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  • Writer's pictureChippewa Valley Equality Initiative

The Dangers of Tokenism

To·ken·ism /ˈtōkəˌnizəm/ noun The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.

Tokenism is all around us. For marginalized individuals, we continually see members of our communities being tokenized, while most people are misled by these representations. To an outsider, who doesn't actively recognize tokenism, it is easy to be fooled. Companies, organizations, and groups have designed it that way. To make it look as though they are inclusive. That they are diverse. That they are equal and equitable.

To recognize tokenism, we have to look deeper than just a first glance. Let's take a look at some examples of tokenism, to see how on the outside they look inclusive and diverse, but beneath, they are just a means of appeasement to continue the marginalization of underrepresented groups.

Tokenism in Film & Television

We've all seen it too many times. The one Black, Asian, LGBT+, etc. character in a TV show or film. Often the rest of the cast is white, straight, and able bodied. Even worse, we often see these characters as the "funny friend", or "sidekick". Almost never a lead character.

Even when we do see representation, we frequently see characters casted who are light skinned and mixed-race. Characters who could pass as white, or are more difficult to place within a specific ethnic group.

The characters that individuals are subjected to play as well, perpetuate stereotypes. For years Asian men were never seen as love interests. In fact, Steven Yeun paved the way in 2010, by showing an Asian man in a relationship with a white woman on The Walking Dead. The fact that this was a game changer for men in the Asian community, and women who were given "permission" to be attracted to them in the year 2010, shows how far we still have to go.

Indian actors typically have a "funny" accent that is played up to further insinuate their lack of understanding others, and overall intelligence.

Black characters often die first in movies. It's become a joke among many people. Black men are also portrayed often times as intimating, and Black womyn are portrayed as loud-mouthed and sassy.

Latinx individuals are shown as the seductive "Latin Lover", and Latina womyn are shown as sassy with a temper.

Native and Indigenous people are almost never shown, and are often represented in film and television. Even worse, instead of finding appropriate representation in actors/actresses, individuals are cast to play these parts, who are not Native or Indigenous.

It has also been recently called out, that instead of highlighting diverse stories for movies and television, "diverse" individuals are being cast to play white characters from white stories. This perpetuates the idea that only white ideas and stories are American, and that BIPOC do not belong.

Tokenism in Business

From advertisements, to materials, to having people hired with no real say or power. Companies and organizations are continuing to hide behind their displays of diversity, without real inclusion or equity.

Representation matters. However, representation or diversity without inclusion and equity, is tokenism. We see this far too often, from boards, to materials, to education. Minority individuals are set up to be the face of the company, but have no real say or power.

This can even go as far as hiring someone in an upper level position within the company who is from a minority group, but stripping them of the ability to make any actual decisions or changes.

In order to truly judge a company on its EDI, you need to look at multiple factors, including (but not limited to): inclusive hiring, connections with multiple individuals of minority groups inside and outside their organization, allocation of funds for donations, advancement and education opportunities, safe spaces for individuals to be heard and acknowledged, an overall culture of anti-racism and anti-discrimination.

This may be hard to view from the outside, but the more that we observe, the easier it will be to spot companies and organizations who do not embody these values.

Tokenism in Education

Many times, the idea that voices need to be heard, ends up in tokenism of individuals. Especially in spaces where there is little to no representation of minority groups. An example would be: Asking the single member of the class who identifies as LGBT+ to continually speak about their experiences in relation to how they identify. This is taxing on mental health, and also encourages a very limited perspective, as one individual doesn't speak for the entire community.

Students are not there to be the educators. Especially when they are being placed in a vulnerable position to be forced to share their experiences. This causes anxiety, stress, depression, and discourages engagement and participation from many individuals who are afraid of being called out.

The True Danger of Tokenism

Why tokenism is so dangerous, is because unless you look closely, it is often times deceiving. It causes people to think that something is truly diverse, while hiding practices that are not inclusive, and often still very oppressive. Furthermore, many individuals who utilize tokenism, will use it as a way to gaslight individuals who try to call them out for not being diverse and equitable.

Tokenism, at its core, is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Something that looks good on the outside, without changing the inside.

Until we start to recognize and hold individuals, groups, organizations and companies accountable for tokenism, it will continue. We need to continue speaking up, and integrating multiple members of underrepresented groups into conversations, with expressed and explicit value placed on their voices and experiences. Inclusion and equity matter.

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