Let's talk Tokenism...
Over the last few decades, there’s been a huge shift in the faces that we’re seeing represented on our screens and in our institutions. It’s like the world suddenly woke up and realised that white males are not the only humans that exist. It’s great to see diversity and representation springing up as a priority in both the public and private sector, with many companies introducing schemes designed to level out the uneven playing field built by centuries of sexism, discrimination, and racism. However, many corporations are guilty of limiting the level of agency and influence given to women, POC, LGBTQ+, and other minorities, creating an appearance of diversity while maintaining a homogenous white male dominance at the top. In other words, Tokenism.
What is Tokenism?
Tokenism is essentially the symbolic inclusion of people from minority or discriminated groups in order to create the appearance of an inclusive and fair workforce or environment.
This could be anything from including a black woman as the face of a company while maintaining a completely white senior board, or adding a ‘token Asian’ character in a film and killing them off before they have the chance to have a real impact on the plot.
From the outside, these companies look diverse. But on the inside, they don’t give any real agency to the minorities that they’re meant to be representing. Essentially, companies are realising the immense diversity deficit in the make-up of their teams, but rather than enforcing real change, they end up sticking a black face as the poster child of the company. And even then, they fail to recognize the wealth of identities within minority groups.
Jocelyn Carter Miller, president of TechEdVentures, a community empowerment firm and diversity activist, points out:
“Minorities are diverse. We differ in our social, cultural, professional, economic, gender and more preferences. We are not only one thing; we do not do only one thing; we do not like only one thing. Often we’re stereotyped – positively or negatively – or missing entirely from ads”
Tokenism isn't limited to huge corporations. Let’s take a look at Hollywood, notorious for its blunt institutional racism and sexism. Andre Seewod talks of the ‘pseudo-inclusive’ white film which perpetrates tokenism by including a black actor, without giving them any ‘dramatic agency’. The 2016 #Oscarsowhite scandal revealed that for two years in a row there were no actors of colour nominated for an award. This goes to show that often when casts are praised for being diverse, they perpetuate tokenism by giving roles to people of colour on the periphery of the main action, taking away their dramatic agency.
What can we do to tackle tokenism as Feminists?
While we raise our placards for more inclusivity and equality, let’s remember to challenge the levels of diversity we find in higher positions within companies. Our job isn’t done once a woman, POC, LGBTQ+ or disabled individual has broken down the barriers to get into their position. We have to push for representation at all levels, to ensure that diverse working spaces don’t tokenize and reduce individuals to what society thinks they should represent. If you see someone tokenising an individual... CALL THEM OUT ON IT!
Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza.