What is supertokenism and how can companies avoid it? – 71Bait

Last week marked the second anniversary of Black Square Tuesday. In the summer of 2020, design companies and institutions that make up some of Instagram’s 28 million users (including me) posted black squares in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter. Like most other black people, I was skeptical about the storyline, having previously experienced performative allies. Skepticism was so widespread that publications such as Fast company, forbesand wealththe Guardian In the United Kingdom, ell Australia and even Goop published articles explaining what performative allies are and how allies, especially white allies, could avoid them.

My skepticism turned to curiosity when I started getting calls from design firms and institutions asking, “What can we do?” They had heard me on “Where Are the Black Designers?” about hiring Black Clusters at OCAD University. Conference on June 27, 2020. These conversations made me realize that the organizations were genuine in making at least big plans through hiring initiatives.

Hiring initiatives are very important because they can really change the structure and direction of a company or institution. But attitude alone is not enough. Especially when it leads to what I call supertokenism: when talented people with marginalized identities are used to bring superficial diversity to an organization, but not necessarily inclusion — and definitely not decolonization.

how did we get here

Amid the June 2020 #BlackLivesMatter protests over the killing of George Floyd, OCAD University announced the results of the hiring of Black Cluster with the appointment of five full-time Black faculty in the Department of Design. It was the institution’s beginning to make up for 144 years without representation from the black full-time design faculty. Because OCAD University was ahead of its time, we were able to help inform and guide other black hiring initiatives as they were announced and planned in both the design industry and higher education across North America.

In July 2020, the Rhode Island School of Design announced its intention to hire its own 10-strong black cluster in response to student and faculty activism in its art and design programs. And while the design industry hasn’t specifically called for black hiring in clusters, many companies have announced their intention to increase black hiring even during the pandemic.

Following an open letter dated June 16, 2020 from the People of Color in Advertising and Marketing (POCAM) Call for Equity, the advertising industry, particularly in Canada, was quick to respond with hiring initiatives. POCAM co-founder Stephanie Small, a black woman who was formerly the Creative Operations Manager at Taxi Agency Toronto, spearheaded the formation of Black Taxi in July 2020. This particular department began revising Taxi’s staffing policies and job descriptions, including relocating the Agency outreach Efforts to eliminate unpaid internships and partner with organizations to offer mentoring.

In July 2020, Publicis Groupe appointed Stephanie McRae to lead its diversity and inclusion initiatives across all eight businesses with the consolidation of funds and subsequent $45 million in additional funding. Also in July 2020, 200 CEOs from Canada’s largest institutions signed a pledge to the BlackNorth Initiative Against Systemic Racism that “3.5% of senior management and board positions in Canada will be filled by black executives by 2025.”

This last initiative has me concerned because it appears to fall into one of two pitfalls most likely to cause a firm or institution’s DEI and decolonization initiatives to fail: the search for a supertoken.

The rise of the super token

When I’m asked what it takes to become the world’s first black dean of a design department, my answer is clear. I am a supertoken, which I define as a person from one or more marginalized groups whose talents are so coveted by institutions that they can overcome their innate aversion to the identity of the individual in order to gain access to those talents. Former US President Barack Obama is a Supertoken. Almost any Indigenous, Latino, Asian-Pacific, Middle Eastern, or other non-white European person who is “first” in anything is more likely to be a Supertoken.

My talent is adult gifted and neurodiverse intelligence at “common genius” level, specifically for pattern recognition and creative synthesis of new patterns. While the Supertoken could originally break down barriers, this persona can also be used to erect new barriers.

The longer answer to how I became the first black dean of design is that I received my PhD from Stanford University, worked in the high-tech industry as a consultant for at least seven years, led the US National Design Policy Initiative, and served as associate dean for learning and teaching at a university in Australia. The list of accomplishments on my resume are rare. So it’s dangerous if I’m used as “default”. It could mean that other marginalized people are denied access because they are not ‘like Dori’.

