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The rise of ‘supertokenism’—and what organizations get flat wrong about DEI

Want to dismantle exclusionary power structures at your company? Skip the supertokens, writes Dori Tunstall, OCAD University dean of design.

The rise of ‘supertokenism’—and what organizations get flat wrong about DEI
[Source Photos: 4×6/Getty Images, imamember/Getty Images]

Last week marked the second anniversary of Black Square Tuesday. In the summer of 2020, design firms and institutions made up of some of the 28 million Instagram users (including myself) posted Black Squares in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter. Like most other Black folks, I was skeptical of the action as I had experienced performative allyship before. The skepticism was so widespread that publications such as Fast Company, Forbes, and Fortune, the Guardian in the U.K., Elle Australia, and even Goop posted articles explaining what performative allyship was and how allies, especially white allies, could avoid it.

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My skepticism turned to curiosity when I started receiving calls from design firms and institutions asking, “What can we do?” They had heard me talk about OCAD University’s Black cluster hire at the “Where Are the Black Designers?” conference on June 27, 2020. These conversations made it clear to me that the organizations were sincere in at least making big plans through hiring initiatives.

Hiring initiatives are very important because they are what can really change the structure and focus of a firm or an institution. But hiring alone isn’t enough. Especially when it leads to what I call supertokenism: When talented people from marginalized identities are used to bring surface diversity to an organization, but not necessarily inclusion—and definitely not decolonization.

How did we get here?

In the midst of the June 2020 #BlackLivesMatter protests against the murder of George Floyd, OCAD University announced the results of the Black cluster hire with the appointment of five Black full-time faculty to the faculty of design. It was the beginning of the institution making amends for the 144 years of zero representation of full-time Black faculty in design. Because OCAD University was ahead of the curve, we were able to help inform and guide other Black hiring initiatives as they were being announced and planned both in the design industry and in higher education throughout North America.

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In July 2020, Rhode Island School of Design announced its intentions for its own 10-person Black cluster hire across its art and design programs in response to student and faculty activism. And while the design industry did not explicitly call for Black cluster hires, many firms did announce intentions to increase the hiring of Black people even during the pandemic.

After a June 16, 2020, open letter from Call for Equity from People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing (POCAM), the advertising industry, especially in Canada, was quick to respond with hiring initiatives. POCAM cofounder Stephanie Small, a Black woman who was formerly the creative operations manager at Taxi Agency Toronto, led the establishment of Black Taxi in July 2020. This special division embarked on a rewriting of Taxi’s HR policies and job descriptions, including shifting the agency’s outreach efforts, eliminating unpaid internships, and partnering with organizations to provide mentorship.

In July 2020, Publicis Groupe appointed leadership to Stephanie McRae for its diversity and inclusion initiatives across all eight business units with the consolidation of funds and then an additional $45 million in funds. Also in July 2020, 200 CEOs of Canada’s largest institutions signed the Pledge to the BlackNorth Initiative against systemic racism to have “3.5% of executive and board roles in Canada held by Black leaders by 2025.”

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This last initiative raised concerns for me because it seems to be falling into one of two pitfalls most likely to cause a firm’s or institution’s DEI and decolonization initiatives to fail: seeking a supertoken.

The rise of the supertoken

When I am asked what it takes to become the first Black dean of a faculty of design anywhere in the world, my answer is straightforward. I am a supertoken, which I define as an individual from a marginalized group or groups whose talents are so desired by institutions that they are able to overcome their innate aversion to the individual’s identities in order to have access to those talents. Former U.S. President Barack Obama is a supertoken. Almost any Indigenous, Latinx, Asian-Pacific, Middle Eastern, or other nonwhite European person who is “first” at anything is more likely to be a supertoken.

My talent is adult gifted and neurodiverse “everyday genius” level intelligence, specifically for pattern recognition and the creative synthesis of new patterns. While the supertoken might originally break down barriers, that person also can be used to erect new barriers.

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The longer answer to how I became the first Black dean of design is that I had to have a PhD from Stanford University, work at least seven years in the high-tech industry as a consultant, lead the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative, and serve as an associate dean of learning and teaching at a university in Australia. The list of accomplishments in my CV are rare. So it is dangerous if I am used as the “standard.” It could mean that other marginalized people might be blocked from access because they are not “like Dori.”

