Beyond Inclusion: The Importance of Avoiding Tokenism to Dismantle Systemic Inequity

by Phil Neuffer

For companies genuinely committed to making their workplaces more equitable to people of different backgrounds, trying to find a quick fix can’t be part of the plan. Unfortunately, when embarking on the work of diversity, equity and inclusion, too often organizations will fall short by undertaking performative actions that miss the root cause of the societal disparities inherent in the workplace. Such performative actions can often manifest in tokenism, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “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.”

Cardozie Jones, the founder and principal of True North EDI, a consulting firm that works with organizations to improve in the areas of equity, diversity and interdependence, provides an even simpler definition: “Tokenism is when you are making a choice about inclusion that is for the sake of performance,” Jones says, describing the action as transactional. “A person’s identity serves a purpose rather than realizing that your space is incomplete without the perspectives of people who are not like you.”

Jones says tokenism can manifest in a multitude of ways, including in external marketing or in client interactions, with the ultimate goal of serving the bottom line rather than addressing the needs of employees from underrepresented groups.

“You feel like a tool, like a literal tool, rather than a valued and integral contributor,” Jones says.

Inclusion Isn’t Enough

Monica Walker, a current advisor to the Racial Equity Institute, has faced tokenism to one degree or another throughout her career.

“There’s a fine line between diversifying an organization and its staff and what can appear as tokenization. Even in the most sincere of circumstances, it can appear that the first individuals are tokenized. The danger is when their representation becomes the end of change rather than the beginning of change,” Walker, who has spent the majority of her career addressing and working to combat structural and institutional racism, says.

Identifying tokenism and other unhelpful performative actions can be as simple as looking around at the makeup of an organization, but it can also be found by asking those most at risk of being tokenized.

“The feeling of being tokenized is a big part of tokenism. I’ve been in spaces where I was the only person of color and I did not feel tokenized,” Jones says. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel lonely and that I didn’t wish there were more people who I felt I could identify with along racial lines. [Being] tokenized doesn’t only correlate to numbers.”

According to Jones, operating from a value of inclusion is not enough because that value is still underpinned by an often unnamed power dynamic. Instead, it’s essential to operate from a value of interdependence rather than inclusion alone.

“Inclusion is just another concept rooted in power. I have the power to include you. As opposed to interdependent, which is actually ‘I’m incomplete without you,’” Jones says.

Promoting interdependence allows space for more perspectives and for new ideas about how to improve, whether it be a company’s culture or its bottom line.

“It’s just [not] enough to have diversity in the room, but what we’re not actually looking for is perspectives that challenge the status quo,” Nicole Newman, a co-founder of Two Brown Girls, a consulting cooperative based in Washington, D.C., says. “My perspective around tokenization is that it’s symbolic at best and harmful at worst. It actually props up this idea that feeding people into a broken system is the way to change that system.”

History and Power

Walker agrees addressing the power dynamics within an organization is critical to creating equitable workplaces and that tokenization just reinforces those existing structures.

“The one thing that never gets examined is the arrangement of power and how the arrangement of that power is often far more supportive of whites who come into the systems,” Walker says, noting that failing to rectify inherently racist structures in corporate settings creates spaces where people from underrepresented groups can’t thrive and, therefore, may leave, effectively undoing any progress being made in the first place.

The real work, according to Walker, is in looking back to examine and identify the systems and structures already in place and how they came to be the way they are today.

“How do we change the constituency of our organizations but not look at the historical understanding of why they were set up in the first place?” Walker asks. “One of the worst things we can do is to just start with trying to address those [issues] and not looking at how they happen.”

As Walker explains, “most people don’t want to deal with the complexity of race,” but that’s exactly what it takes to make significant change. Facing the ugly truths of the multi-generational effects of slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination and understanding how they are still present in today’s society isn’t easy, but it’s entirely necessary.

“It isn’t like we’re multi-generations removed from Jim Crow. My mom grew up and drank from colored only water fountains,” Aja Taylor, a co-founder of Two Brown Girls, says. “If you think about the fact that Black people were capital, Black people were currency, what does it mean for industries that were built on inherent racism?”

“We think about things as hard as slavery, where human beings were only as valuable as what they can produce. They were not valued as whole people, as complex people, as people, period,” Jones says. “The way that we pass that down into business and management practices is reproduction of very old and very harmful values that we pretend not to have anymore.

“Tokenism is a product of our society, the way our society views people of color, the way our society views women, the way our society views any marginalized person … it’s like trying to plant a garden without removing the weeds first.”

Jones uses the watershed court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to illustrate how even well-intentioned actions can be incomplete without a full-scale understanding and addressing of the larger systems at play.

“We sent Black children into schools where people hated them. We sent Black children into schools where their education reinforced and held supreme the accomplishments and values of white men historically,” Jones says. “Unless we get in and ask questions around how folks are experiencing changes in policy and changes in practices, we won’t fully grasp the impact of whatever statements or beliefs organization have declared for themselves.”

Fully Commit

While individual organizations can’t change the makeup of society at large, they can work to improve their own structures. To do so effectively, major internal assessments must be carried out and significant changes must be implemented at every level.

“We don’t expect institutions to change overnight, but we do expect institutions to make commitments,” Taylor says, noting those commitments must be made in terms of resources and dedication from leadership. “It’s like any other organizational culture shift; it only happens when there is buy-in.”

“Where some systems are struggling right now is with recognition that this has to permeate throughout the entirety of our system, every place. Because guess where those disparities and inequities show up? Everywhere,” Walker says.

When undergoing this work, it’s important to not individualize it or to put all the responsibility on the people who are being marginalized, according to Taylor, who further notes those who are leading these initiatives should be compensated for their work.

“Expecting someone who is negatively impacted by this system and by these inequities to lead the work, and to do it on top of existing work, is inherently unfair and inherently unjust,” Taylor says, encouraging companies to set out plans of action with clear goals and metrics, something that should come easily to most firms, especially those in financial services.

“As serious as organizations are about goals around profit, people should have equally clear, equally aggressive goals around undoing the racism that plagues the institution or the organization,” Taylor says.

Phil Neuffer is managing editor of ABF Journal.