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Tokenism is the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups.[1][2][3] 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.[3]

Use in the United States[edit]

The social concept and the employment practice of tokenism became part of the popular culture of the United States in the late 1950s.[citation needed] In the book Why We Can't Wait, the public intellectual and 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.

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.”

Rosabeth Kanter[edit]

According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the token employee usually is part of a socially-skewed group of employees in which they belong to a minority group that composes less than 15 percent of the total employee population of the workplace.[4] 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.[4] Given the smallness of the group of token employees in a workplace, the individual identity of each token person usually is disrespected by the dominant group, who apply a stereotype role to them as a means of social control in the workplace.[4]

Research comparing the effects of gender and race tokenism on individuals indicates that the practice of tokenism can accurately predict conditions in the workplace for members of racial minorities.[5]

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.[6]

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.[4]

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.[7] 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.[8]

In fiction[edit]

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.[9][10]

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.[11] 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.[12][13] The South Park character Token Black is a reference to this.[14]

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).



  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. ^ a b c d Kanter 1993.
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "More women, fewer chances in coming federal vote, says national advocacy group". Ottawa Citizen. April 8, 2011.
  8. ^ "B.C. NDP to choose candidates through affirmative action". The Vancouver Sun. November 18, 2007.
  9. ^ Gray, Sadie (2008-07-17). "Ethnic minorities accuse TV programmers of tokenism". The Independent. London. Retrieved 2010-03-27. 
  10. ^ Carter, Helen (2002-11-13). "Minorities accuse TV and radio of tokenism". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2010-03-27. 
  11. ^ "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. 
  12. ^ "Why Wuthering Heights gives me hope". The Guardian. 2011-01-25. Retrieved 2012-02-13. 
  13. ^ French, Philip (2011-11-13). "Wuthering Heights – review | Film | The Observer". Guardian. Retrieved 2012-02-13. 
  14. ^ "South Park Studios". Retrieved January 27, 2013. 


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