Chapter 5: Celebrate Diversity


In this chapter, we will examine important concepts such as tokenism, cultural appropriation, and cultural appreciation. Understanding these concepts and how to identify and address them, benefits our approaches to equity, diversity, and inclusion work.


Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Define tokenism;
  2. Explain why tokenism and cultural appropriation hinder the development of inclusive communities; and
  3. Identify ways to build collaborative and cooperative communities that celebrate diversity without involving tokenism or cultural appropriation.




As we’ve seen in previous chapters, building equitable and inclusive communities begins with recognizing how our unique individual and social identities inform our worldviews. We see the world as we’ve experienced it. But there are many diverse and intersecting identities within our communities that have different perspectives, ideas, and backgrounds. Ensuring everyone feels safe and welcome to participate can lead to a stronger and thriving society.

In fact, fostering diversity within our workplaces, classrooms, and neighbourhoods, brings a broad range of perspectives and complimentary skillsets that often lead to better performance and collaboration, increased innovation and productivity, higher profits, and a more inclusive workplace culture (AlShebil et al., 2018; Freeman & Huang, 2014; Roberge & van Dick, 2010; Swartz et al., 2019). However, it’s important to note that it isn’t enough to simply ensure diversity exists within an organization. Fostering diversity means making sure those with diverse identities feel valued, included, and supported. Diversity without inclusion can lead to equity-deserving folks experiencing social isolation, decreased visibility, constrained expectations consistent with their gender and racial stereotypes. These negative experiences were formally studied by Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, where the theory of tokenism emerged (Kanter, 1977; King et al., 2010).





Tokenism, n, “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate)” (Merriam-Webster). In contemporary society, tokenism can be broadly interpreted as false advertisement of diversity (without inclusion) – the practice of adding or including someone to prevent criticism and to appear diverse.


Tokenism can be a patronizing impediment towards true equity. You might have heard of or have witnessed “the Smurfette Principle” in children’s books and television programs, where the main cast is made up primarily of brave and adventurous male characters, plus exactly one female character who is portrayed as lacking individual charisma and relevant storylines, and a “Black Best Friend”, who served a white lead character (Giang, 2016). However, being the only leading female in a movie or being cast as a Black character doesn’t automatically imply tokenism as long as they are relevant to the storyline and have the same potential to evolve and to undergo personal growth.

The Theory of Tokenism

In the study of social sciences, the theory of tokenism was first published in 1977 (Kanter, 1977). Professor Kanter defined a “token” group as a distinct subgroup with less than 15% of the overall work group, and the “dominants” as the other subgroup that consisted of over 85% work group. Kanter argued that people, who worked in this skewed structure, were susceptible to differential experiences where individuals from a token group tended to endure heightened visibility, increased isolation from the dominant members, and distorted assimilation to fit a stereotypical role deemed appropriate by the dominants. Since then, this theory has been tested in various occupational groups, including health care professionals, scientists, law enforcement officers, school teachers, wall street employees and more (Stichman et al., 2010), and social scientists started to recognize the complexity of tokenism that’s beyond numerical representations. For example, men and women could experience the workplace differently, where women tend to experience more barriers in male-dominated professions, such as the glass ceiling, sticky floor, and concrete floor phenomena, and men are more likely to experience the glass escalator effect which advances their careers in female-dominated professions (Williams, 1992).

Tokenism vs. Representation vs. Diversity

Sometimes, the difference between tokenism, representation and diversity can be blurry. On the surface, tokenism and representation may look similar, and can both be considered as a quantitative demonstration of diversity. However, the real difference resides in the intent and execution. For example, are people included only because of their distinct identities, or because of their work performance? Do under-represented members have the same power in similar positions? Are their voices being heard? Are they provided with the same level of support, mentorship, and advancement opportunities? Remember that diversity without equity is dangerous, and inclusion without deep consideration of the systemic barriers affecting equity-deserving groups impedes a true sense of belonging and full participation of all members.

Tokenism also contributes to another dichotomy where diversity is perceived as a compromise for excellence by some people. We need to recognize first, that excellence only exists when the whole population is considered, and second, some of the traditional assessment markers can be biased against certain groups of people (see Chapter 3. Acknowledge your Biases and Chapter 4. Address your Biases, for more details). We need to keep in mind the value of diversity particularly in post-secondary institutions to incorporate diverse perspectives, to teach students a broad spectrum of ideas and talents, to better mentor and be role models for students of all backgrounds, and to build international collaboration. We can all make an active effort to include, respect, and support under-represented members in our classroom, our community, and our workplace.

