Getting token in

I have, at various points in my life, been the ‘token black guy’ in one social group or another. In the smaller groups it’s been simply the result of small numbers – if there’s 4 people in a group then it’s not exactly surprising that there will a token somethingorother. In other activities, my tokenism was the result of niche interests – there were precious few other black kids in either the youth orchestra or the drama program.* Still others, like both my undergrad and graduate school experiences, were due to things that would probably require some in-depth sociology to answer.

I don’t watch very much television these days – a function of little interest and little time – but I have long been familiar with the practice of inserting a token dark face into commercials. The idea, I suppose, is to show that even black people like to eat at The Keg, or something, provided they are surrounded by their white friends who get the vast majority of the camera time. Much rarer are the commercials where folks of colour make up the majority, with a few white faces peppered in (salted in?) for ‘diversity’. Now, this may be vastly different in other parts of the world, and if it is I would very much like to be made aware of that.

If we are indeed as ‘post-racial’ as we pretend to be; if race really “doesn’t matter” when casting a group of friends enjoying beers on a patio, then there is really no good reason why there should so often be only one (or, if you’re really progressive, perhaps two) people of colour in your commerical, or in your office, or in your cabinet, or in your [insert endeavour here]. The fact that this is the case with depressing frequency leads me to believe that tokenism is nothing more than a shallow show of forced diversity aimed at showing how ‘not racist’ your group is. “Racist? Couldn’t be. If we were racist, would we have hired Angela? She’s… um… Thai. Or Taiwanese. Or Turkish. Something weird with a T.”

I can understand the motivation behind such posturing. We’ve been taught that being ‘a racist’ is the purest of evil things to be. In ‘our’** societal recoiling from the horrors of unchecked and unabashed racism that marked the colonial and post-colonial eras, we rightly recognized the damage that racism does. However, while remembering that racism is bad, we have quietly glossed over why. As a result, so long as we were able to convince ourselves that we were ‘not racist’, we were then free to engage in as many racist behaviours as we liked.

Of course those of you reading this blog know enough to reject the concept of being ‘a racist’, instead favouring the idea that ideas, institutions, and behaviours can be racist, but people are only ‘racists’ to the extent that they participate. What we see from this superior definition is that, rather than burnishing our ‘not racist’ bona fides, tokenism is actually not only a reflection of racial preoccupation, but a not-so-subtle indication that we’re more concerned about preserving our image (both public and internal) than we are with acting to advance the cause of equality.

Rather than mount the usual liberal soapbox and scold people for failing to think or care deeply enough about this issue, I will instead offer the following suggestion: including more people of colour (PoC) in your organization serves your own rational self-interest. As I’ve argued a number of times before, diversity isn’t just good for reasons of morality and fairness – it actually makes life better for everyone. By including a variety of different perspectives, you not only increase the level to which your organization is capable of speaking to a plurality of issues, but you also decrease the chance of your privilege blinding you to some important information.

And when we reach this understanding, we expose the central conceptual flaw in the practice of tokenism. Too often, we see instances where token PoC are brought in and asked to give an account of “the X perspective” where X is whatever racial group that the token person is supposed to be able to reduce to a single point of view. It is rarely a good idea to assume that any PoC walks into a room armed with the requisite knowledge to represent what their entire group thinks – the exception, I suppose, is if that person also happens to be a sociology scholar in that particular area. It is an even worse assumption that the token PoC will appreciate having hir “exotic” minority status shoved in hir face at all times.

That being said, when PoCs (or, to broaden the point, any person coming from a non-majority background) are involved as equals in decision-making processes rather than relegated to an amusing racism-deflection device, you stand a much better chance of making choices as an organization that reflect the full scope of reality rather than an unjustifiably-assumed objectivity that no one point of view can truly reflect. As a result, the group becomes much stronger and more agile. The presence of PoCs no longer stands out as ‘special’ or ‘token’, but instead suggests that they are included for their contributions rather than their skin colour.