The supertoken exists because they have already excelled in systems that were meant to crush them. Their presence in a firm or institution does not automatically change the system. In some cases, the supertoken might be the one upholding the system with an “I made it through, why can’t you?” attitude. Only a supertoken who is willing to use their privileges to dismantle the systems of exclusion for others might aid in an organization’s decolonization efforts.

How to avoid the pitfalls of supertokenism

Fortunately, there is an effective countermeasure to avoid the pitfall of seeking a supertoken. One can redefine standards so that they take systemic exclusion into account. At OCAD University, I realized that we had an institutional bias for a specific persona type: the traditional academic who is already embedded in postsecondary systems of design education. For education, the ideal academic candidate would need a master’s degree as a terminal degree. For teaching, they would have to have taught a minimum of two years in the postsecondary sector. For relevant experience, they would have to show grants, conference presentations, and journal or book publications.

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All of these expectations do not take into account the systemic exclusion of diverse peoples, especially Indigenous and Black people, from the postsecondary sector, especially in design. Based on the software company Ceros’s crunching of the numbers from the AIGA and Google’s 2019 report on diversity in design, only 3% of designers were Black and only 0.2% were Indigenous.

With so few Indigenous and Black students in the history of design education, how many candidates would have the six years of formal design education needed to meet the education threshold? So I asked myself, If you were Black and excluded from postsecondary education in design, how would you have flourished in design outside of that system?

One way to flourish would be to be a praxis star, a person with a commitment to the design industries who is doing great things without having a formal design education. There are many examples of these individuals within the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities. Because OCAD University started as a technical college, there were examples of these individuals already within the faculty of design. But we needed to codify the industry achievements and qualifications of the praxis star to demonstrate how they would appear outside of the postsecondary system.

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I used equivalency tables from the City of Barrie, Ontario, and the U.S.-based HR consultancy Coordinated Care Services, to determine the equivalents of master’s and doctoral degrees in work experience. If teaching is really about organizing and transferring knowledge from yourself to another group of people, a person who is giving design talks or workshops would be demonstrating those same skills.

If relevant experience is about disseminating knowledge to wider audiences and preparing proposals that are accepted by peers, a person who gives professional talks, wins small commissions or projects, or has local publications write about their work is achieving the same thing. The role of the praxis star within the institution would be to help connect us, and especially students, to the diversity of practices within the design industry.

Another way to flourish would be as a community connector, a person doing great things related to design within the community. There are many examples of these individuals serving as youth program leaders, adult education providers, and religious leaders. The community connector’s teaching ability is demonstrated through conducting community programs and workshops. Relevant experience is demonstrated through small projects, community talks, and self-published reports.

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The role of the community connector within the institution would be to help connect faculty and students to the specific values of making within diverse communities. With these equivalencies in mind, I instructed the Black cluster hire committee not just to rank the top three candidates, but to rank the top candidate within each of the personal profiles: traditional academic, praxis star, and community connector. The committee did this, thus ensuring that the Black cluster hire was dismantling structures of systemic exclusion within OCAD University. These equivalences now inform all the academic hiring and promotion practices at OCAD University.

How companies are dismantling exclusion

[Cover design: Sadie Red Wing]
These same dismantling processes are happening in industry. In 2020, IBM eliminated the requirement of a bachelor’s degree from job postings where it is not necessary to perform the job, which represented 50% of its U.S. job postings. According to McRae, head of D&I at Publicis Groupe Canada, Publicis has successfully “created a [hiring] process that is inclusive, sustainable, and accountable by centralizing our recruitment team, ensuring that all hiring managers have taken our Inclusive Hiring training before searches are started, ensuring at a very minimum for each position we consider candidates who identify as female, or are Black, Indigenous, or racialized.”

Publicis Groupe Canada was the only communications group listed in the Top 25 Employers in Canada by LinkedIn on Employee Diversity. These companies know that achieving their DEI goals is not just about seeking the supertoken, but by changing processes to create a critical mass of diverse employees.

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Does your design firm or institution know?


Dori Tunstall is dean of design at OCAD University. This essay was adapted with permission from Tunstall’s forthcoming book, Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook, available for preorder at MIT Press and to be released in February 2023. 

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