Best Practice: Don’t Tokenize

Tokenism is placing anyone, anything, anywhere, any time into a separate category or definite treatment for how it appears, instead of what it actually is. In this post I’m introducing the concept of self-tokenism, which happens when we place ourselves or part of ourselves in a separate category than others. Self-tokenism leads to social tokenism, and here I explain how.

Practice 3: Allow No More Tokenism.

It all starts with yourself. Anthropologists say that one of the defining characteristics of the human species is our penchant for worship. We, as people, like to put things on pedestals. In history, we’d put things like charms, gods, urns, and gold on pedestals. We do the same thing today, adding other treasures to the alter of our imaginations. In my own life I have put relationships, jobs, bills, and experiences on pedestals. Add to that my own ego, emotions, thoughts, and so much more, and I’ll tell you what – my pedestal is full! 

The challenge of this type of personal engagement- which is what it is- is that putting things up high like that by making them more important than all other things is tokenizing. We routinely tokenize different parts of our lives by saying that one part of life is more important than all the rest. We elevate the importance of one thing above all other things. So if I treasure my athleticism, spirituality, or family more than anything else and say that these things are more important than all others, then tokenism is the order of that moment. 

Engagement is largely indifferent to whether you put anything on a pedestal. Self-tokenizing can be a form of engagement because of the lasting connections you make within yourself while you’re doing it. Because of this, self-tokenism isn’t bad, per se. If your purpose is to live a life centered on yourself, then by all means place yourself above all others. If self-maintenance is important to you, or your art, or dancing, music, partying, and getting your needs are important to you, then tokenize them.

However, in my own experience, the less I tokenize things in my life the more I love my life right now, as it is. I don’t get lost in how it should be, where I could be, or what I would be doing if only… Instead, I can simply be here in this moment, engaged in what is actually happening right now, in who I actually am right now, where I’m at, who I’m with, and how things are occurring right now. My focus today is on taking things off pedestals. 

There are some ways I have learned to tell if I my self-tokenizing is problematic. They include:

  • Placing one part of my life ahead of all others at the expense of what matters most to me in that moment. That means if I’m tired, I go to sleep instead of sitting up reading a great book until all hours.
  • Repeating patterns of sacrificing my engagement in things that matter to me in order to constantly do things that don’t matter to me. If I am a painter and spend my career days as a banker, even though money and status don’t matter to me personally, then I need to consider whether I’m self-tokenizing money and “success” over personal engagement, and…
  • Rationalizing false choices in my life by thinking, “Its either part of the solution or part of the problem.” Nothing in personal engagement is this way, absolutely nothing. The only time life is dichotomous like this is when I see it that way, as black and white, up or down, in or out. The reality of personal engagement is that we can form, sustain, and end lasting connections to anything in our lives. Everything that exists within us has purpose, and whether we see it or not is irrelevant.

If you become aware that you’re self-tokenizing in ways that you don’t want to, changing this behavior is as simple as stopping it. Its worth keeping in mind that society teaches and reinforces, constantly, the imbalanced perspectives of self-tokenism. We’re trained to under-ultilize our full faculties, to see things as black and white, and to place self-value at the short end of the stick. So we give ourselves away and sacrifice our personal health, our sleep, our energy, and our sanity. In the meanwhile, our families get shorted, our friendships get stretched, and our homes get dirty. In order to recuperate from this falseness, we snap back like a rubber band, drawing deep within ourselves in order to re-secure the things that are most important to us. Subconsciously, we might get sick or develop long-term health problems in order to find rest that’s been elusive to us. We get in fights with partners and children in order to have some time alone to deal with our own problems. A car accident forces us to walk or ask others for rides so we can get physically fit or learn to rely on others again. All these situations in our lives are suspended in infinite perfection, each an opportunity to learn from the rest. They also encourage self-tokenism by imbalancing our personal engagement, community engagement, social engagement, and universal engagement, all of which are distinct and unique from one another. Because of the interdependent nature of life, they’re all reliant on each other too, so when we self-tokenize, we perpetuate social tokenism, too.

Social tokenism, which we talk about as objectifying others or demeaning someone’s presence because of how they appear to us rather than for who they truly are, blares throughout our society. We learn to see people as women first, or as African Americans, Indians, Jewish people, or Hispanics. We place physically flawless people on pedestals, and treat famous people with exception. We defer to apparently intelligent people, and demean folks who appear too common. 

This is because of our constant self-tokenization. Its because we learn to place individual components of ourselves ahead of all others, and treat our needs with différance towards self-fulfillment, either of ourselves or of others. This conditioning leads to acceptance of exceptionalism, which in turn makes it okay for us to treat others as exceptional because of how they appear, rather than for who they are. In the way Derrida explained regarding language when he coined the term différance, as a society we differ towards social difference.

As you become aware of your self-tokenization you’ll become aware of your social tokenization, too. We are all both tokens and tokenizers. 

If you want to change your either your self-tokenizing or socially tokenizing behaviors, you might start by remembering what Aesop meant when he wrote, “The injuries we do and those we suffer are seldom weighed in the same scales.” Seeing tokenism’s affect on us individually can allow us to see the effects of tokenism throughout society. This perspective allows us to re-balance our perspectives, which are the scales we use to weigh value in the world. Other people cannot be more or less valuable than ourselves – they are simply different. This is the effect of engagement.

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