Of Tokenism

I’m not even half-way into this program and there’s already talk of bringing me back next year as a TA. I suppose I should be flattered, but really, given the circumstances, I feel awkward more than anything else.

You see, the World’s Most British Person* and I were attending a cocktail party with one of the program-directors, who was aggressively trying to recruit both of us.

“What we need are TAs of great passion and intelligence, who put our institution’s best foot forward!” she enthused. “Like you,” she said, turning to the World’s Most British Person; “a student at one of the world’s top universities**.” And then she added: “Or someone who represents our commitment to diversity; like you Jaime.”

“Ah…thanks,” I replied, and sipped generously of my Alsatian wine.

Diversity. So this is what I have come to, is it? The moment that I have dreaded since I first came out: having all of my other accomplishments in life subordinated to the mere fact of my existence as what I am. The token tr*nny.

I must admit, the experience was almost surreal for me. All talk of “residual male privilege” aside, the fact of the matter is that I grew up appearing outwardly as a heterosexual, white, native-born, middle-class, man in a first-world country. And whatever other words get applied to people with such a background, I can guarantee you that “diverse” is not one of them.  Suddenly finding yourself (if only to some limited extent) on the outside looking in is disorienting to say the least.

Rationally though, I can’t quite figure out why this incident bothers me so much. I mean, it’s a bit condescending to be sure, but it’s not the first bit of favouritism I’ve ever been shown. To cite an obvious example, I managed to get all of the way through undergraduate university without paying tuition due exclusively to the fact that my father was a professor there. Then, as now (only moreso) I was being granted a selective advantage not because of my own accomplishments, but because of the immutable circumstances of my own existence. And that was a much bigger advantage than this one***.

And that, of course, is that elephant in the room whenever people discuss “affirmative action.” It’s not that “mainstream society” doesn’t benefit from it, it’s that nobody ever sees fit to point-it-out to them when they do. The only functional difference between my unearned advantages before transition and now is that now I have fewer of them and I feel guiltier about them.


*He is tall, pale and possessed of a name which rivals “Benedict Cumberbatch” itself for Patrician flair.

**He is, of course, an Oxonian.

***And in my defense, I did feel pretty bad about this one too.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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3 Responses to Of Tokenism

  1. The oxonian is in roughly the same boat, only being asked because of the name of their university. Although the preconceptions attached are at least relevant…

  2. Lindsay says:

    The moment that I have dreaded since I first came out: having all my other accomplishments in life subordinated to the mere fact of my existence as what I am.

    I understand this, somewhat — I definitely wouldn’t have felt comfortable knowing, say, that my being female had weighed in my favor being admitted to some prestigious program in the sciences or whatever (spoiler alert: it never has) — and I certainly used to feel this way about affirmative action programs in general: that they reduced people to certain demographic characteristics, and ignored their accomplishments, background, and individual merits.

    I don’t think that anymore, though.

    What I think now is that, when the lady told you and your British friend that she wanted him for his prestigious credentials and you for your being an opportunity for them to show their “commitment to diversity”, what she was saying was that you two had those qualities in addition to being supremely qualified candidates. To my mind, she didn’t want you *just* because you’re trans, she wanted you because you’re brilliant, and being trans is just another thing she finds intriguing about you.

  3. She at least could have said, “commitment to diversity and excellence” to make it sound less awful.

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