Latina Tokenization & How it Impacts Our Mental Health

Being tokenized often places undue pressure on these individuals to perform and conform to unrealistic expectations

Latina tokenization

Photo: Pexels/ Pavel Danilyuk

Have you ever felt pressured to be the sole representative and educator about your culture in a space? When you are one of the few or the only one with your identities, you are more likely to experience something called tokenization. This can happen in professional, educational, and even social settings. Tokenization occurs when minorities are positioned as the sole representatives and considered spokespersons of their community within predominantly white or other environments where they are othered (e.g., being the only woman or having other intersectional identities). Being tokenized often places undue pressure on these individuals to perform and conform to unrealistic expectations. In my work as a therapist, being tokenized is a frequent experience many of my Latina clients disclose, and they all share the same psychological tolls associated with this experience.

On top of any other challenges you may be navigating, such as transitioning to a new role or dealing with feelings of self-doubt and the impostor phenomenon, there is now an added layer of feeling pressured to be the spokesperson for your cultura. Internalizing these external pressures may make you feel the need to live up to certain expectations or even face stereotype threat (i.e., fear of reinforcing negative stereotypes about your social group). That pressure can increase the sense of otherness and isolation you may already be experiencing while adjusting to a new role.

I am embarrassed to admit this, but when I was applying to doctoral programs, I had romanticized the idea of being one of the first Latinas in a program. I thought about it as an adventure or almost like a fresh start. However, that thought quickly shifted after confiding in a mentor about it. When I reflected more, I realized that those thoughts were based on my own need for people-pleasing and seeking external validation. I recognized that I did not want to be isolated or feel different. Although I did not apply to that program, I still experienced being tokenized and felt the psychological toll.

For example, I have experienced the pressure of being a spokesperson for my cultura. In addition to direct comments that made me feel tokenized, I often felt internal pressure. I genuinely believed that my performance could impact whether my program would admit more Latinas in the future. This led to more intense feelings of being an outsider and burdened by the expectation.

People may also experience tokenization when they are asked to organize or participate in a cultural activity solely based on their ethnicity rather than their interests or skills. Additionally, by being invited to join a committee or project but then experiencing being ignored and undervalued because they were intending to meet a diversity requirement. These experiences can be demoralizing and intensify feelings of frustration and separation.

Finally, individuals can feel tokenized when they are selected to lead a diversity initiative without adequate support and resources. The mental health impact of such experiences can be significant, leading to stress, anxiety, and a diminished sense of belonging.

However, there are actions we can take to change this:

Build a Support Network
Establishing connections with other Latinas and allies within and outside the workplace (e.g., online communities of support) can provide much-needed emotional support and validation. These networks can offer a safe space to share experiences and seek consejos. Look into employee resource groups or any social clubs you identify with for support.

Set Boundaries
This is easier said than done, but setting boundaries is important to protect your mental health. This might look like delegating or declining additional responsibilities that are not part of your job description. For example, you do not need to help translate a phone call during your lunch hour or at all if it is not part of your job description. Also, you do not need to educate anyone on your cultura unless it is something you want to do.

Seek Professional Help
Therapy can be an invaluable resource for managing the negative mental health impacts of tokenization. I highly recommend finding someone who shares some of your identities to help you feel safer in the conversation. A therapist can help guide you with setting boundaries and navigating how this impacts your own perception of your identities (e.g., sense of belonging and what it means to be “Latina”).

Advocate for Systemic Changes
This one is on all of us. When we are in positions to advocate for systemic changes in organizations, we should push for more inclusive hiring practices, diversity training, and general support for underrepresented employees. These changes can lead to a more equitable environment in the future.

Remember, the more we increase representation, the more we can lower the experience of tokenization.
We got this. ¡Sí se puede!

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academic latinas Dr. Lisette Sanchez Latina mental health Latinas in business Mental Health mental health therapist tokenization
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