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What is tokenism?

You have probably heard this word thrown around, particularly in the DEI world, but do you know what it means? The answer is, it depends upon the context, because it boils down to intent.

In one article written by the business school at Vanderbilt, tokenism is “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.’ This example mentions tokenism in relation to hiring.

We can take this further in another example—think about committees and task forces that often are put together at organizations. One common theme that comes up when creating such entities is to ensure there is diverse representation. Note, however, that when “diverse representation” is mentioned, nine times out of ten, it refers to visual diversity, not the other ways in which diversity can show up. Once this is mentioned, the folks charged with creating this committee or task force often go to the racial/ethnic diversity category and immediately start thinking about colleagues they can ask to be part of the group.


So, what can I do?

To ensure you do not tokenize someone or a group of persons, intent is key. Sure, this is often hard to grasp, and we will never truly know a person’s (or organization’s) intent, so it is important to constantly question and evaluate the “why” behind every decision when it comes to tokenization.

What is the difference between tokenism and representation? Tokenism and representation are often confused with one another and used incorrectly. The difference between the two is intent.

Are you asking a person to be part of the group because you desire to make sure you appear diverse? Are you afraid of your committee or task force appearing too White? Too male- or female-dominated? Or is it because you value different perspectives and are genuinely trying to diversify (beyond the visible)? Are you wanting to give other opportunities to your colleagues who may not otherwise have a chance to participate?


Additional Resources & Reading