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How to tell a client they’re tokenizing you

Tokenism isn’t exclusive to the 9-5 workplace. Freelancers can also experience being tokenized when it comes to client relationships.

The freelancers who are most likely to be tokenized are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), those who identify as LGBTQ+, and those who identify as disabled. 

In order to create a more inclusive and equitable industry, freelancers should be able to identify if and when they’re being tokenized and let their clients know. 

Let’s go over what kind of tokenism freelancers can experience and a few ways to tell a client they’re tokenizing you.

First, what is tokenism?

Tokenism is defined as “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort.” Translation? Doing something just for show. 

When applied to the workplace, tokenism often means that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are merely for the optics and aren’t being practiced within the company. For example, a clothing brand that features diverse models in their advertising but doesn’t treat their BIPOC employees fairly. 

One research study found that anyone can be a token in the workplace when they are part of an organization, department, or team that has 15% or fewer people like themselves.

How tokenism applies to the freelancer-client relationship

As a freelancer, there are a number of signs that a client is tokenizing you. Here are a few examples:

  • They offer you a low-ball rate 
  • You are the only person on the team who belongs to a specific group (this could be race, gender, identity, disability, etc.)
  • You’re asked to participate in something but no one listens to your ideas or your expertise is not appreciated 

If you’ve experienced any (or all) of these situations, it could mean that your client is tokenizing you and it’s time to speak up.

How to tell a client they’re tokenizing you

Using the examples above, here are a few ways to tell a client they’re tokenizing you.

  1. Low rate

    It’s not uncommon for BIPOC folks to be low-balled compared to their white peers. When it comes to rates, you are in charge of your pricing — not the other way around. If your client is trying to get a discounted price or offers a cheap rate (when you know for a fact they have the budget), stand firm on your rate and communicate the value you bring and how it’s reflected in your pricing.

  2. There’s no one else like you on the team

    If you get the sense that a client has ulterior motives for working with you (i.e, is trying to check off a diversity box), try to get to the bottom of their values and policies early on — ideally before you sign a contract.

    Ask them what the company’s current diversity, equity, and inclusion policies are and how they are making equal representation a priority. While you’re not in an employer-employee relationship, you should feel like you’re part of a diverse and inclusive environment and you have the right to know what you’re getting into if you choose to work with this client.

  3. Being unheard and unappreciated

This client chose to work with you for a reason. Your expertise is something they need and it should be valued as such. If they’re not hearing you out, supporting your ideas, or respecting your recommendations, that is not only a red flag but it could also be a sign that they only brought you on as a token.

Remind them of why they reached out to you in the first place (assuming their intentions were good). You have the expertise and skills they’re looking for, but you can’t make an impact if they aren’t willing to listen to what you have to say.

If that isn’t effective, don’t be afraid to end things with a client if they aren’t hearing you out or giving you any space to share your expertise. 

As a freelancer, you are your best advocate. Don’t be afraid to speak up for your values and hold clients accountable, especially if you feel like you’re in a situation where you’re being tokenized.