Tokenism: Remaking Human Beings into an Image of Distortion

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

I was looking for a non-tokenizing picture to represent tokenism when I found this gem. I apparently represent diversity as a repeated blurred image. None of us but one are from another country or are in this program. We just signed off on letting people take pictures of us for marketing purposes as part of our existing job.

I was looking for a non-tokenizing picture to represent tokenism when I found this gem. I apparently represent diversity as a repeated blurred image. None of us but one are from another country or are in this program. We just signed off on letting people take pictures of us for marketing purposes as part of our existing job.

One of the greatest difficulties I have had as a woman pursuing leadership and higher education in the Christian world has been navigating the tightrope between survival and compromise in a context that continually distorts who you are for a vision not in line with God's purposes, overtly and implicitly. It is also facing reality that when others see you, they see a picture or type alien to how you understand yourself.

 I don't want to be invisible or voiceless, but I don't want to be paraded on stage as a mere empty symbol of the inclusiveness of [fill in the blank]. The constant struggle is to survive, to not let your voice be wiped off the map by naysayers and lack of resources, but also to escape being crushed into an empty mask or symbol serving the interests of others. It is fighting to have a place at the table without becoming an empty tool for the voices of those in power. The latter is perhaps worse because one's voice is snuffed out while being given the illusion of its value.

What is Tokenism

What is tokenism? Tokenism is when a group or person in power uses human beings from an underrepresented or minority group in order to appear diverse and benevolent or to avoid looking bad when in actuality the inclusion is extremely minimal and the token(s) lacks any real authority or value beyond perceived distinctive characteristics. Translation: people are used as part of a mask creating a portrait that in reality does not exist.

A token's value is generic. "We need a black person. We need a woman. We need an Asian woman....ect." Note value does not extend far beyond a limited set of qualities. A friend of mine applied for a leadership position. She was highly qualified and was frankly good at her job. She was flat out told she probably would not get the job because they needed an "Asian female" not just a "female." This is unusual as it is just asking for a lawsuit. Lucky (or unlucky?) for her, they could not find an "Asian female" so she would do. The token is interchangeable. "We need to fill our black woman slot." In this latter case, any woman who meets the "black woman" criteria is acceptable. Once they have a "black woman" they don't need "another one." Qualifications either have no, little or incidental value.

I was once told "I don't need another one" when I had initially turned down an offer to be on a podcast (ironically because I thought he wanted a token) but was talked into it by a friend. "Another what?" "We already found a woman." He needed a woman with any theology degree whatsoever so that his podcast could be diverse. He was also happy that this one was a "complementarian" (she wasn't). I awkwardly told him I was glad he found "one of those" realizing he would not get that I was pointing out his objectification of women. Unfortunately, my replacement was met with a barrage of stupid "go make me a sandwich" jokes and asked to represent all women constantly. As it turns out, tokenism worked so well she left the podcast.

Often, the token is asked to comment only or predominantly as the ethnic, gender or other role they are representing--since this is their primary value. I was once asked about the "snuggery" since I was a woman. Oh, what opinions I must have had...on the snuggery? I had none and threw a private fit once I found out what it was.

Tokenism is all about appearances. It is to make the organization look good and affords the token (whether group or individual) a false or shallow voice or representation. This is common on t.v. series or movies. It is easily found in the form of the generic "gay friend" whose only function is to be the best friend ever, but is otherwise a hollow as a character not interesting developed character in his or her own right. His or her only value is being "gay." Generally the gay friend speaks or acts in a stereotypical way or a character is awkwardly made "gay" just because it signals the virtues of the producers. In pictures, it is found in "that one black guy" appearing in every frame. Not because he is a stellar student, employee, head of department or leader but because he is the only person with that skin color and the organization wants to appear more diverse than it is. In my experience when it comes to schools, the students on campus see through the guise quickly when reality does not cohere against the picture. The place wants to look good, but has not expended the finances or resources to be good and thus have more representation.

