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Tokenism is the policy or practice of making a perfunctory gesture toward the inclusion of members of minority groups.[1][2][3] This token effort is usually intended to create an appearance of inclusiveness and deflect accusations of discrimination.[3] Typical examples include purposely hiring a non-white person in a mainly white occupation or a woman in a traditionally male occupation. Classically, token characters have some reduced capacity compared to the other characters and may have bland or inoffensive personalities so as to not be accused of stereotyping negative traits. Alternatively, their differences may be overemphasized or made exotic and glamorous.

In America, the practice and concept became part of the popular culture in the late 1950s. Martin Luther King discussed the subject in 1963 in his book Why We Can't Wait; in the same year, Malcolm X told an interviewer "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 1964, Woody Allen's debut album included a routine about his being hired by an advertising agency:

"[They] wanted a man to come in, and they pay ninety-five dollars a week, to sit in their office, and to look Jewish. They wanted to prove to the outside world that they would hire minority groups, y'know? So I was the one they hired. I was the show Jew at the agency. I tried to look Jewish desperately. I used to read my memos from right to left all the time. They fired me finally, because I took off too many Jewish holidays."[4]

Tokenism in the workplace[edit]

In tokenism theory, a token is a person who is part of a skewed or minority group, making up less than 15% of the total workplace population.[5] In 1977, Rosabeth Moss Kanter noted that the minority status of these tokens leads to several issues in the workplace.[5] Tokens are subject to higher scrutiny from coworkers and superiors, and often have stereotypes attributed to them by the dominant group.[5] Tokens also find their individuality compromised as they are viewed as representatives of their group.[5] Kanter breaks these problems down into three terms: heightened visibility, assimilation, and exclusion.[5]

Due to their numerical rarity and the resulting heightened visibility in the workplace, tokens often deal with above average amounts of pressure on their performance and behavior.[5] According to Kanter, tokens are even more visible if (1) the token's social category is physically obvious, as in the case of sex, and (2) the token's social type is not only rare but also new to the setting of the majority group.[6] The increased visibility serves to make mistakes more salient.[5] Those with weaker performances are more heavily reprimanded, and as these minorities are often thought of as representatives of an entire group, rather than individuals, their perceived failures are often attributed to that group.[5]

Due to the small size of the token group, uniqueness from one another is not typically observed by members of the dominant group, who will often apply stereotypical roles to tokens.[5] Though these roles are often misinformed and exaggerated, tokens will often conform to them, as it gives them an identity easily accessible to others.[5]

Perceived differences between the majority group and token group often become magnified as a means of excluding tokens.[5] For example, in a group in which men are the majority, their behavior often becomes much more sexual and aggressive in nature.[5] However, while in a more equally mixed group, interactions come to a medium of shared interests.[5] As a result of this practice, minorities assert themselves as the exception to the rule; women may join in with misogynistic behaviors, and a person from a particular ethnic background and cultural upbringing may mask certain aspects of their character to intentionally conform to the majority.[5] A member of the token group who does not do this may instead conform more closely to stereotypes applied to them, and allow themselves to become a humorous "punching bag", becoming the butt of jokes based on their differences from the majority.[5]


In her work on tokenism and gender, Kanter argued that the problems experienced by women in typically male-dominated occupations were due solely to the skewed proportions of men and women in these occupations.[5] However, men who are minorities in typically female-dominated occupations report lesser negative effects based on tokenism, while women who are not tokens still face discrimination in the workplace, implying that sexism and stereotyping may be more responsible for these experiences.[5] Nonetheless, Kanter's ideas of heightened visibility, assimilation, and exclusion are still prominent in the workplace.[5] For women who are tokens in employment, there is also pressure based on appearances as an additional part of their work that must be maintained, whereas men are mostly evaluated based on their skill and experience alone.[5] Stereotypes of women as more emotional or nurturing also lead to the pressure not to excel too far beyond the dominant group.[5] Women are often perceived and labeled as aggressive when they display initiative and drive, while men are typically recognized and rewarded for similar behaviors.[5]

