Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of racial or sexual equality within a workforce. The effort of including a token employee to a workforce is usually intended to create the impression of social inclusiveness and diversity (racial, religious, sexual, etc.) in order to deflect accusations of social discrimination.
The social concept and the employment practice of tokenism became understood in the popular culture of the United States in the late 1950s. In the book Why We Can't Wait, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. discussed the subject of tokenism, and how it constitutes a minimal acceptance of black people to the mainstream of U.S. society.
In 1963, when asked about the gains of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68), human rights activist Malcolm X answered, “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.”
In practice, employment tokenism misrepresents the token person as a man or woman of inferior intellect, job skills, and work capacity, relative to the other workers of the group, and that he or she possess a superficial personality that is sufficiently bland and inoffensive to not affront the sensibility of superiority inherent to white privilege; as such, the token employee allows the employer organization to avoid the accusation of stereotyping the negative traits of a minority group. 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. In the field of psychology, the broader definition of tokenism is a situation in which a member of a distinctive category is treated differently from other people. The characteristics that make the person of interest a token can be perceived as either a handicap or an advantage, as supported by Václav Linkov. In a positive light, these distinct people can be seen as experts in their racial/cultural category, valued skills, or a different perspective on a project. On the other hand, tokenism is most often seen as a handicap due to the ostracism of a selected sample of a minority group.
In the workplace
Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter asserts that the token employee is usually part of a socially-skewed group of employees who belong to a minority group that composes less than 15 percent of the total employee population of the workplace. 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. Given the smallness of the group of token employees in a workplace, the individual identity of each token person is usually disrespected by the dominant group, who apply a stereotype role to them as a means of social control in the workplace.
According to one study, racial minorities also experience heightened performance pressures related to their race and gender; however, many reported that racial problems were more common than gender problems.
In her work on tokenism and gender, Kanter said that the problems experienced by women in typically male-dominated occupations were due solely to the skewed proportions of men and women in these occupations.
In politics, allegations of tokenism may occur when a political party puts forward candidates from under-represented groups, such as women or racial minorities, in races that the party has little or no chance of winning, while making limited or no effort to ensure that such candidates have similar opportunity to win the nomination in races where the party is safe or favoured. The "token" candidates are frequently submitted as paper candidates, in which a person is placed on the ballot solely to make sure the political party has a candidate in the race even if that candidate has almost no chance of actually winning, while the more competitive nature of the candidate selection process in winnable seats continues to favour members of the majority group.
The end result of such an approach is that the party's slate of candidates maintains the appearance of diversity, but members of the majority group remain overrepresented in the party's caucus after the election — and thus little to no substantive progress toward greater inclusion of underrepresented groups has actually occurred.
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 is usually a stereotype character.
In fiction, token characters represent groups which vary from the norm (usually defined as a white, heterosexual male) and are otherwise excluded from the story. The token character can be based on ethnicity (i.e. black, Hispanic, Asian), religion (i.e. Jewish, Muslim), sexual orientation (i.e. homosexual), or gender (typically a female character in a predominantly male cast). Token characters are usually background characters, and, as such, are usually 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. Notable exceptions to this practice include stories based in history and stories that address racism directly. The South Park character Token Black is a reference to this.
British films and TV programmes might include a token American character, sometimes in situations where the presence of an American would have been unlikely, in order to appeal to viewers in the U.S., e.g. the character "Agar" in The First Great Train Robbery (1979), and character of "Flt. Lt. Carrington" in the first series of Colditz (1972), about British prisoners of war, during the Second World War (1939–45).
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