Tokenism

token black

Tokenism [toh-kuh-niz-uhm] is the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups. The effort of including a token employee to a workforce usually is intended to create the appearance of social inclusiveness and diversity (racial, religious, sexual, etc.), and so deflect accusations of discrimination.

Employment tokenism misrepresents the person possessing inferior intellect, job skills, and work capacity, relative to the other workers of the group, as well as a superficial personality that is sufficiently bland and inoffensive to not affront the sensibility of superiority inherent to white privilege. Alternatively, the differences of the token person might be over-emphasized and made either exotic or glamorous, or both, which are extraordinary conditions that maintain the Otherness that isolates the token worker from the group.

The social concept and the employment practice of tokenism became part of the popular culture of the United States in the late 1950s. In the book ‘Why We Can’t Wait’ (1963), the public intellectual and civil rights activist Martin Luther King discussed the subject of tokenism, and how it constitutes a minimal acceptance of Black people to the mainstream of US society. Likewise, in 1963, in answer to a question about the gains of the Black Civil Rights Movement (1954–68), the human rights activist Malcolm X said, ‘What gains? All you have gotten is tokenism — one or two Negroes in a job, or at a lunch counter, so the rest of you will be quiet.’

The minority status of the token employee can lead to social problems, such as being subjected to greater scrutiny (application of the rules) from co-worker and manager alike; and the application of a stereotype identity (social, racial, sexual, cultural, etc.) that negates his or her individual, personal identity; thus, the token employee is forced into the role of the ‘typical’ representative of a minority group. Such problems of social integration to the workplace are a consequence of three conditions to which the token employee is subjected: heightened visibility, assimilation, and exclusion.

By definition, token employees in a workplace are few; hence, their heightened visibility among the staff subjects them to greater pressures to perform their work to higher production standards of quality and volume and to behave in an expected, stereotypical way. The heightened visibility of the token employee also results from a physically obvious social type (sex, gender, skin-color); and when the token’s social type not only is rare, but new, to the social setting of the workplace. In the course of workplace administration, the heightened visibility of the token employee highlights any mistake in the quality and rate of production of the work. Therefore, token employees with weaker performances than those of dominant-majority employees are reprimanded more readily, more often, and more severely; and, because the token persons are perceived as representatives of their minority group rather than as individual men and women, their perceived work failures, as token employees, are perceived as characteristics inherent to their minority group.

Given the smallness of the group of token employees in a workplace, the individual identity — the personal uniqueness — of each token man and each token woman usually is disrespected by the dominant group, who apply a stereotype role to him or her as a means of social control in the workplace. Despite the inaccuracy of the stereotype roles, token employees tend to conform to and assume the imposed social role, because it is a workplace identity that is psychologically accessible, acceptable, and manageable by the majority group. Perceived differences between the majority group and the token group are magnified in order to exclude and maintain the token workers at the margins of the workplace hierarchy. For example, in a group of workers in which men are the majority group, their behavior often is more psychologically aggressive and overtly sexual in nature in their workplace relations with the token women, the minority group; yet in a group of workers equally composed of people from the minority and majority groups, their social interactions become a medium of shared interests among co-workers.

In consequence to the practice of tokenism, people from minority groups are assimilated or excluded; some token employees assert themselves as the exceptions to the rule concerning their minority-group stereotype. Hence, in occupations and professions predominantly practiced by men, women join in misogynist male behaviors; and a minority-group token man or woman might intentionally mask his or her true character in conformity to the majority group’s perception of him or her as ‘the token employee.’ Conversely, a token employee who does not mask his or her personality might readily and closely conform to the given minority-group stereotype and participate in being the butt of jokes about being different from the majority group.

In occupations traditionally viewed as female-dominated, men have been shown to be affected by their status as tokens. In a study of a hospital with both male nurses and female physicians as minority groups, both experienced the effects of being tokens. However, male nurses reported more positive effects than did female physicians, indicating that proportions alone are not responsible for the negative aspects of being a token. While male nurses experience heightened visibility, they are more often mistaken for physicians than are female nurses, despite wearing a nurse uniform. Male nurses are also considered to be more knowledgeable on the mechanics of the body than female nurses are, and are more often assigned leadership roles that they are not qualified for.

In fiction, a token character exists only to achieve minimal compliance with the normality presumed for the society described in the story. Writers also use the token character to pay lip service to the rules and the standards that they do not abide, such as by obeying anti-racism policies, by including a token ethnic-minority character who has no true, narrative function in the plot and usually is a stereotype character. The token character can be based on ethnicity, religion, or be fat or otherwise unattractive, homosexual, or a woman character in a predominantly male cast. They usually are background characters, and, as such, usually are disposable, and are eliminated from the narrative early in the story, in order to enhance the drama, while conserving the ‘normal’ white characters. In much contemporary cinema and television, the inclusion of token characters is usually and implausibly seen in historical settings where such a person’s race would be immediately noticed. Typically, other characters tend to treat the token characters as though they were not concerned with their race or ethnicity. Token characters can also serve economic interests, such as the inclusion of notable Chinese actors in minor parts in American blockbuster films to appeal to the growing Chinese cinema market.

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