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.
By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:
- Define tokenism;
- Explain why tokenism and cultural appropriation hinder the development of inclusive communities; and
- 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 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.
Be humble, kind, openminded and respectful about unique individual identities and experience
Make space for others to speak
Recognize your privilege
Confront your own biases and reflect
Check your intentions
Reflect on your behaviour
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.
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
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
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Giang, V. (2016, November 20). Feminism 101: What is Tokenism? FEM. https://femmagazine.com/feminism-101-what-is-tokenism/
International Labour Organization. (2015). Promoting Equity: Ethnic diversity in the workplace: a step-by-step guide. ILO. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=1130778
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.
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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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2010.04.036
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. https://doi.org/10.1093/infdis/jiz174
Williams, C. L. (1992). The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the “Female” Professions. Social Problems, 39(3), 253–267. https://doi.org/10.2307/3096961
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