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Tokenism: Is It Racism?

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Tokenism is a convention designed to make a workforce appear as if they advocate for racial equality. This pretense is held through a cursory attempt at “including” members of a minority/underrepresented groups.

Merriam Webster defines tokenism as “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.”

In this regard, tokenism is a form of discrimination because it precisely goes against racial equality.

Why Is Tokenism Problematic and a Form of Racism?

Tokenism feeds into unhealthy stereotypes, specifically racially motivated stereotypes, that are instinctive and exaggerated. These stereotypes are harmful and remain rigid to an extent that any external information out of a stereotype is often rejected or discarded. In this way, individuals’ important aspects of intersectionality are neglected.

Marginalized groups who need representation and appreciation are being used as tokens of diversity at institutions and organizations. These individuals are often used in advertising and outreach schemes to make enterprises “look” better in terms of equality.

This essentially destroys a particular organization’s ability to improve diversity and inclusion practices. Furthermore, only a few from these underrepresented groups are hired while the majority stem from a more privileged background.

The history of racism is reinforced through the rehearsal of tokenism as it is not a genuine shift for people of color. It portrays a faulty system that achievements are reached through skin color and not merit.

Not to mention the extreme psychological effects this could have on employees of color causing them to doubt their abilities or talents. Token employees further fall victim to higher stress and depression rates due to performance pressure.

This pressure also causes considerable anxiety and employees may be more fearful and extra cautious not to display negative stereotypes assumed of their underrepresented group.

5 Ways to Reduce or Avoid Tokenism

There are several potential solutions to the challenges of tokenism.

1. Do Not Forge Your Diversity

A display of a diverse workforce on various social media platforms and websites when in reality your set of employees does not reflect that, is tokenism. If your workplace is not diverse, acknowledging this, is the the first step. Work on creating a more diverse environment where everyone is acknowledged equally based on merit instead of hiring candidates for tokenisation photography.

2. Give Underrepresented Groups the Same Opportunities as Everyone Else

There is obviously a lack of underrepresented minority groups in various leadership positions. Allowing these employees to be involved in important decision-making is important when ensuring a healthy workplace. Inclusion is crucial in avoiding tokenism, highlighting that diversity matters and should be practiced, instead of being just a statement.

3. Look at Diversity as More Than An Allocation

Underrepresented groups are not just places to fill, in the name of diversity. Start by creating a more diverse hiring process, instead of simply hiring specific people from a particular minority to bridge the gap, while not meeting their needs or allowing these employees to prosper. Diversity should be a policy, not a checklist to appear non-racist. Gobinder Gill, a diversity, equity and inclusion professional, says:

“Tokenism can be avoided starting from the hiring process. This may be achieved by ensuring that the hiring process is inclusive, and the job descriptions appeal to diverse potential job candidates.”

4. Strive To Initiate Multicultural Exchanges

Opening internal platforms, encourages the entire team to express gratitude for things such as cultural celebrations, which hold great value.

This would also be a great initiative in resolving racially-directed banter, identifying needs and wants of the company by members of a minority/underrepresented groups and creating a more collaborative space. This allows the entire system to be evaluated in a step towards proactiveness.

5. Refrain From Placing Extortionate Pressure on Marginalized Groups

Employees from underrepresented groups should be given the same treatment as the majority. These individuals should not be perceived as representatives of an entire race or ethnicity and an appraisal should not anticipate a higher performance rate as marginalized groups should not have to “work harder.” This would reduce a great deal of pressure and stress placed on members of a minority.

Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice we make every day. As leaders, we have to put out the message that we embrace, and not just tolerate, diversity.

— Nellie Borrero

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Zahrah