Open main menu

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.[1][2][3] 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 discrimination.[4] One additionally relevant term for tokenism is "hyper-tokenism". Hyper-tokenism is where a person of color has increased screen time, is involved in the plot and in promotional images, but the white characters are still the most significant characters by the end of the film.[5] Another relevant term is "ambiguously brown". Ambiguously brown characters are characters that are white-passing, but not fully white so that whatever they are cast in is not completely whitewashed. [6]



The social concept and the employment practice of tokenism became understood in the popular culture of the United States in the late 1950s.[citation needed]. In the face of racial segregation, tokenism emerged as a solution that though earnest in effort, only acknowledged an issue without actually solving it.[7] In the book Why We Can't Wait (1964), 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.[8]

When asked about the gains of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, 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.”[9][10]

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. In contrast, tokenism is most often seen as a handicap due to the ostracism of a selected sample of a minority group.[11] Linkov also attributes drawbacks in psychology to Cultural and Numerical Tokenism, instances that have shifted where value of expertise is placed and its effect on proliferating information that is not representative of all the possible facts.[11]

Black characters being the first characters to die was first identified in Hollywood horror movies of the 1930s, notes writer Renee Cozier. More recently, not a single actor of color was nominated for the 2015 or 2016 Oscars. Around this time, minorities accounted for 12.9% of lead roles in 163 films surveyed in 2014, according to the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report.[12]

In televisionEdit

Tokenism, in a television setting, can be any act of putting a minority into the mix to create some sort of publicly viewed diversity. A racial divide in TV has been present since the first television show that hired minorities, Amos 'n' Andy (1928-1960) in 1943. Regardless of whether a token character may be stereotypical or not, tokenism can initiate a whole biased perceived sense of thought that may conflict with how people see a specific race, culture, gender, or ethnicity.[13] From the Huffington Post, America Ferrera states, “Tokenism is about inserting diverse characters because you feel you have to; true diversity means writing characters that aren’t just defined by the color of their skin, and casting the right actor for the role." [14]

Tokenism in television has been spoken about under a different umbrella in recent decades. For example, tokenism was analyzed in an article that examined actions in the television show Scandal (2012-). Though today there are many black main characters in many popular television shows, Stephanie L. Gomez's article speaks about Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope. Gomez compares the character of Olivia Pope to three tropes of Black women, The slave mistress, The help, and The Jezebel.[15]

In the early 1990s, shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996) and Martin (1992-1997), were strategies that were used to capitalize from an underrepresented group, namely the black community in television at the time. Networks allowed the shows to be black-produced and have all-black casts. This strategy was used because at the time the black viewership did not have many shows made specifically for them, and networks used this tactic to capitalize on them. Networks knew that many black people would purchase televisions and cable subscriptions if there were more people like them on the television, this is also conveyed tokenism.[citation needed]

The CW show The 100, though it has a lot of minorities cast, still displays ample tokenism with how these characters are used in the show. Lincoln plays the "scary black man" trope before he is more humanized by his white love interest and then ultimately killed off. Raven Reyes is hypersexualized or tortured during her screen time. Wells Jaha is killed off in season one. On top of this, the only LGBT representation the show includes is when character Clarke and Lexa become an item, but Lexa is soon killed off for shock value.[16]

Another show with tokenism is the CW show Riverdale. In this teen drama, Kevin Keller is the only gay character in the ensemble cast. He has very little significance to the actual plot and has way less screen time than other characters. When he is on screen, he plays a stereotyped flamboyant gay teen.[citation needed]

In 2012, Acura put out a casting call for their commercial where they stated that the main actor must be a “nice looking, friendly, not too dark” African American.[17][18]

In the mediaEdit

Just like television, Tokenism in the media has changed over time to coincide with real life events. During the years of 1946-87 the weekly magazine, The New Yorker was analyzed to determine how often and in what situations blacks were being portrayed in the magazine's cartoon section. Over the 42 years of research, there was only one U.S. black main character in a cartoon where race was not the main theme, race was actually completely irrelevant. All cartoons from the earliest times depicted U.S. blacks in stereotypical roles. In the late 1960s and early 1970s cartoons were mostly racial themed, and depicted blacks in "token" roles where they are only there to create a sense of inclusiveness.[19]

In the workplaceEdit

A Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, asserted back in 1993 that a token employee is usually part of a "socially-skewed group" of employees who belong to a minority group that constitutes less than 15% of the total employee population of the workplace. [20]

By definition, token employees in a workplace are known to be few; hence, their alleged high visibility among the staff subjects them to greater pressure to perform their work at higher production standards of quality and volume and to behave in the expected, stereotypical manner. [20] 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. [20]

Research comparing the effects of gender and race tokenism on individuals indicates that the practice of tokenism can accurately predict conditions in the workplace for members of racial minorities.[21]

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.[22]

In her work on tokenism and gender, professor Kanter said that the problems experienced by women in a typically male-dominated occupations were due solely to the skewed proportions of men and women in these occupations. [20]

In politicsEdit

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.[23] 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.[24]

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.[24]

The New York Times dives into address tokenism in politics by mentioning Nikki Haley. Haley is first generation American, having Indian immigrants as parents. Despite the fact that she has little experience with foreign policy, President Trump chose her as the current United States Ambassador to the United Nations.[25]

In fictionEdit

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 main characters.[26][27]

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.[28] Typically, other characters tend to treat the token characters as though they are not concerned with their race or ethnicity. Notable exceptions to this practice include stories based in history and stories that address racism directly.[29][30] The South Park character Token Black is a reference to this.[31]

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).

