Tokenism VS Representation

What Is Tokenism?

Tokenism is the practice of making an effort that is only symbolic to be inclusive of minority groups to keep up an appearance of racial and/or sexual equality (Wikipedia).

Tokenism or Authentic Representation?

It is often difficult to distinguish between sincere efforts to be inclusive and perfunctory gestures. Appearing to be the same at the surface, tokenism and diverse representation are different because of the intention and reasoning behind the action.

Representation means engaging with and embracing people from different backgrounds and actually valuing their opinions and expertise through acknowledging the knowledge and perspective they may bring to the conversation. On the other hand, tokenism is simply an empty gesture solely with the purpose of earning diversity points. 

While tokenism is an after-thought or an easy and quick solution, inclusivity and representation are embedded in their values and operations from the get-go.

Tokenism in the Workplace

By definition, token employees are meant to be few which is why they are often suppressed and stereotyped by the dominant groups. Token employees might also miss out on promotion opportunities and have a lesser influence in the workplace.

In a recent study by the Harvard Business Review, it was found that companies with above-average diversity were 19% higher on innovation revenues. 

Businesses need to practice diversity, equity and inclusion in order to abolish tokenism. This can be done through ensuring that they have more than one person from each demographic to provide a fresher perspective that is not just for face.

Tokenism on Television

Being the only one of a minority group in a large ensemble cast is a glaring sign of tokenism. Raj Koothrappali from “The Big Bang Theory” and Gloria Pritchett in “Modern Family” are some classic examples where productions include a character to seem more racially diverse. On the other hand, Kevin Keller in the “Archie Comics” or “Riverdale” is another token LGBTQ character. 

Tokenism in television and film often leads to narrow or mis-representation and even portrays these minorities in a negative light by highlighting negative stereotypes. 

It is important to portray characters from groups such as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, the LGBTQI+ community, and others that are not just a side-script to the larger story but have actual, sizable contributions. 

Tokenism in Politics

Political parties often put forward candidates from certain underrepresented groups in order to further their own agenda. Even though this may help in securing votes and winning elections, these token candidates may have little or no say in the office, meaning that no substantial progress has actually been made.

Tokenism in Books

Similar to television, one-dimensional token characters are tossed in fictional or real world stories to act as side scripts or comic reliefs. This is often done so that the marketing department or publishing house can claim the book is “diverse” in order to make more sales and portray a better image. The Patil twins and Cho Chang in Harry Potter are some famous examples.

Alternatively, “The Hate You Give” by Angie Thomas, “Warcross” by Marie Lu and “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo are some examples of young adult books with great representation.

Tokenism in Media

Pride Month is often met with straight-identifying editors seeking to publish appropriate and “woke” articles on homosexuality to boost sales and views while suprressing these pieces the rest of the year. 

The New Yorker has also been criticized in the past for having only one black person as a main character in their cartoons. All the other times, black men were portrayed as stereotypical token characters. 

Tokenism is raging all around us — in the workplace, media, and cinema — as the people behind a project feed off on the false sense of accomplishment. It is important to recognize and call out tokenism in order to make way for authentic representation of minority groups.


Suhani Agrawal

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