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. 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.
The social concept and the employment practice of tokenism became understood in the popular culture of the United States in the late 1950s.. In the face of racial segregation, tokenism emerged as a solution that though earnest in effort, only acknowledged an issue without actually solving it. 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.
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.”
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. 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.
Black characters being the first characters to die was first identified in Hollywood horror movies of the 1930s, notes writer Renee Cozier. The Oscars ceremonies have received criticism over a lack of representation of people of color, as critics have pointed towards a lack of minorities nominated for awards, particularly in 2015 and 2016, when not a single actor of color was nominated. Around this time, minorities accounted for 12.9% of lead roles in 163 films surveyed in 2014, according to the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report.
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. 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."
Ethnic and racial representation in television has been proven as an educational basis to inform mass audiences. However, tokenism leads to a narrow representation of minority groups, and this trend often leads to minority characters being exposed in negative or stereotypical fashions. Research done as early as the 1970s suggests an early recognition and disapproval of tokenism and its effects on perceptions of minority groups—specifically, perceptions of African Americans. Tokenism seemed to be used as a quick fix for the complete void of major/recurring minority roles in television, but its skewed representation lacked room for thoroughly independent and positive roles. Throughout that decade, major cable networks including NBC and ABC held a collective 10:1 ratio of white characters to black characters, a much smaller margin of which had recurring African American characters. At that, the representation of African American women was much slimmer. The use of these token characters often portrayed African American people to stand in sidekick positions to their white counterparts. Research completed on token ethnic characters into the new millennium has found that the representation of males has grown in numbers, but has not improved in negative portrayal. Statistics on token ethnic characters still suggest toxic masculinity in African American males; threateningly powerful stereotypes of African American women; hyper-sexuality of African American and Asian women; and effeminate characteristics in Asian men and men of other racial minorities.
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.
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.
The CW show The 100 has received criticism over claims of tokenism with how minorities are used in the show. In a 2017 article, Affinity Magazine noted that the character of Lincoln subscribed to the trope of the "scary black man" 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. The only LGBT representation the show included is when character Clarke and Lexa become an item, but Lexa is soon killed off for shock value.
In the media
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.
Tokenism appears in advertising as well as other subdivisions of major media. Tokenism is interpreted as reinforcing subtle representations of minorities in commercials. Studies have shown that, among other racial minorities, Asian Americans are targeted by advertising companies to fulfill casting diversity, but are the most likely ethnic minority to be placed in the backgrounds of advertisements.
In the workplace
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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. The South Park character Token Black is a reference to this.
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).
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