And, on a personal level, I can say that having functioned both in a tokenized capacity and as an equal member of a multicultural team, it is not difficult at all for me to state my preference. I would imagine that feeling of being a team member rather than a mascot transcends my own experience as well, but I can’t speak for anyone besides myself.

That being said, if there’s a group of white people who want to take me to The Keg, I’m 100% down for that.

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*Of course, I should point out that in schools that have a large black student population and well-funded arts programs probably do a much better job of recruiting interested black students than my school did. It is only now, looking back, that I notice this discrepancy.

**Once again I am slipping into the easy vernacular of Eurocentrism. I trust you will insert all the appropriate caveats where necessary.


  1. Pen says

    I’m a bit confused about whether or how you’re distinguishing between situations in which you ended up as the only PoC by chance (low numbers), those that were self-selecting (you were pursuing your interests), and those in which people are selected formally (like when a team sits down to decide who should be in a commercial or brings someone into an organisation because of their race). Do you have any experience of tokenism in the last sense?

    Do you think some of the problems with the media could be due to trying to give a one size fits all representation of multi-racial societies when the reality is that the demographics of the target audience are very uneven?

    What do you think of situations in which PoC are selected by an organisation or employer in the hope that it will help meet the requirements of customers of their own race?

  2. MroyalT says

    I can dig this.. but what is the solution? To come extent I can’t imagine how to even avoid tokenism.. it is just there – even when we talk about racism in a good way, it is there. For instance we all know, or should know, that when someone who is not privileged talks about the abuse that society gives.. we know that they are most likely going to have some inside knowledge on it.. more than someone who does not have that privilege. Is a trans talks about the hard life of being a trans… I know that this person is going to have details that are not available to me as a male. As such, we do have to listen to them – sure we recognize their experience can not account for the entire experiences of others in their group, but we also know that their experiences to account for at least some in their group.

    Here is what pisses me off about tokenism though… when fellow minorities who are ignorant about race issues, and yeah that happens, speak ignorantly about it and use themselves as a token for the powerful. Like when that woman you guys are always calling out wrote that love letter to the skeptic conferences saying “don’t change”… that kind of sht royally pissed me off – and it did because of the tokenism I know that is bound to be involved. They will use her experience to invalidate the experience of others who speak out against sexism… and that sucks.

    I just… I just don’t see away around it besides simply pointing it out when it happens to a negative extent.

  3. says

    First off I have to speak to an issue of language. “Trans” is an adjective. Calling someone “a trans” is as dehumanizing (and grammatically incorrect) as referring to someone as “a black”. Second, you can be trans and male, so saying that a trans person has understand that you, a male, do not, is false. “Male” is not the opposite of “trans”, “cis” is. You as a cis male will have difficulties understanding the perspective of a trans man or woman.

    That being cleared up, I can’t pretend to know that there is “a solution” to this particular issue. It is incumbent upon those who are forming teams to scrutinize their motivations and be honest with themselves about what their feelings on diversity are. Is it a useful way of appearing progressive, or is it a reflection of your recognition that diversity is good not just morally, but pragmatically?

    I am not saying that we should no listen to the perspectives of people who are different from us simply because they might be the only one of ‘their kind’ in the room; I’m saying that it is not fair to expect that person to be able to reflect the full reality of their entire group. It is also supremely uncomfortable to be put in to that position every time you want “the X perspective”, especially if you are not consulted as an equal in other circumstances.

  4. says

    Speaking personally, I have had a few suspicions about tokenism over the course of my life, but it is often difficult to distinguish between de facto and intentional tokenism. I can think of no concrete, obvious examples where it was clear that I was only there to add flava.

    I think the crux of the problem lies with the media’s insistence that life’s ‘main characters’ are white people, specifically men. It is the default from which all others are drawn. People are beginning to wake up to this reality, and it is slowly changing, but for the time being the media reflects not the underlying demographics, but the underlying beliefs of a society.

