Token Hire

I don’t like being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. If you asked my peers about it, they’d probably roll their eyes and laugh. Yeah, that’s Megan. I don’t have to be with other women, though that’s obviously a blessing when it comes along; in LA, there were plenty of occasions when I performed with a section or a group whose members were male-coded but included at least one other person somewhere on the gender spectrum beyond cis man. I’ve fallen in love with working among others whose struggles to be accepted in our professional environments speak to something in my own experience. These moments allow for subtle, important moments of solidarity: little reminders that we’re not alone.

That said, I spend a lot of time being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. (#BrassPlayerProblems #JazzProblems.) It’s difficult to explain why the difference is so stark, especially when I’m trying to make sense of it to folks who have probably never found themselves in such a situation. (And even if my cis male friends have, y’all don’t have centuries of systemic gendered oppression weighing on you and affecting your treatment within that scenario.) But when a well-reasoned fear of the consequences—both professional and personal—of putting even one toe out of line has been bred into you from the moment you chose your career, when you work in an industry that has a tradition of violence of all types against your gender(s), when you’re working around people you know won’t speak up if someone makes you uncomfortable, you spend a lot more time worrying and being quiet instead of working to create the art you want.

However, it’s 2019. Professionals the world over are realizing all-male ensembles can’t continue to be their default. Overall, that’s a really good thing; doors are beginning to open for gender-marginalized folks who wouldn’t have had many options a few decades ago. There’s a dark side to the change, though: musicians are beginning to reach for women and other gender-marginalized performers to incorporate into their ensembles so they can say they have one. It’s a performative, superficial kind of inclusivity that draws in folks facing this kind of oppression without considering the systemic structural changes that might be needed to make us feel welcome. It’s hastily scribbling down the answers to your math homework in the ten minutes before class without bothering to show your work (because you’re copying someone else’s), and the results are usually the same: if you don’t have a plan for getting from point A to point B, you’ll only ever get partial credit.

This flawed hiring of marginalized people usually results in one person on the stage who’s different than the others—one person to carry that burden alone. It speaks to a mindset that’s deeply problematic, severely isolating, and can perpetuate a lot of the issues and mistreatment we already spend so much time speaking out against. This is called tokenism, and it comes in two flavors.

The normal kind of tokenism—the one we see more headlines about—is the one men scream about the most, the We’re Lowering Our Standards To Let A Marginalized Person Join kind. It’s a way to argue against letting gender-marginalized or disabled or LGBTQ+ or racially-marginalized folks join your band or your organization or your military. It’s, “Oh, well, no one in these categories meets our standards, so we’ll lower our standards for them (but not everyone else).” (Or, the popular corollary, “We’re not lowering our standards, so we won’t have any diverse participants. Sorry ’bout it.”) And that’s a shitty feeling to be on the receiving end of. It also weaponizes your peers against you pretty quickly.

There’s another version of tokenism, though, that’s perhaps equally insidious but more commonly used (sometimes unconsciously, sometimes not) by advocates for equality and folks who want to look woke without necessarily doing all the work. This tokenism is simpler: “we’re going to include this marginalized person in our band/organization/military/institution because we have to have someone.” Though I haven’t lived everywhere yet, I see this come up the most within ensembles of straight-assumed, white, cis men who are uncomfortable with their homogeneity. It’s more common in smaller musical communities, whether that’s on a city level or a genre/subgenre level—essentially, when there are fewer marginalized people making music near you, it’s more likely to show up.

This kind of tokenism feels pretty crappy, especially since it’s way more likely to be perpetuated by people you have some kind of friendship with. It manifests in the words and actions of people who are fierce advocates for equality and inclusivity (at least in name) but who do not experience the systemic oppression they’re trying to address. It’s an unwanted byproduct of being Very Enthusiastic About Equality™, and because it can so often be perpetuated by people we need to keep happy and On Our Side, it frequently goes unaddressed. And it’s hard to fully explain the effect it has, but it’s subtly destabilizing in a way that erodes your trust in the folks hiring you. When you know a group is Interested In Equality and you’re the only marginalized person they include, it is genuinely hard to believe they’re more interested in you than your marginalization(s).

The difficult part of this is that these ensembles are so focused on finding marginalized talent that they don’t consider the strain it puts on those of us who answer the calls to suddenly be platformed as a representation of that commitment. We’re onstage primarily for their benefit, not our own. Or, as I put it to my partner, “they want us to perform our identities more than our music.” It is exhausting taking the stage while carrying the weight of a marginalized identity. It’s even worse when you suspect or know that’s the primary reason you’re allowed onstage at all. I’ve written before about how envious I am of my (cis, white, straight-assumed) male peers’ freedom to prioritize and focus on the music first and foremost in many cases. This is another layer of that thought, another reason why.

So where does all of this leave us? Well, if you’re like me and actively grappling with this, you’re probably weighing your risk tolerance and personal boundaries against what benefits come from the connections and circumstances arising from these situations. Sometimes it means stepping away from things that aren’t good for your health and wellbeing. That’s tricky, too, because when a token minority leaves a group, there can be blowback (or, as it’s put in legal terms, retaliation). Many of us who find ourselves filling token spots in an ensemble or organization are fierce advocates for equality and further diversification, so when we step away from those projects, our peers and colleagues can turn on us—fast. It’s not uncommon to be met with rhetoric that accuses us of turning our backs on the very ideals we fight for. These insidious standards demand that we continue to participate in institutions and ensembles and peer groups no matter the cost, even when that means devaluing and ignoring our boundaries and our priorities and our quality of life.

As I’ve told several friends over the past semester, I will not martyr myself for a man’s benefit. And while I realize that yes, my participation in activities or institutions can to some extent act as a sort of seal of approval, being upset with me for leaving or stepping back will not make me stay. If someone is more concerned with losing my endorsement than losing me, I know leaving is the right decision.

What gets me to that point? It varies. Typically, though, if I leave an institution, there’s more than one problem, and at least one of those involves me not being comfortable enough to speak up when something’s wrong. More recently, they often also involve environments in which I am expected to behave, experience, and move through the world in exactly the same ways as my male colleagues.

That last one is important. Here’s the thing, people who are reading this and beginning to realize you may have some work to do: the default structures of many of your ensembles and institutions are not designed to welcome or accommodate gender-marginalized people in these spaces, and you can’t keep shoving us (or inviting us!) into groups without considering and understanding the systemic and structural changes needed to allow us to thrive. There is active, meaningful work required that goes beyond saying you want to be more inclusive (and beyond adding marginalized folks into your group). If you are unwilling and/or unable to commit to making those changes and accepting criticism in the process, you should not be recruiting marginalized people for your ensemble. Yes, you will look bad. But you should not reap the benefits of our participation if you are unwilling to educate yourselves and put in the active work required to keep us safe and happy.

How do you get started in this work? Well, you might remember I recently assembled a list designed to aid in exactly that endeavor. Find it here. (Because I’m feeling magnanimous, you can have the happy one.) Remember, this will not change overnight. The things I talk about on here are the product of half a decade of my own constant self-education. But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and for those of you still in pole position, I hope that journey begins today. ♦

Thanks so much for reading! If you like what you see, come back every Saturday at 8pm MST for more thoughts on the intersections of music, gender, trauma, and feminism. Click the Follow button to get notified every time I post! To keep up with my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @ordinarilymeg on Instagram.