While Kanter's theory of tokenism implies that it is the status as a minority in the context of the workplace that accounts for negative treatments, there is evidence that this is not entirely the case. Women in male dominated fields are often subject to unfair treatment. In the United States Marine Corps, the most male dominated branch of the United States military, women experience many barriers in their work that cause them to be at a disadvantage compared to the men.[7] Kanter's idea that the dominant group will create heightened barriers between themselves and the minority group is prevalent here.[7] Men and women are separated in basic training, and, for both men and women, femininity is considered to be a negative aspect of a soldier.[7] The Marine Corps also has more strict rules of etiquette and appearance norms that women must follow that the men do not need to follow.[7]

In occupations traditionally viewed as female-dominated, men have been shown to be affected by their status as tokens. In a study of a hospital with both male nurses and female physicians as minority groups, both experienced the effects of being tokens.[8] However, male nurses reported more positive effects than did female physicians, indicating that proportions alone are not responsible for the negative aspects of being a token.[8] While male nurses experience heightened visibility, they are more often mistaken for physicians than are female nurses, despite wearing a nurse uniform.[8] Male nurses are also considered to be more knowledgeable on the mechanics of the body than female nurses are, and are more often assigned leadership roles that they are not qualified for.[8]

In academia, women are susceptible to stereotypes, and are perceived as less competent despite the existence of evidence contrary to these stereotypes.[9] In addition to having negative stereotypes associated with them, women in academia report feelings of increased pressure in the workplace caused by increased visibility, concerns with presentations of themselves and their bodies, and isolation from non-minority coworkers.[9] Heightened visibility manifests itself as extra work taking place on panels or committees, where faculty members often seek out women to help diversify these panels.[9] In addition, women felt that they were expected to act as role models for female students, indicating that they were generally viewed as representations of women in academia, rather than as individuals.[9] Despite this additional work, however, women continued to encounter prejudice from men, who typically challenged their intellectual prowess.[9] In addition, the extra work that female faculty members were consistently asked to do was overlooked when they were being considered for promotions.[9]


Research comparing the effects of tokenism on individuals based on both gender and race found tokenism can act as an accurate predictor of conditions in the workplace for members of racial minorities.[10] It is common in many professions dominated by white people that racial minorities report high levels of performance pressures.[10]

Kanter's ideas of heightened visibility, assimilation, and exclusion are very applicable to the experiences of racial minorities in the workplace.[5] Many reported problems experienced by non-white people in the workplace involved issues related to the salience of their color. In a study taken measuring stress levels and performance pressures of black American workers in high ranking occupations, people typically reported higher levels of psychological distress when in a work setting that was predominantly white.[10] In settings where there were more equal numbers of black people and white people, there were fewer reports of issues that involved problems directly related to an individual’s identity as a black person.[10] In these situations, black workers felt less as though they were defined by their color, and felt as if there was less of a necessity to prove themselves to others.[10]

In academia, racial minorities also experience heightened performance pressures related to both their race and gender. However, many reported that issues related to the salience of their race were more common than those associated with their gender.[11] In addition, despite credentials, many felt that they were both isolated from their coworkers, and that they were not receiving the respect that they deserved.[11] This caused greater performance pressures in that they felt as though they needed to prove themselves in order to gain respect from fellow faculty members and from students.[11]

It is common for racial minorities in white dominated fields to report that their race becomes a clear part of their identity in the workplace. This illustrates Kanter’s idea of exclusion, that the majority group will heighten boundaries between themselves and members of the minority group, and will exaggerate these differences.[5] For this reason, members of racial minorities often feel as though they need to prove themselves as an exception to stereotypes.

Tokenism in fiction[edit]

A token character is a character in a work of fiction who only exists to achieve the minimum compliance with assumed normality for the environment described in the story.

A token character can also be used by writers to pay lip service to rules or standards, when they otherwise have no intention of doing so, such as by obeying anti-racism policies by including a token ethnic minority character who—despite being present often—has no function in the overall plot, does little or nothing, and is often a stereotyped character.

