Tokenism is the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups. The effort of including a token employee to a workforce usually is intended to create the appearance of social inclusiveness and diversity (racial, religious, sexual, etc.), and so deflect accusations of social discrimination. Typical examples of tokenism are purposely hiring a black man or woman in an occupation usually dominated by white people, or hiring a woman in a profession usually dominated by men.
The social concept and the employment practice of tokenism became part of the popular culture of the United States in the late 1950s. In the book Why We Can't Wait (1963), the public intellectual and civil rights activist Martin Luther King discussed the subject of tokenism, and how it constitutes a minimal acceptance of Black people to the mainstream of U.S. society. Likewise, in 1963, in answer to a question about the gains of the Black Civil Rights Movement (1954–68), the human rights activist Malcolm X said, “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 practice, employment tokenism misrepresents the token person as a man or woman of inferior intellect, job skills, and work capacity, relative to the other workers of the group, and that he or she possess a superficial personality that is sufficiently bland and inoffensive to not affront the sensibility of superiority inherent to white privilege; as such, the token employee allows the employer organization to avoid the accusation of stereotyping the negative traits of a minority group. Alternatively, the differences of the token person might be over-emphasized and made either exotic or glamorous, or both, which are extraordinary conditions that maintain the Otherness that isolates the token worker from the group.
In the workplace
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The token employee usually is part of a socially-skewed group of employees in which he or she belongs to a minority group that composes less than 15 percent of the total employee population of the workplace. As such, the minority status of the token employee leads to social problems, such as being subjected to greater scrutiny (application of the rules) from co-worker and manager alike; and the application of a stereotype identity (social, racial, sexual, cultural, etc.) that negates his or her individual, personal identity; thus, the token employee is the “typical” representative of a minority group. Such problems of social integration to the workplace are a consequence of three conditions to which the token employee is subjected: (i) heightened visibility, (ii) assimilation, and (iii) exclusion.
By definition, token employees in a workplace are few; hence, their heightened visibility among the staff subjects them to greater pressures to perform their work to higher production standards of quality and volume and to behave in an expected, stereotypical way. The heightened visibility of the token employee results from a physically obvious social type (sex, gender, skin-colour); and when the token's social type not only is rare, but new, to the social setting of the workplace. In the course of workplace administration, the heightened visibility of the token employee highlights any mistake in the quality and rate of production of the work. Therefore, token employees with weaker performances than those of dominant-majority employees are reprimanded more readily, more often, and more severely; and, because the token persons are perceived as representatives of their minority group rather than as individual men and women, their perceived work failures, as token employees, are perceived as characteristics inherent to their minority group.
Given the smallness of the group of token employees in a workplace, the individual identity — the personal uniqueness — of each token man and each token woman usually is disrespected by the dominant group, who apply a stereotype role to him or her as a means of social control in the workplace. Despite the inaccuracy of the stereotype roles, token employees tend to conform to and assume the imposed social role, because it is a workplace identity that is psychologically accessible, acceptable, and manageable by the majority group. Perceived differences between the majority group and the token group are magnified in order to exclude and maintain the token workers at the margins of the workplace hierarchy. For example, in a group of workers in which women are the majority group, their behaviour often is more psychologically aggressive and overtly sexual in nature in their workplace relations with the token men, the minority group; yet in a group of workers equally composed of people from the minority and majority groups, their social interactions become a medium of shared interests among co-workers.
In consequence to the practice of tokenism, people from minority groups are assimilated or excluded; some token employees assert themselves as the exceptions to the rule concerning their minority-group stereotype. Hence, in occupations and professions predominantly practiced by men, women join in misogynist male behaviours; and a minority-group token man or woman might intentionally mask his or her true character in conformity to the majority group's perception of him or her as "the token employee". Conversely, a token employee who does not mask his or her personality might readily and closely conform to the given minority-group stereotype and participate in being the butt of jokes about being different from the majority group.
Research comparing the effects of gender and race tokenism on individual men and women indicates that the practice of tokenism can accurately predict conditions in the workplace for members of racial minorities. Hence, it is a common occurrence in professions dominated by white people that racial minorities report enduring greater performance pressures.
The conditions of heightened visibility, assimilation, and exclusion readily apply to the experiences of racial minorities in the workplace. Many problems experienced by non-white people in the workplace are about the colour of their skin. In a study measuring stress levels of and performance pressures on black American workers in high-rank occupations, people typically reported higher levels of psychological distress when working in a predominantly white workplace. In workplaces with equal numbers of black-skinned and white-skinned employees, there were fewer reports of problems directly related to a person's identity as a black man or as a black woman. In such situations, black workers felt they were socially defined less by the color of their skin, and felt that there was less pressure to continually prove their competence to other workers.
In academia, 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. Moreover, despite possessing the required credentials for holding the job, many token employees felt isolated from their co-workers, and that they were not receiving the merited respect. This caused greater performance pressures, because they felt as though they needed to continually prove themselves qualified in order to gain the respect of fellow members of the faculty, and from students.
In professions and occupations dominated by white people, it is common for racial minorities to report that their race is an outstanding part of their social identity in the workplace, an example of exclusion; that the majority group will formally observe boundaries and exaggerate differences, between the majority group and the minority group. For that reason, members of racial minorities often feel they need to prove themselves, as tokens employees, as being an exception to the rule of stereotypes.
In her work on tokenism and gender, Kanter said 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. 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. Nonetheless, Kanter's ideas of heightened visibility, assimilation, and exclusion are still prominent in the workplace. 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. Stereotypes of women as more emotional or nurturing also lead to the pressure not to excel too far beyond the dominant group. Women are often perceived and labeled as aggressive when they display initiative and drive, while men are typically recognized and rewarded for similar behaviors.
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. Kanter's idea that the dominant group will create heightened barriers between themselves and the minority group is prevalent here. 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. 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.
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. 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. While male nurses experience heightened visibility, they are more often mistaken for physicians than are female nurses, despite wearing a nurse uniform. 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.
In academia, women are susceptible to stereotypes and are perceived as less competent despite the existence of evidence contrary to these stereotypes. 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. 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. 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. Despite this additional work, however, women continued to encounter prejudice from men, who typically challenged their intellectual prowess. In addition, the extra work that female faculty members were consistently asked to do was overlooked when they were being considered for promotions.
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.
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.
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 usually is a stereotype character.
In fiction, token characters represent groups, which vary from the norm (usually defined as a handsome, white, heterosexual male), and are otherwise excluded from the story. The token character can be based on ethnicity (Black, Hispanic, Asian, et al.), religion (Jewish, Muslim, et al.), or be fat or otherwise unattractive, homosexual or a woman character in a predominantly male cast. Token characters usually are background characters, and, as such, usually are disposable, and are eliminated from the narrative early in the story, in order to enhance the drama, while conserving the "normal" white 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 were 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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