities were being left out of guiding narratives, frameworks, and planning processes, many agreed, left them exhausted, depleted their resources, did little to improve their ability to address the actual needs of their communities, potentially jeopardized their relationships in the transportation advocacy community as well as their funding streams, or rendered them impotent.

The chat was intended to open up conversations that could be continued at the Untokening California event, planned for this coming November 4, here in Los Angeles. In the process, it managed to touch on marginalized advocates' current frustrations with just trying to be heard.

For Do Lee, a mobility advocate who has done research on the barriers and burdens faced by New York's delivery cyclists, and Oboi Reed of Slow Roll Chicago, being tokenized means not having the value of your contributions recognized and being pushed aside when you challenge the status quo.

In response to the question about how tokenization impacted participants' ability to do the work of advancing equity, former LACBC Executive Director Tamika Butler explained that the personal costs are high.

Former Director of Advocacy for the LACBC Monique Lopez and anthropologist Adonia Lugo pointed to the potential for successful equity advocates to - either knowingly or inadvertently - become gatekeepers (someone brought on to represent marginalized groups because they are unlikely to challenge the status quo in a meaningful way).

Both can complicate the ability of more marginalized voices from those advocates' communities to be heard as well as the effort to build power within or across marginalized groups.

Butler spoke to this problem as well, confessing her fear that she could become a "shield" organizations wielded against others and pointing to the importance of accountability in keeping advocates grounded.

Anyone that listened to the "Walking Towards Justice" webinar from last week in which Tamika, Sonia Jimenez, Charles Brown, and myself questioned The Color of Law author Richard Rothstein regarding his thoughts on white privilege knows that Tamika is not in any danger of pivoting away from uncomfortable topics.

But staying cognizant of the extent to which you are tokenized means constantly having to question yourself, your relationships, and whether you've gotten too comfortable. It's not a fun place to be by any means.

Inevitably, you are pulled in too many directions.

And more likely than not, you are going to have to compete with others to be the most authentic or representative voice of your community, at some point, as Multicultural Communities for Mobility (MCM) notes.

The expectation on the part of more privileged advocates that there can be just one representative black, brown, queer, etc. voice or set of voices - or that just one is enough to make a program or project "diverse" - also helps elevate gatekeepers and shut out more radical perspectives.

The diversity of answers to the question of what organizers should put on the agenda for the November 4 event aptly illustrated what can be lost when marginalized voices are essentialized.

We're still debating what a vision of "equity" entails.

We're still trying to figure out the best strategies to make change in white-centered spaces.

We're still trying to figure out who to target with those strategies...

...and how to make sure we're taking care of ourselves in the process,

while making sure that we're bringing others along with us.

You can find more of the conversation on twitter, here: #untokening or check the storified chat. Read more about the origins of the Untokening movement or visit the Untokening website for details about the upcoming November 4 event.

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