Award-winning author and Smith English professor Ruth Ozeki ’80 shares insights into her fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, which recently received the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction and is this year's Smith Reads selection.
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‘I Felt Like I was Being Tokenized’
So I had a performance at an event put on by one of the largest music-streaming companies. I was really excited. They emailed me, and they were like, “Hey, this is going to be a showcase to honor queer artists. It’s an internal party, and this is what we have lined up.” I get there and nobody in the audience is of color aside from the people that I came with.
The whole time there were speakers talking about the power of inclusion and equity and how we need to have safe spaces where everybody feels like they can participate and they can have conversations. But I’m looking around this room and what they’re saying is not being exemplified.
I felt uncomfortable. I also felt like I was being tokenized because they wanted to have this diverse, queer event. It felt like I was chosen as a tool as opposed to actually indoctrinating inclusive practices into the structures. It can be really hurtful to experience that. And it happens. A lot. And then to also be treated poorly within that: not paid on time, not paid enough and not treated like what I did was of value afterward.
On top of that is the fact that you’re supposed to honor me because I’m marginalized, but then you continue to structurally oppress at the same time. Add on the additional layers of my identity that intersect, and the access to opportunities starts to deteriorate. So I write songs about those experiences and then I perform them in rooms with the most nondiverse crowds of people ever. Sometimes I’m really nervous because I’m in a room full of 80 straight, or straight-passing, white people, and this next song is about reparations.
I am often the only person of color in the room. It’s scary. But more reason to do it, and then you get really interesting responses like, “Thank you so much for sharing that.” Or, “It’s really important.” But you also get the really uncomfortable faces while I’m midsentence saying, “Pay me reparations.” People want to vomit on themselves. But they have to sit with that.