You’ve definitely heard of this one, even if you didn’t realise what it was at the time.
“Oh, but my sister’s gay, so I can’t be a homophobe.”
“Ah, but my best mate at school was black, I can’t be racist.”
“But we have a woman working in our company, we’re not sexist.”
Tokenism is the practice of using a small number (often one individual) of a marginalised group to represent the supposed progressive view of an individual or organisation. It’s seen a lot in the workplace, where in order to be seen to be meeting diversity targets, employers will bring on board one or two marginalised individuals based purely on their race or gender identity or sexuality rather than their ability.
Tokenism is bad. Full stop.
Firstly, it is incredibly bigoted. Often those who protest loudest about being open-minded and diverse are the ones with the biggest biases to deal with. Now of course that’s not to say that everyone who only has one or two friends or relatives of a marginalised group is bigoted in some way: for example, I grew up in NorthEast Fife, and it is a very white-dominant area. The difference with tokenism is that the marginalised individual will always be used as an example of how not bigoted the person is. If it’s something you do, you need to stop and look at why.
Secondly, the token individual is never allowed to exist as anything else. Say there’s an architect’s office, and you’ve got 6 staff, one of whom is female. She might be the best technical worker in the place, she might be the most imaginative in putting together her plans for buildings, but chances are that to anyone looking in, she’s simply known as “the woman architect”. This is a complete disregard of her abilities, and chances are there would be clients who would refuse her work simply because her most prominent trait is that she’s female.
Now take that same office, and split it half and half. Now, clients refusing to work with any of the women would be seen as openly-bigoted, and the merits of the architects as architects becomes the most prominent feature. Suddenly they’re all valued for their skills, and the playing field is a lot more level.
Tokenism completely diminishes the abilities of the marginalised, or worse forces them into roles they aren’t qualified for or enjoy simply to make up the diversity numbers. They are only ever a token, and not a valid person in their own right.
Lastly, and most worryingly, it is part of a large system of oppression whilst appearing to be the complete opposite. As we’ve seen in the news lately, there is a lot of institutionalised transphobia and homophobia that governments and the majority of the population will go to extreme lengths to deny or ignore. In Britain, in the run up to the EU Referendum (which is today on day of publishing) we have seen race politics come to the fore in really ugly ways. And tokenism is part of this.
Token individuals used to say “look at me, look how diverse we are” are merely a distraction from the bigger problem. By placing your token gay person in front of the visitors to show how accepting your company is, you hide the deeper problem of there being no other queer person there. By making a Latinx person the face of your campaign, you disguise the fact that the whole thing is being run by white people. And you ignore the fact that you’ve been brought up in a system that teaches you to value white, cisgendered heterosexual people over all others.
It might be the case that the people best qualified for the position you’re hiring for are cishet white people. It might be that your class at uni is all white, and that’s ok. But own it, accept that you’re maybe not as diverse as you could be, and look at how you can work to change that.
Is your company an attractive prospect for people who aren’t cishet white people? Are you actively avoiding talking to anyone in your society or club that isn’t white?
It’s another small step towards a truly diverse society, but it is an incredibly important one.