Tokenism is a silent, ugly beast. While it may come across as gentle, harmless, and well-intentioned, it has the unique ability to protect oppressors from their own behaviors while forcing the oppressed into silent accord. While it is definitely necessary for companies to strategically recruit and cultivate minorities into their workplaces, it is extremely harmful when People of Color are used and maneuvered to depict a setting that is simply untrue. Without being accompanied by serious efforts to elevate the perspectives, voices, and norms of everyone (and not just the dominant group), tokenism easily results in isolation and disempowerment.
1. It calls the true merit of People of Color into question. We shouldn’t have to wonder or worry about if we got that opportunity because it made the company look good. We shouldn’t be forced to rationalize or justify being tokenized because of the door it seemed to open. When we are tokenized, it reduces our ability to see and acknowledge our greatness for what it is. It clouds our brilliance with manipulation, and makes it difficult to fully appreciate or discern truly equitable opportunities when they come around.
2. It acts as a distractor to the deeper issue of systemic racism. Tokenism is a prop that predominately white organizations are able to use to distract the narrative. It gives them a pass to pat themselves on the back for giving that minority an enviable opportunity. It fuels the handout-seeking minority rhetoric while completely ignoring the history of skin privilege that white people have been granted in education, healthcare, housing, criminal justice, and society in general. Instead, the narrative should really be about why people of color are missing from the table in the first place. It should be about the mechanisms, policies, and tactics that have been employed to provide white people with a consistent advantage while funneling people of color to the bottom.
3. It silently justifies white dominance. If people of color continue to be subjected to feeling grateful for just being present instead of being treated and respected as an equal force to be reckoned with, we will continue to fuel the expectation that white people belong in power. Tokenism doesn’t interrupt the system of oppression that we operate in; instead, it perpetuates it. Tokenism doesn’t solve issues of inequity in the workplace; instead, it lays down the red carpet for them to thrive.
We cannot and should be used as props in a one-sided story. We cannot passively engage in behavior that perpetuates the divisive, and oppressive status quo.
// How do you deal with issues of tokenism in your workplace or organization? Do you feel empowered to address it explicitly? Do you feel the need to quietly comply? Let’s problem solve together. Leave your thoughts below!