What Is Tokenism?

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Tokenism (toh-kÉ'n-ih-zÉ'm) is a type of prejudice that favors a small number of marginalized people at the expense of the entire group. Continue reading for a detailed definition of tokenism and how to avoid it in today's systems.


What Exactly Is Tokenism?

Tokenism (or tokenization) is the act of prioritizing diversity only symbolically, often by including only a small number of people from marginalized groups in order to appear diverse without actually attempting to achieve it. Tokenism can be demonstrated by using a quota system to hire a certain number of diverse hires or by highlighting a marginalized individual as a representative of their entire group.

Tokenism is a type of covert prejudice that only serves to reinforce existing hierarchical power structures. It affects all marginalized groups, including people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and women, and it exists in all systems, such as workplaces and hiring practices, media representation, cultural influencers, education and academia, and politics.


Tokenism: A Brief History

The term "tokenism" first appeared in the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the 1950s. Both civil rights leaders condemned tokenism as a form of hypocrisy in the fight against racial segregation in the United States, claiming that it aims for only a minimal acceptance of marginalized groups within mainstream society, particularly the experiences of Black people within a white majority group.


Impact of Tokenism

Tokenism is harmful to systems because it:

crowds out diverse thought. Tokenism has serious consequences for an organization or society as a whole because it ignores the differences in thought, ideas, opinion, and choice that come from a more diverse group of people”differences that lead to more innovation. Instead, it promotes homogeneity and fosters a culture of sameness.

Ignores intersectionality. Tokenism frequently reduces people to a single aspect of their identity, such as their race or ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, and ignores everything else. This frequently overlooks important aspects of intersectionality in a person's identity, such as being a Black woman rather than a Black man, or being a queer person with a disability.

Ignores qualified candidates from underrepresented groups. Tokenism's approach to diversity within a system frequently relies on a "quota system," allowing only a few people from each underrepresented group into the system ("token hires") while maintaining the predominantly privileged majority. This system de-empowers other qualified candidates because, once an organization has met its perceived "quota" for diverse demographics, it may overlook marginalized candidates in favor of privileged ones.

Stresses out tokenized individuals. There is an unreasonable amount of pressure on marginalized individuals who make it into the organization to perform at exceptional levels while also representing their entire marginalized group (for instance, the entire BIPOC community). This can have a significant impact on the mental health of the tokenized individuals, leading to exhaustion and burnout.

Strengthens existing power structures. Tokenism's most systemic problem is that it resists real change”by admitting only a few marginalized people into the existing privilege system, it limits their ability to make changes to the organization that would make it friendlier and more inclusive to other marginalized people. Furthermore, it perpetuates the myth that because a small group of people "made it," other marginalized people will face fewer obstacles to success as well.


How to Prevent Tokenism

Here are a few strategies for avoiding tokenism in the workplace, media, and other systems:

Avoid imposing unreasonable demands on marginalized groups. Token employees and individuals are under a lot of pressure to outperform their privileged peers and represent the entire group. Make sure your evaluation systems do not expect marginalized people to perform better than their privileged peers, and avoid using individuals as stand-ins for an entire race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation. Furthermore, where possible, avoid broad terms (such as Asian or Black American) in favor of more specific terms.

Be sincere in your desire for inclusion and transformation. Tokenism stems from an insincere, perfunctory desire to meet an expectation; on the other hand, genuine inclusion stems from a genuine desire to change privilege systems and listen to more voices. Avoid using diversity as a symbol of social justice efforts.

Celebrate diversity year-round. Year-round celebration of diversity Tokenism in media is common in the celebration of short-term diversity initiatives such as Black History Month, in which Black creators receive more features for a limited time before an organization returns to its mostly white programming. Avoiding extreme cycles like this requires year-round efforts to center marginalized groups.

Examine the system as a whole, not just the individuals within it. Tokenism works to maintain the existing power structure by simply admitting marginalized people into it; however, these people frequently struggle to find success in these positions because they must follow the rules and expectations of the privileged class while experiencing microaggressions or other forms of hostility. To truly increase diversity and inclusion in an organization, assess existing systems and work to create an open system that enthusiastically listens to different points of view and underrepresented voices in decision-making.

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