From Tokenism to Social Justice

by Marie Gardom, adopted from Malaysia to the UK.

It’s become increasingly clear to me that not only is diversity alone not working but in fact it’s a tactic being used to immunise organisations against the charge of racism or marginalisation.  Here in the UK, the Conservative politicians who lead the most anti-immigration policies are people of colour.  They don’t represent the groups from which they came from instead they snuggle up to power by reciting the tired old Tory tropes, perhaps pining to belong to the in-group they’ve always been outside of, and always will be because they chose an intolerant in-group. 

We see this time and time again, a single minority group is represented and held up to be an example of why there isn’t racism/ablism/sexism etc.  Conveniently they proselytise the voice of the status quo with  passion and heady conviction.  When the dominant group is accused of inequity they wheel out one or two of the said minority group as a way of denying the charge and go back to making decisions to the disadvantage of minorities.
Over the decades an increasing awareness and demand for representation has led organisations, Hollywood and governments to create an illusion of diversity without inclusion, without meaningfully addressing power dynamics of majority groups and social hierarchies so power remains firmly in the same hands.  We’re often represented as a homogenous group if there’s one person of colour, or a gay white man, a box may have been ticked but meaningful representation hasn’t been achieved.

I see this in how we as adoptees are working as advocates.  There’s an awareness in society but a lack of comfort with the idea that adoptees are the experts.  As such there’s a performance of inclusion, adoptees are often at the forefront of adoption promo campaigns if they espouse how beautiful it is.  Even if they talk to the complexity of our experiences they remain comforting voices to those who see adoption as doing good and the only way to resolve family crisis in which a child needs support.

I’ve noticed that I’m rarely invited to give my opinion in policy or best practice within organisations who could reform it.  And when I am, the comfort of the majority group has been significantly favoured. Representation doesn’t give us power if we’re outnumbered, on someone else’s territory and way down the hierarchy.  I believe this to be largely unconscious, but always leveraged.  Those in the majority rarely have to consider the factors that create equity of power or more regularly inequity.  

Adoptees have very little representation across the world. In the UK alone, there’s not a single adoptee led group, which covers the wide range of experiences of adoptees here.  Instead  we’re disparate unfunded mutual aid groups trying to help each other and ourselves however we can.   I’ve observed the frequent ways in which many adoptees burn out from advocating.  Having been invited to conferences and policy events many have disappeared from view because of the traumatic nature of those events.  They’re traumatic because as a minority our voices are discounted, denied, argued with and often aggressively silenced.  This group is largely there at those tables because we’re so vulnerable, and so in need of change, our community has high levels of suicide, depression, addiction and more. 

If I’m going to continue my work as an advocate I need to set myself and fellow adoptees up for success in these spaces where we can find ourselves enduring dangerous levels of stress. So I think it’s important to name the power dynamics in play so that we can ensure we can address those problems in how we set up our boundaries, and have the language to name issues when they occur.  So I’ve created a simple infographic  which names the power dynamics and offers solutions for those genuinely interested in social justice.

See Marie’s other recent post in ICAV: From Charity to Justice