Tokenism also appears in the form of "centers," "projects" and "initiatives" within organizations. A school, church or organization might create something like "Center for African American Studies" yet not give it sufficient influence, funding or resources afforded to others. It represents diversity and inclusion in name only and exists almost entirely to make the foundation or school look good. Sometimes these start out with the best intentions, maybe a vision with limited funding, but often times funding comes down to priorities. Rhetoric is one thing and action is another. Where do the money and resources go? This will tell you what an organization's real priorities are.

Scholarships can function as a "token" of support rather than real support for a minority group. I have suspected that even I had a token grant or scholarship from a school at one time zeroing in on my Mexican heritage ("Hispanic" in their words). This can be tricky depending on how funding for the program functions. For example, many schools offer a large variety of scholarships where one gets funding piecemeal. I once had a scholarship like this from TEDS for being a female leader. It was not a huge amount but significant and functioned within their broader system to be a source of real financial support in combination with other offerings. On the other hand, in some contexts one or two is all you get and if the goal on paper is to support X underrepresented group it becomes a mere token of support if it does not help them in any meaningful way. 

Tokenism appears in assigning authoritative roles within a church or organization. Sometimes identifying it can be muddy, especially when other factors are involved. A good way to identify the possibility of tokenism is if qualifications are not top considerations, are low considerations in practice, or are selectively applied depending on who is being promoted and to what level of authority. For example, although promotion criteria for higher authority positions may be more strict against the token while less strictly applied for those who aren't (maybe one criteria is deemed not to matter so much), lesser or token roles may have concrete requirements waived. It's all about what exactly is being valued by those in charge. This all gets more tricky when it is unintentional.

I was once part of an organization whose leadership was dominated primarily by white males. They knew this was a problem, knew it made them look bad and yet could not figure out why the small circle of white men who formed a tight click were the only types of people who seemed to be in leadership positions (I had been processing this instance among many when writing 10 Ways Men Can Fight Sexism).

Not surprising to those on the outside looking in, when it came time for promoting someone to the top it was decided that the top performer, a woman with more experience would not get promoted to the desired position and instead get a lesser one with little pay. This is even after it was clearly stated she was not interested in a mid-level position and had voiced from the very beginning that desired to lead and in what capacity. The one from the inner circle with far less experience, little time commitment and less than ideal performance would automatically advance to the highest position even when all criteria were not technically met--namely, a stellar performance for a certain amount of time. Thankfully for them, they found another female to take the less desired position after the first one quit. The position required an individual who demonstrated excellent performance for a certain amount of time and involved training new people. The replacement was brand new, inexperienced and I am told was in need of training.

I can at least vouch that there were indeed many excuses, rationales and perceived technicalities in this case along with "miscommunications."

But enough distancing and illusion, I know the person who was shortchanged on a job because I was that person.

Moving Foward

Tokenism is an ugly thing. Why? Because human beings have inherent value as made in the image of God. God does not show partiality or favoritism (C.F. Col 3, Rom 2, James 2:9). He likes to use those others see little value in (i.e. David, Deborah, Moses...etc), sees individuals for who they are and what they are going through (Gen 6:13), identifies with oppressed people groups (C.F. The EXODUS!) and became one of them. He does not see societal roles or stations as limits on participation (Gal 3:28). We are called to be like God and not have different standards depending on social standing (C.F. James & Paul on how not to show partiality towards rich vs poor).

Jesus was the ultimate icon, not mask, of God. In Him, we see the Father's face. He modeled self-emptying to the greatest degree and if we are in power sometimes we are called to give some of it up for the sake of our brothers and sisters and especially the Lord. Of course, to give it up we must acknowledge and see the power differences. At the very least we are called to love others as much as we love ourselves. Many "love" those in their group. That is very human. Jesus came and showed us that our "neighbor" is also the "other." The Good Samaritan is subversive because we are called not simply to love him as our neighbor, but model him.

For those without power, it is a fine balance one has to walk. I have not done so perfectly, have not had it as bad as others, and possibly contributed to objectification without realizing it. My only advice is to not hate yourself if you must play the token, but if you can afford not to, give up the slight or perceived benefit and refuse! Say no and walk away. They may replace you, but they have lost the vision of the kingdom of God in a moment and our God is the God who sees.