A Tradition of Tokenism


This essay discusses the negative and dated impact of tokenism and being perceived as a token


As a child my mother always told me to be the best at whatever I do. “If you are a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger. I don’t care what you do; always strive to be the best!” My father, on the other hand, implanted a bold appreciation for dry humor, insult and a strong sense of ethics—“stand for something.” I was encouraged to be an independent thinker and the parental philosophies instilled were laudable for a Black girl. Self-appreciation was their goal and they allowed me to embrace my spirit—the one my grandmother warned them not to break. Paradoxically, they tried to prepare me for a culture that would hold me in low-esteem. Later, the work world introduced me to tokensim.

A token is a marginal member of the team, one denied full participation. The token’s visual difference is meant to disguise the existence of racism, sexism or classism in a business, organization or industry. Often the comforting assumption is that the ‘token Mexican’ or ‘token woman,’ is incompetent, unqualified and merely there to fill a “quota.”


Early in my work career it was apparent that I was perceived as ‘simple-minded’ or ‘slow-witted.’ At a menial job I was informed, slowly and carefully, the salient parts of a telephone and how to answer it. To make certain I understood, I was observed, closely.

No matter the status many, women, individuals of color, older citizens, and so on, who held positions others perceived as beyond their abilities were exposed to  rude and dismissive behavior.



A token is a marginal member of the team; one denied full participation—a person of color, an affirmation action hire, a woman or twofer


When I joined the police department many officers and even student police officers articulated their concern with the inability of women to meet the high masculine pugilistic standards. It gave me the impression that an officer spent the entire shift ‘kickin’ ass’ like television action cops. 

Once assigned to my first precinct, my fraternal brothers articulated their perception of my professional standing and why they didn’t like me—“an affirmative action hire,” “a woman,” “a Black,” and the ever popular “a twofer”—implying my inability to be effective on the ‘mean streets.’ In the public, many women and men, accused me of taking a job away from a man.

Although they considered me a token, initially, I was curious about what was actually going to happen and fascinated and entertained by their feeble attempts to intimidate. Notably, their token treatment didn’t last long. 

Merriam Webster defines ‘tokenism’ as “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.”

“Tokenism glorifies the exception in order to obscure the rules of the game of success in capitalist society” (Cloud 122). Tokenism is a pejorative term that implies one does not fit or is an exception.

Judith Long Laws (1975) who wrote about sociological corporate tokenism defines and clarifies it as follows:

Tokenism is likely to be found wherever a dominant group is under pressure to share privilege, power, or other desirable commodities with a group which is excluded. Tokenism is the means by which the dominant group advertises a promise of mobility between the dominant


and excluded classes. By definition, however, tokenism involves mobility which is severely restricted in quantity, and the quality of mobility is severely restricted as well….The Token is a member of an underrepresented group… who is operating on a turf of the dominant group, under license from it. The institution of tokenism has advantages both for the dominant group and for the individual who is chosen to serve as Token. These advantages obtain, however, only when the defining constraints are respected: the flow of outsiders into the dominant group must be restricted numerically, and they must not change the system they enter (51-52). 

Espousing the benefits of diversity in the workplace I was recently confronted with the ideology of tokenism from a well meaning audience member. The individual liken  workplace diversity to tokenism. Those who are made to feel like a token, can experience incivility, alienation, or condescension while facing the low to middlin’ expectations of some peers and supervisors. To be treated like a ‘token’ is to be bullied. Often the labors and offerings of the perceived token are diminished; interestingly, I’ve encountered many individuals who would shamelessly take credit for a ‘token’s’ labor. 

As one who’s been held in low esteem, I continue to create, produce and perform to the best of my skills. Further I and others have the ability to praise and encourage those whom we recognize as doing a phenomenal job. Friends and colleagues can also be beneficial in offering advice and motivation to those treated as outsiders in the workplace.

Diversity is not a synonym of tokenism. The forced assimilation involved in tokenism has made way for the inclusion of difference to meet workplace objectives in unimagined, collective and creative ways.

Diversity in the workplace embodies a receptive and equitable environment that openly includes all people and one where all can learn from one another. My upbringing, parental advice, skills, ability and, hence, voice prevented my being a token in the workplace; I am a humble, valuable team member.

R.V. Jones ©

Cloud, Dana L. “Hegemony or Concordance? The Rhetoric of Tokenism in ‘Oprah’ Winfrey’s Rags-to-Riches Biography.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 13 (1996): 115-137

Floyd, Tom. Integration is a …*!!?*!. New York: Vantage Press, 1994

Laws, Judith Long. “The Psychology of Tokenism.” Sex Roles 1.1 (1975): 51-67

Parker, Morgan. “White People Love Me: Dispatches from the Token.” Women in Literary Arts: 17 November 2014. n. pag. 23 June 2015.

“Tokenism.” Merriam-Webster An Encyclopedia Britannica Company, 2015

Wallace, Michelle. “Black Female Spectatorship,” Dark Designs and Visual Culture. North Carolina: Duke UP, 2004: 474-485

Zimmer, Lynn. “Tokenism and women in the workplace: the limits of gender-neutral theory.” Social Problems. 35.1 (1988): 64-77