In fiction, token characters may represent various groups, which vary from the norm (usually white/heterosexual/physically attractive, frequently male), and are otherwise excluded from the story. They can be based on ethnicity (Black, Hispanic, Asian...), religion (Jewish, Muslim...), or be overweight or otherwise conventionally unattractive, non-heterosexual or a female character in a male-dominated cast. Token characters will usually be relegated to the background. Such a character may also be disposed of relatively early in the story in order to enhance the drama while "conserving" the normal characters.[12][13]

In many modern films and television shows, the inclusion of token characters is frequently and implausibly seen in various historical settings where a person's race or ethnicity would usually be immediately noticed.[14] Typically other characters tend to treat the token characters as though they were not concerned with their race or ethnicity. Notable exceptions to this practice include stories based in history and stories that address racism.[15][16] The South Park character Token Black is a reference to this.[17]

Films or TV programmes made in Britain may include a token American character, sometimes in situations where the presence of an American would have been rather unlikely, to appeal to American audiences. Examples are Agar in The First Great Train Robbery and Flt. Lt. Carrington in the first series of Colditz.

Tokenism in politics[edit]

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.[18] 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, because the more competitive nature of the candidate selection process in winnable seats continues to favour them over other groups.

However, political parties which actively implement strategies to increase the number of women and minority candidates in competitive races may conversely be accused of engaging in affirmative action or reverse discrimination against the majority group.[19]

A related concept to tokenism is the paper candidate, in which a person is placed on the ballot solely to make sure the political party has someone on the ballot, even if that candidate has almost no chance of winning.


  1. ^ "tokenism, n.". Oxford English Dictionary. 
  2. ^ "Tokenism". 
  3. ^ a b Hogg, Michael A.; Vaughan, Graham M. (2008). Social Psychology. Harlow: Prentice Hall. pp. 368–369. ISBN 978-0-13-206931-1. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Kanter 1993.
  6. ^ Kanter, Rosabeth Moss (1977). "Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life: Skewed Sex Ratios and Responses to Token Women". American Journal of Sociology 82 (5): 965–990. doi:10.1086/226425. 
  7. ^ a b c d Williams 1991, pp. 131–144.
  8. ^ a b c d Floge, Liliane; Merril, Deborah M. (1986). "Tokenism Reconsidered: Male Nurses and Female Physicians in a Hospital Setting". Social Forces 64 (4): 925–947. doi:10.1093/sf/64.4.925. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f Hirshfield, Laura E.; Joseph, Tiffany D. (2012). "'We Need a Woman, We Need a Black Woman': Gender, Race, and Identity Taxation in the Academy". Gender and Education 24 (2): 213–227. doi:10.1080/09540253.2011.606208. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Jackson, Pamela Braboy; Thoits, Peggy A.; Taylor, Howard F. (1995). "Composition of the Workplace and Psychological Well-Being: The Effects of Tokenism on America's Black Elite". Social Forces 74 (2): 543–557. doi:10.1093/sf/74.2.543. 
  11. ^ a b c Turner, Caroline Sotello Viernes (2002). "Women of Color in Academe: Living with Multiple Marginality". The Journal of Higher Education 73 (1): 74–93. doi:10.2307/1558448. 
  12. ^ Gray, Sadie (2008-07-17). "Ethnic minorities accuse TV programmers of tokenism". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2010-03-27. 
  13. ^ Carter, Helen (2002-11-13). "Minorities accuse TV and radio of tokenism". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-03-27. 
  14. ^ "Response The new Wuthering Heights does not ignore racism; it tackles it full on | Comment is free". The Guardian. 2011-01-25. Retrieved 2012-02-13. 
  15. ^ "Why Wuthering Heights gives me hope". The Guardian. 2011-01-25. Retrieved 2012-02-13. 
  16. ^ French, Philip (2011-11-13). "Wuthering Heights – review | Film | The Observer". Guardian. Retrieved 2012-02-13. 
  17. ^ "South Park Studios". Retrieved January 27, 2013. 
  18. ^ "More women, fewer chances in coming federal vote, says national advocacy group". Ottawa Citizen. April 8, 2011.
  19. ^ "B.C. NDP to choose candidates through affirmative action". The Vancouver Sun. November 18, 2007.

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