    That’s something of an ‘edge case’. There are a lot of people who would feel supremely uncomfortable being put into that position. I am reminded of an arc in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip where Simon Styles (played by DL Hughley) is the only black cast member on a sketch show. He hires Darius, a young black guy, to write for him. Darius is supremely uncomfortable being asked to “write black” and tries to blow off his assignments. Mayhem ensues. Anyway, the point is that increasing diversity in order to reflect the needs of your customers is a good thing, but has to be handled delicately.

  5. ildi says

    I’m a big fan of home improvement and animal channels like HGTV or Animal Planet and one thing I’ve liked is how they mix up the couples on the shows. These are real people who are buying houses/fixing up bathrooms/adding a rental space/dealing with pets or whatever, so it normalizes diversity when you see a half hour of interracial or gay or stay-at-home-dad or whatever couples interacting. They’re not all filmed in Toronto, either.

    (I hate to admit it, but I grew up down South, and I still ‘notice’ interracial couples.)

  6. says

    I grew up the product of an interracial couple. You’d better believe that I notice. So do my parents. No shame/harm in that, so far as I can tell.

  7. John Horstman says

    Rather than mount the usual liberal soapbox and scold people for failing to think or care deeply enough about this issue, I will instead offer the following suggestion: including more people of colour (PoC) in your organization serves your own rational self-interest. As I’ve argued a number of times before, diversity isn’t just good for reasons of morality and fairness – it actually makes life better for everyone. By including a variety of different perspectives, you not only increase the level to which your organization is capable of speaking to a plurality of issues, but you also decrease the chance of your privilege blinding you to some important information.

    This, this, a thousand times this!

  8. mythbri says

    This actually reminds me of your post on the study that was done regarding the effects that TV viewing had on the self-esteem of white boys (increased), white girls (decreased), black boys (decreased) and black girls (decreased).

    So much of the advertising we see helps to shape our perceptions about the society in which we live, particularly if we belong to privileged groups. For example, a lot of the advertising that is marketed toward me, as a woman, has to do with improving one’s appearance (hair care products, cosmetics, etc.). It’s so easy to see that the choices advertisers make inform our perception of physical beauty, where women who are advertised as very beautiful also tend to have lighter skin. Women who are advertised as having beautiful hair also tend to have lighter skin, and lighter hair.

    By including a variety of different perspectives, you not only increase the level to which your organization is capable of speaking to a plurality of issues, but you also decrease the chance of your privilege blinding you to some important information.

    I completely agree with this. And it will also have the effect of increasing the legitimacy of non-privileged groups, “normalizing” them to the privileged groups, and work to close perceived gaps between them.

  9. MroyalT says

    Grammar is not really my thing, but I can dig the thing about language. Fair enough – I don’t usually talk about the issues of trans men and women. I am just starting to realize it was even an issue to begin with! So, correction noted.

    I think what I was trying to say is that I don’t see how tokenism can be avoided to some extent. If I speak up about being a Latino people are going to think that I speak for at least a portion of Latinos. This is even true, I can in some cases give a perspective that other Latinos might share in some sense, when it is missing from conversations. With that said, it is of course also true that my experience can not possibly encompass to totality of being a Latino in the states or anywhere else for that matter. I think that different perspectives are in fact often needed to get people to see – and while we never want to force a person to speak up on behalf of a perspective, never say “hey speak on behalf of your group, you are one of them right?” or anything as crude and inhumane as that – we sometimes need a different perspective in the dialogue. I guess what I mean is that someone voluntary giving a perspective is a good thing, and it is in fact, on special occasions, needed.

