The Tokenization of Relationships

“But I have Black friends!” “My cousin is gay.” “That’s not true! My uncle is transgender!” We’ve all seen it before, the tokenization of relationships in order to prove a fact. Someone with friends, relatives, or ever partners who belong to a marginalized community cannot be against that community or hold ideas that are oppressive against them, right? Of course they can. The tokenization of relationships to prove a point even solidifies this point. How?

 

We’re all the same.

By saying you are friends, related to, partners with, etc. X marginalized group and thus cannot hold beliefs that harm other members of the group, you are saying that all members of the group are like your friend, family member, partner, etc. This is erasive and simplification of the complexity and variance of the group. In order for you to be supportive of the entire group, you are saying their identities and lives are just like that of the person you know.

Get Out of Jail Free Card

This tokenization also uses said relationship as an object, proving that there is nothing you can do or say that would be problematic because you have some relationship to this marginalized group and they have never said anything. This goes back to the fact that it holds the idea that these groups are all the same and cannot hold varying, let alone conflicting ideas or beliefs. If one person of a group believes something, all other beliefs must be incorrect. Interesting how this only applies to the ones who agree with the person who is defending their actions, beliefs, thoughts, etc.

I love my friend/partner/relative.

That is nice. Let’s ignore that fact that in the United States, we are expected to and forced to love relatives, regardless of how abusive they are because they are family. Let’s ignore the fact that we are supposed to love family, regardless of who they are and what they do. So you love them, that’s wonderful and all but… since that means you cannot be against the group they belong to, that must mean you love them all, each and every single one, right? Of course not. Once again, this is rooted in the idea that we are all the same and because you happen to love or cherish one who agrees with you that means you cannot ever do anything that someone who also belongs to that group might disagree with. We’re all the same and agree on the same points and ideas, obviously.

They only matter when you get called out

You never see a person randomly talking about their Black friends, gay cousin, or transgender uncle, or anything of that nature unless they are using them as an example to prove their non-bigotry. These relationships seldom matter unless they can be used to prove a point or be put on display. This is especially true of relationships where the two involved rarely or seldom interact. For example, the distant gay cousin or distant transgender uncle of the person, who they may only see on holidays, suddenly becomes a big part of the person’s life. Their relationship only matters as a factoid, a shred of proof about their real intentions.

But X agrees with me!

And? That does not suddenly make what was said or done not –ist/-phobic against that group of people. Marginalized people are not a monolith. If a member of the marginalized group calls you out for something, guess what, it’s –ist/-phobic against that group. We do not have weekly meetings to decide what is and isn’t problematic against our groups. We do not all agree on one thing set in stone. Just like every group, we have our own beliefs, opinions, ideas, and so forth. The fact you are refusing to listen to people who may say differently than you or someone you know says, proves the point. You are refusing to listen to other members of the group and thus, refusing to understand that you may have just done something harmful to some.

Silence does not mean agreement

Sometimes we’re afraid to lose our friends, family and loved ones. Sometimes this leads to silence. Just because someone has not mentioned your behavior or opinions does not mean they are alright with them. This is especially true when the person becomes a large part in someone’s life. We do not want to cause strife or issue, so we do not bring it up. Sometimes we are afraid to. This does not mean that the person you are tokenizing believes, agrees with, or supports what you are doing or saying. Sometimes they may even say they agree to avoid the drama or potential fallout.

We are not perfect.

If someone says something is –ist/-phobic. What do you do? Instead of reducing people you love to objects to be used and bartered with, you apologize. You learn and grow. What if you do not agree? Doesn’t matter. You hurt someone. If you step on someone’s toes, do you argue whether or not you actually did it? Words hold power, meaning, and hurt people. Apologize. Move on. We all make mistakes, often we do not realize we are being –ist/-phobic if we come from a place of privilege. Society often ingrains these ideas into us as fact, reality, or just as being part of society. It is a long process and you will trip. Just get back up and learn where the cracks are.

The tokenization of friends, relatives, loved ones, and so forth, does more harm than good in a situation. You are reducing someone you love to an object and using your relationship as proof of something. You turn your relationship into a bartering chip, something to be used as opposed to something to learn from.

 

I understand some of these points can be applied to other situations and contexts, but that is not what this post is about.

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