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ "tokenism: definition of tokenism in Oxford dictionary". Oxford Dictionaries Online.
  2. ^ "tokenism, n." Oxford English Dictionary.
  3. ^ "Tokenism".
  4. ^ Hogg, Michael A.; Vaughan, Graham M. (2008). Social Psychology. Harlow: Prentice Hall. pp. 368–369. ISBN 978-0-13-206931-1.
  5. ^ "5 Ways Movies Fake Racial Diversity". NALIP. Retrieved 2018-11-26.
  6. ^ "Racial Tropes and Tokenism | Hypermasculinity and Racism in Film". Retrieved 2018-11-26.
  7. ^ Wallis, Victor. "The Plague of Tokenism". Retrieved August 6, 2017.
  8. ^ King, Martin Luther (1964). Why We Can't Wait. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0451527530.
  9. ^ Lomax, Louis (1963). "A Summing Up: Louis Lomax interviews Malcolm X". Teaching American History. Retrieved September 4, 2016.
  10. ^ Frost, Bryan-Paul; Sikkenga, Jeffrey (2003). History of American Political Thought. Lexington Books. p. 689. ISBN 978-0739106242.
  11. ^ a b Linkov, Václav. "Tokenism In Psychology: Standing On The Shoulders Of Small Boys." Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science 48.2 (2014): 143-160. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
  12. ^ Greene, Eric. "Hollywood Diversity Report: Mounting evidence that more diverse casts help the bottom line". UCLA Newsroom. Retrieved 2018-11-26.
  13. ^ Rada, James A. (1 December 2000). "A New Piece to the Puzzle: Examining Effects of Television Portrayals of African Americans". 44 (4): 704–715. doi:10.1207/s15506878jobem4404_11. Retrieved 23 January 2017 – via Taylor and Francis+NEJM.
  14. ^ Editor, Carolina Moreno; Post, The Huffington (20 May 2016). "America Ferrera Breaks Down The Difference Between Tokenism And 'True Diversity'". Retrieved 23 January 2017.
  15. ^ Gomez, Stephanie L.; McFarlane, Megan D. (2017-05-04). ""It's (not) handled": race, gender, and refraction in Scandal". Feminist Media Studies. 17 (3): 362–376. doi:10.1080/14680777.2016.1218352. ISSN 1468-0777.
  16. ^ "When Representation Becomes Tokenism: Why We Need Diverse Creators". Affinity Magazine. 2017-02-10. Retrieved 2018-11-26.
  17. ^ Staff, The Root. "Acura Casting Call: 'Not Too Dark' Blacks". The Root. Retrieved 2018-11-23.
  18. ^ "Acura NSX Super Bowl Commercial -- Only Light-Skinned Blacks Need Apply". TMZ. Retrieved 2018-11-23.
  19. ^ Thibodeau, Ruth (1989-01-01). "From Racism to Tokenism: The Changing Face of Blacks in New Yorker Cartoons". Public Opinion Quarterly. 53 (4). doi:10.1086/269168. ISSN 0033-362X.
  20. ^ a b c d Kanter 1993.
  21. ^ Jackson, Pamela Braboy; Thoits, Peggy A.; Taylor, Howard F. (1995). "Composition of the Workplace and Psychological Well-Being: The Effects of Tokenism on America's Black Elite". Social Forces. 74 (2): 543–557. doi:10.1093/sf/74.2.543.
  22. ^ Turner, Caroline Sotello Viernes (2002). "Women of Color in Academe: Living with Multiple Marginality". The Journal of Higher Education. 73 (1): 74–93. doi:10.2307/1558448.
  23. ^ Duffy, Andrew (9 April 2011). "More women, fewer chances". p. B3. Retrieved 16 July 2018.[not in citation given].
  24. ^ a b Kanthak, Kristin; Krause, George A. (2012). The Diversity Paradox: Political Parties, Legislatures, and the Organizational Foundations of Representation in America. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199891740.
  25. ^ "I Know How It Feels to Be Someone's 'Token.' I'm Sure Ben Carson Does, Too". Retrieved 2018-11-23.
  26. ^ Gray, Sadie (2008-07-17). "Ethnic minorities accuse TV programmers of tokenism". The Independent. London. Retrieved 2010-03-27.
  27. ^ Carter, Helen (2002-11-13). "Minorities accuse TV and radio of tokenism". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2010-03-27.
  28. ^ "Response The new Wuthering Heights does not ignore racism; it tackles it full on | Comment is free". The Guardian. 2011-01-25. Retrieved 2012-02-13.
  29. ^ "Why Wuthering Heights gives me hope". The Guardian. 2011-01-25. Retrieved 2012-02-13.
  30. ^ French, Philip (2011-11-13). "Wuthering Heights – review | Film | The Observer". Guardian. Retrieved 2012-02-13.
  31. ^ "South Park Studios". Retrieved January 27, 2013.


External linksEdit