The Supertoken exists because they have already excelled in systems they were designed to destroy. Your presence in a company or institution does not automatically change the system. In some cases, the super token might be the one keeping the system going with an “I did it, why can’t you?” attitude. Only a supertoken willing to use its privileges to dismantle the systems of exclusion for others can aid in an organization’s decolonization efforts.

How to avoid the pitfalls of supertokenism

Fortunately, there is an effective countermeasure to avoid the trap of finding a super token. Standards can be redefined to reflect systemic exclusion. At OCAD University I realized that we had an institutional bias towards a certain personality type: the traditional academic already embedded in post-secondary systems of design education. For training, the ideal academic candidate needs a master’s degree as a degree. For teaching, they would need to have taught at least two years in post-secondary education. For relevant experience, they would need to have fellowships, conference presentations, and journal or book publications.

All these expectations do not take into account the systemic exclusion of various peoples, especially indigenous people and black people, from the post-secondary sector, especially in design. Based on software company Ceros’ analysis of figures from the 2019 AIGA and Google Report on Diversity in Design, only 3% of designers were Black and only 0.2% were Indigenous.

With so few Indigenous and Black students in the history of design education, how many candidates would have the six years of formal design education required to reach the educational threshold? So I asked myself: If you were black and excluded from post-secondary design education, how would you have developed outside of that system in design?

One way to be successful would be to become a practice star, a person with a commitment to the design industry who does great things without having a formal design education. There are many examples of these individuals in Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities. Since OCAD University started out as a technical college, examples of these people already existed within the design faculty. But we had to codify the practice star’s industry accomplishments and credentials to show what they would look like outside of the post-secondary system.

I used equivalence tables from the City of Barrie, Ontario and US-based recruitment firm Coordinated Care Services to determine the equivalents of master’s and doctoral degrees in terms of work experience. If teaching is really about organizing knowledge and transferring it from yourself to another group of people, a person giving design lectures or workshops would demonstrate the same skills.

If relevant experience involves disseminating knowledge to a wider audience and creating proposals that will be accepted by peers, a person who gives technical lectures, wins small commissions or projects, or has local publications write about their work achieves the same thing. The practice star’s role within the institution would be to expose us, and especially the students, to the diversity of practices within the design industry.

Another way to thrive would be as a community connector, someone who does great things related to design within the community. There are many examples of these individuals serving as youth program directors, adult education providers, and religious leaders. The Community Connector’s teaching ability is demonstrated by conducting community programs and workshops. Relevant experiences are demonstrated through small projects, community talks and self-published reports.

The Community Connector’s role within the institution would be to connect faculty and students to the specific values ​​of creation within different communities. With these equivalences in mind, I have directed the Black Cluster Hire Committee to not only rank the top three candidates, but also to rank the top candidate in each of the personal profiles: Traditional Academic, Practice Star, and Community Connector. The committee did this, ensuring that the hiring of the black cluster dismantled structures of systemic exclusion within the OCAD university. These equivalences now inform all academic recruitment and promotion practices at OCAD University.

How companies reduce exclusion

[Cover design: Sadie Red Wing]

The same dismantling processes take place in industry. In 2020, IBM removed the requirement for a bachelor’s degree from job postings that don’t require it to perform the job, which accounts for 50% of its US job postings. According to McRae, Head of D&I at Publicis Groupe Canada, Publicis successfully has “a [hiring] inclusive, sustainable and accountable process by centralizing our recruitment team and ensuring that all hiring managers have completed our inclusive hiring training before starting the search and ensuring that for each position we consider at least candidates who identify as female or identify as black, indigenous, or racist.”

Publicis Groupe Canada was the only communications group ranked among the 25 Best Places to Work in Canada by LinkedIn in Employee Diversity. These companies know that achieving their DEI goals isn’t just about seeking the super token, it’s about changing processes to create a critical mass of diverse employees.

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