Table 5.1 Sample Actions to Create Inclusive Workplace Culture (in no particular order, adapted from CCDI 2014, Ceridian 2021, and Gagliardi 2021)
Individual-Level Team-Level Organization-Level

Be humble, kind, openminded and respectful about unique individual identities and experience

Make space for others to speak

Recognize your privilege

Speak up

Effective allyship

Pay attention

Confront your own biases and reflect

Check your intentions

Educate yourself

Use pronouns

Reflect on your behaviour

EDI training

Value diverse perspectives

Talent leadership that confronts gender stereotypes

Listen to the needs of others and do check ins

Inclusive hiring practices

Forming a local EDI committee

Flexible work arrangement and accommodations

Ensure sufficient educational supports are in place

Celebrate “Appreciate Diversity Month” in April

Acknowledge cultural holidays and create diversity reading list

Setup EDI mandates

Clear and achievable EDI Goals

Zero-tolerance policy against discriminatory behaviour and assaults

Institutional audit with EDI specialist

Promote under-represented members to the decision-making tables

Be proactive, accountable, and responsive

Avoid over-feature minority group in promotional materials

Promote pay equity

Measure impact and progress

Cultural celebration calendar

Formal mentorship and sponsorship programs



Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation

While tokenism focuses on the intent of including people for symbolic appearance, another common practice that could squander our efforts towards true equity, diversity and inclusion is cultural appropriation, or cultural misappropriation.


The term “cultural appropriation” originated in the 1980s as part of the post-colonial vocabulary that describes the adoption of the artistic designs, fashion, themes, or styles from one cultural group that is not their own (Drabble & Stringer, 2007). This includes unauthorized “borrowing” of another culture’s intellectual property, cultural expressions and artifacts, and is most harmful when the target cultural appropriation belongs to minority groups that have been historically oppressed or exploited (Scafidi, 2005).


Cultural appropriation is a problematic topic because it often takes away the credit and capital owned by the original culture. While one person might perceive it as a tribute, others may see it as disrespectful and harmful. Context is crucial. If you have any hesitation and doubt about certain cultural creations, it is always a good practice to learn about their history and tradition to expand your cultural awareness. Additionally, we all should make a conscious effort to consult recognized experts/leaders from the culture being drawn from, to make sure depictions, descriptions and representations of that culture are appropriate. We are so fortunate to live in a world that fostered so many different cultural beliefs, traditions, languages, customs, and knowledge. Respectful cultural appreciation and exchange can diversify our perspectives and our world view.

Appropriation or Appreciation?

Reflecting on what you have learned in this chapter, review the following actions and select the one(s) that could evidence tokenism or cultural appropriation.




Summary and Self-Reflection

Tip #5

Celebrate equity-deserving folks without tokenizing or appropriating culture.

Contemporary human rights movements and civil rights campaigns have pushed for profound social changes, but there is much to do in terms of equity and anti-oppression. While there has been increased attention paid to these areas in recent years, equity-deserving groups have advocated for structural and systemic changes for decades. Oppression is an engrained reality of our historical and contemporary circumstances. Thus, we must refocus our attention on equity-deserving communities who have led this work, by learning from them, and acknowledging that our work must be built on the priorities of the lived experiences identified from equity-deserving folks. As part of our learning process, we need to constantly self-reflect on our actions.



Chapter 5 References

AlShebli, B. K., Rahwan, T., & Woon, W. L. (2018). The preeminence of ethnic diversity in scientific collaboration. Nature Communications, 9(1), 5163.

Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion. (2014). Locking in your leadership Toolkit for developing a diversity and inclusion strategy.

Ceridian. (2021). How to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Drabble, M., & Stringer, J. (Eds.). (2007). The concise Oxford companion to English literature (3rd ed). Oxford University Press.

Freeman, R. B., & Huang, W. (2014). Collaboration: Strength in diversity. Nature, 513(7518), 305–305.

Gagliardi A. (2021). Defining equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the workplace.

Giang, V. (2016, November 20). Feminism 101: What is Tokenism? FEM.

International Labour Organization. (2015). Promoting Equity: Ethnic diversity in the workplace: a step-by-step guide. ILO.

Kanter, R. M. (1977). Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life: Skewed Sex Ratios and Responses to Token Women. American Journal of Sociology, 82(5), 965–990. JSTOR.

King, E. B., Hebl, M. R., George, J. M., & Matusik, S. F. (2010). Understanding Tokenism: Antecedents and Consequences of a Psychological Climate of Gender Inequity. Journal of Management, 36(2), 482–510.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Tokenism. In dictionary. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from

Roberge, M.-É., & van Dick, R. (2010). Recognizing the benefits of diversity: When and how does diversity increase group performance? Human Resource Management Review, 20(4), 295–308.

Scafidi, S. (2005). Who owns culture? Appropriation and authenticity in American law. Rutgers University Press.

Stichman, A. J., Hassell, K. D., & Archbold, C. A. (2010). Strength in numbers? A test of Kanter’s theory of tokenism. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38(4), 633–639.

Swartz, T. H., Palermo, A.-G. S., Masur, S. K., & Aberg, J. A. (2019). The Science and Value of Diversity: Closing the Gaps in Our Understanding of Inclusion and Diversity. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 220(Supplement_2), S33–S41.

Williams, C. L. (1992). The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the “Female” Professions. Social Problems, 39(3), 253–267.

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Building Community: Introduction to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Copyright © 2022 by University of Guelph is licensed under a Ontario Commons License, except where otherwise noted.

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