    Perhaps if we maintain this sort of balance… or something close to it tokenism can be avoided. Or… I am probably just confused on this one…

  10. KT says

    Timely subject for me … I work for a growing company and our customers are 75 – 80% female with a good portion of them being women of color, yet as we grow and add management positions, which have almost exclusively been filled with white males, the hiring at lower levels has started to become mostly white males as well, since we hire almost entirely based on referrals. My dept. is the editorial department so we are the ones speaking to the customers, yet it is now 2/3 male, with only one person of color among us (male) and no latino/as, which is a large segment of our audience as well as a decent-sized black segment. The management touts our “voice” as being an extremely important facet of our business, yet we are increasingly using a white male voice to speak to women, many of them women of color.

    I have been spending a lot of time thinking about how to broach this subject with my boss when she comes back from maternity leave next week. I have a feeling we will be hiring again soon and I strongly feel we should focus on looking for women of color for the team, since not only is diversity good for organizations in general, but in this case it is also a good business decision based on demographics. Any advice on how to take up this subject as an underling of no authority? My boss does listen to me, and she makes hiring decisions for our dept. so there’s a reasonable chance of actually being effective. I don’t know how to really make a difference other than recruiting from among my circle of friends, which I haven’t been successful with in the past. But I also don’t know what suggestions to give about how to encourage more diversity in hiring since they are starting with only resumes and our non-diverse team doesn’t bring in a lot of diverse recommendations, shockingly enough.

  11. says

    Sorry to harp on this, but I just want to make it clear that calling someone “a trans” isn’t just a grammatical issue. The grammar thing is a teeny tiny slice of the total pie of ‘wrong’ in this case. As someone who is also quite recent to the trans gender discussion, I can certainly understand not having your head right just yet. It’ll come. I’m better now than I was a few months ago (I think and hope).

    Yes, it will be interesting to see how people manage it. I’ve never had to hire anybody for anything, so this is a very abstract issue for me to try and make recommendations. My expectation is that tokenism will start to disappear once people see diversity as a genuine plus, rather than an obligation. Insofar as small numbers may necessitate someone to speak on behalf of their group, the presence of a significant number of non-majority individuals likely allows for some fairly robust discussion of differing perspectives rather than the “default” one and the “minority” one.

  12. says

    Well, you could just send her the link to this post and say something like “hey, I read this and I think it might be talking about us”. If you think she won’t be offended by your bluntness, you might just try saying it straight out: “I’m worried that our staff don’t reflect our customer demographic properly, and we can really run into problems there.” She may be receptive to that approach too.

    Without knowing what your boss is like, I really can’t offer much by way of concrete recommendations for successful alternatives.

  13. MroyalT says

    @ Crommunist

    Small note* This is really like my first time posting here.. why is there no reply button under your latest reply? Weird.

    Besides that.. oh no.. by all means, if you want to emphasize a point, do it! I don’t mind being pressed if someone thinks I missed a point about a subject I know close to nothing about. So yeah, I will def take that advice about language in the future. I really got no prob with it.

    I think the only way to get tokenism to disappear is just to genuinely have diversity in place! (I agree with your stance to why diversity is a really good thing, and that has been my stance for years) Until then, I think it is just an odd psychological quirk that is bound to happen – and that awareness to it is good leg up until diversity finally has its heals in us.

    Anyway, thanks for the discussion and correction. AS a further thing, while I have you, the issues to talk about as well as the black skeptics blog here, and the attitude FTB has here.. makes this feel like a safe and welcoming place to talk about issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. That is very rare for the internet and I am glad to see that here.

  14. KT says

    Thanks. Yeah, I realize that it’s basically up to me … no one else can really offer me a guide on how to do this. I think the blunt approach will be okay with her. I just don’t want it to turn into tokenism basically, like “we need a black woman and a latina to talk to our black/latina customers” – that’s not really what I’m after but I’m afraid it could so easily turn into that, but I guess that’s just a danger of trying to do anything at all.

