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Two tips to not tokenize people of color

In this "Ask Artblog" article, Dave Kyu reflects on recent negative interactions and provides some tips on what not to do when reaching out or asking favors from a person of color. Got a question for Dave Kyu (or Beth Heinly, our other art life advisor)? Email Or, visit our Google form online, link at the bottom of the post.


Artblog Ask Dave Immigrant protest

Hi, my name is Dave, and I’m an immigrant. I was born in South Korea, but grew up in America. As a 1.5 generation immigrant, I live between cultures, and field many questions as a pseudo-ambassador to my two identities. Some inquiries are harmless, curious, respectful even – a genuine attempt to gain cultural knowledge. But others are offensive, and get added to the growing pile of “check this shit out” conversation fodder that diminishes my identity as a person of Asian descent.

So here are 2 tips (with bonuses!!), for any person inquiring about a culture that is not their own, on how to avoid the many, many pitfalls.


Artblog Ask Dave Email Refugees

Well first of all, don’t use refugees as props.

Which is a good reminder – try reading your own invitation out loud. Try putting yourself in the perspective of the invited. Ask yourself, “Am I mad? Intrigued? What will I gain from participating? Will this be worth my time? Who benefits most from my participation? “

Most of all, ask yourself, “Will my identity be used to make someone else’s point?”

Bonus tip – tell me what your deadline is, but don’t tell me to “get back to you ASAP.” If I have to “get back to you ASAP,” then you should’ve invited me a week ago.


Artblog Ask dave Email Dont Other Me

Note the words “entertainment,” “visual,” and “energetic.”
Note the lack of words “valuable,” “educational,” or “honoring” or “celebrating.”

I appreciate you are stepping outside of your comfort zone to make an effort to be inclusive. But I also resent having to be your tour guide to my culture. Do you expect me to make you a menu of all the possible cultural activities? And did we leave room for dessert? By putting me in this position, even in purpose of celebrating and honoring (which I’ve already pointed out that this email makes no mention of) you are reinforcing my otherness.

Everyone has a different journey with their identity, so I can only speak for myself when I say I had a tough time figuring it out. In my adolescence, I desperately wanted to fit in, but was never allowed to. I’m too Korean to be American, and too American to be Korean. I’ve finally kind of learned to celebrate being somewhere in the middle, but it took all of my 30+ years to get there. Asking me to make this menu for you puts me back into the role of “other.”

It may be petty, pure semantics, to ask you to include nice words. But it sure would be nice to have any indication that your interest came from a desire to learn, or celebrate, and not just to entertain a group of 50 bored lawyers. You won’t be able to avoid othering me, but you can make sure that you are celebrating, not underlining, that otherness.

Bonus tip – You know what/where/when your event is, if/if not it’s a paid opportunity, and who/who might not be the audience. By telling me none of these details, I have to do a lot of work to figure you out, then I have to turnaround and explain all of the above to anyone who I think may be remotely interested and available. If you’re asking me to help, don’t also make it as hard as possible for me to help.

Got a question for Dave Kyu (or Beth Heinly, our other art life advisor)? Email Or, visit our Google form online. See all our Ask Artblog advice columns here.

photo by Kurt Bauschardt, CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by Kurt Bauschardt, CC BY-SA 2.0