Over the past couple of weeks, community members have been throwing around the word “token” or “tokenism.” One recent instance is its use as an one-word description of Dr. Glenn Anderson’s appointment to Gallaudet University’s Board of Trustees as Chairperson, as some of the people who claimed he was being used as a token are confused as to why Dr. Anderson was assigned to a non-voting position on the Board rather than a consultant or a different role where the university could use Dr. Anderson’s intelligence and expertise far more. “Token” or “tokenism” is a charged word, considered highly volatile and offensive, and yet community members appear to use it with such ease. Perhaps they don’t realize the full impact of doing so?

This is not the first time a Black man is accused of being a token.

Another clear example is Melvin Patterson. Last year, the Deaf Counseling Advocacy & Referral Agency [DCARA], a non-profit organization serving the Deaf communities around the Bay Area and other coastal counties in northern California, found itself embroiled in an ongoing difficult situation, all beginning with staff allegations of racist actions and/or comments from DCARA Board members. Patterson was invited to be a new Board member at some point during this time, and the Board claimed they were not or could not be racist because he was a current Board member. (We want to emphasize that there are varying perspectives and sides to this story.) The Deaf Report shared that Julie Rems-Smario, who is a well-known community leader, stated that Patterson was being used as a token. Patterson submitted a lengthy response for publication on The Deaf Report, asserting that he is and was not a token. (The “old” DCARA Board eventually filed a lawsuit against Raymond Rodgers, the Executive Director of DCARA, and Liann Osborne, the “new” Board President.)

There are several more examples of tokenism we can name here…

But wait, what does tokenism mean, exactly? Tokenism was coined to describe an organization’s actions where the actions appear to “solve” issues the organization acknowledges, and yet the actions do nothing to solve the said issues. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word tokenism is:

The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce. (Oxford Dictionary)

Martin Luther King Jr, in his book We Can’t Wait, shared how tokenism, or at least the assumption of it, is harmful and how it leads to minimal acceptance of Black people to mainstream society. 

Tokenism is not something that should be taken lightly, and that leads us to the next question. How can someone truly tell the difference, as in Dr. Anderson’s case, between a genuine appointment and an appointment based on tokenism? Arguably, nobody can except for the person being appointed. All folks should be selected for positions based on merit, and we know that is not always the case in the real world. When a candidate of color is picked for a position, there is the possibility the candidate of color may have been selected mainly on the basis of their skin color–but does it automatically mean the candidate is not the most qualified person in the room to do the job? No.

Accusing an organization of tokenism can be harmful for the individual who was selected for the position. Some incumbents truly believe they were selected for the position because they were the most qualified of all candidates, and to hear that they are a token… it’s a slap in the face to them, especially when they have busted their behinds to get to where they are at. Once the incumbent of color is assumed to be a token, the incumbent’s supervisor, co-workers, or subordinates may no longer take them as seriously when it comes to their expertise on the job, which is aggravating for the incumbent of color as they are not given a fair opportunity to do their job as well, if not better, than previous incumbents.

Another question you might want to think about: when one assumes an appointment is based on tokenism, is this assumption inadvertently contributing to the systematic racism against BIPOC incumbents? (Of course, “tokenism” is not a word that applies only to racism–it can also apply to sexism, ageism, heterosexism, etc.)

Two years ago, the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University hosted a panel discussion where eight Black female panelists talked about the impact of tokenism in the workplace. The panelists’ discussion makes it clear that the only way to conquer tokenism is if the appointed incumbent believes they are being used as a token and the incumbent reaches out to like-minded individuals for support.  

When asked what candidates and employees should do if they fear they could be or are being tokenized, Melissa Thomas-Hunt, one of the panelists, offered this response: “For those of us who are new to particular spaces, we need to avail ourselves of every opportunity to build relationships. Sometimes it is going to be because of tokenism, but it’s what you bring to it (that matters)…so step into it.” (The Wond’ry Panel – 2018)