    I’ll probably try to track down the articles I’ve read in the past regarding studies on how diversity improves organizations and go from there. I think I’ve become hyperaware of this lately, because I do the social media stuff in addition to my normal writing so I see the actual faces of the people to whom we’re speaking. I don’t think anyone else really has that opportunity, and are instead looking at reports of numbers.

  15. Daniel Schealler says

    An asymmetry worth mentioning:

    I’m often the only white guy hanging out in my group of friends – but I never have to worry about tokenism as a motivator for my inclusion.

  16. Holms says

    Australian ads have very few black people, mainly pass-for-white brownish people plus asians. Strangely, when there is a black person in an ad, it is very rarely a native Australian… unless the ad somehow references ‘the outback’, in which case the Aboriginie will be paraded in loincloth and paint. Accompanied by didgeridoos and sticks.

    Not that they’re being exploited as a cliched drawcard or anything, oh no definitely not.


  17. Holms says

    Oddly though, while ‘a trans’ is out, ‘a lesbian’ is in. ‘A black’ is out, ‘an asian’ is in. ‘A gay’ is out, ‘a european’ is in… and I’m sure there are more contrasting word uses besides. The race word differences I can see, as asian / indian / european / african / etc. refer to a place of origin, whereas black refers solely to a physical difference and hence is a statement of racial identification.

    The sexuality oriented words (orientation oriented!) however baffle me. Why does ‘a gay’ sound like someone’s socially backward grandparent, when ‘a lesbian’ goes over just fine (in my experience)?

    Not that it really matters, as a good rule of thumb to use when considering terminology to describe a demographic will always be whatever term the group self-identifies as.

  18. says

    Lesbian is a noun (originally referring to someone from Lesbos, if you want to go back into antiquity). Asian is indeed an edge case – I don’t know that I would ever call someone “an Asian” instead of just “Asian” or more likely “person of Asian descent”. It is entirely common for people to be referred to as members of a geographic or political organization. At the same time, calling someone “a Chinese” or “a Thai” sounds pretty weird.

    But yeah, there doesn’t seem to be a decent rule to follow.

  19. carlie says

    This has nothing to do with the topic, but reading the post title makes me think it would be great if you made a video singing One Toke Over The Line.

  20. carlie says

    Or a parody.
    One token black guy, sweet Jesus
    One token black guy.
    Sittin’ in a crowd of light-skinned people
    One token black guy.

  21. says

    There weren’t too many white faces on TV when I was growing up (Saudi Arabia/Egypt). There wasn’t much programming for children at all, actually, so I didn’t grow up watching much TV but for the most part I was seeing Arabs in the media.

    It’s probably really different now. Satellite has rather changed how television works in the Arab world and I don’t live there anymore, but my younger cousins are so much more aware of American pop culture than I ever was before I moved here (and got the full course on culture-shock).

    I don’t know if this has had any effect on beauty standards, which I’m guessing is part of why you were asking. To be honest it took me a very long time in feminist/anti-racist circles to really wrap my head around the problems minorities have with beauty standards in the US, and it didn’t really start to click for me until I noticed some serious colorism in some of the younger cousins who have grown up here. When I was desperately trying to be male my self image was pretty much “Saudi”, which is to say I kept a moustache, though now that I’m in the middle of transition I’ve noticed the lack of visibility of trans PoC much more than I used to. Kind of rambling at this point so I’ll stop, heh.

  22. Broggly says

    There’s this South African ad that has P W Botha as the white dictator, although given its country of origin he’s not exactly token.

  23. says

    Well yes, but that’s where the word became associated with the sexual preference, and that happened a long time ago.

    Also, Lesbos isn’t a real place, it’s made up. Like Kalamazoo. Or Brussels.

  24. says

    Another really interesting article, thanks 🙂

    This fits into some of my systems thinking study – Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Complex systems (just about any grouping of people, for instance) work better if they have enough variety (diversity) to cope with problems. We all come with embedded worldviews and having a wider collection of different experiences is a good thing for any organisation.

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