Tokenism is described as using someone or something as a means to represent a marginalized group in order to portray a sense of equality based on a characteristic of the person who is the “token.”
Some of these characteristics may be gender, ethnicity, religion, race, etc. People will often find “tokens” in work or educational institutions, where someone or something is being used as a means to serve as a representative of a marginalized group.
Oftentimes these marginalized groups and/or people are handpicked and often do not consent to being a work or educational institution’s token. They are merely given the “opportunity” to be a part of the said institution’s events and conversations that are for a specific group of people who are higher up (or make financial donations) in the institution; this group of higher ups and donors usually does not include people of marginalized communities.
Tokenism has been proven to be harmful to all parties involved, including the institutions that utilize them. The people that are made to be tokens, or the group of people that end up getting a token to “represent” their community, often suffer with a poor mental state as they have to deal with the pressures that come with being a token.
Most tokenized people experience anxiety, depression and stress. Marginalized people enter these mental states because they try to represent their community to the best of their ability with no mistakes being made. They become responsible for creating a presence or voice for their community in the room, having to have the knowledge of all the struggles of their community, and formulating an inspirational opinion on the subject matter, etc.
As boldly as institutions try to appeal to the masses with diversity tactics and inclusion statements, having a token only harms an institution as well. For one, with a student or employee who serves as the institution’s token, it allows a space for negativity and poor work ethic to creep into the institution. When the person or group of people who serve as the token(s) experience high levels of stress, anxiety and depression, they can no longer exert a hundred percent of their efforts into their work as their mental state declines. This could affect the institution’s numbers and/or ratings, morale, as well as what the institution provides to its communities and audiences. For example, choosing the only Latin student in the class to speak on Latin issues or during Latin heritage month does not allow the rest of the class to hear other Latin experiences which affects how the rest of the class perceives Latin experience and their other Latin peers.
The effects and results of participating in tokenism outweigh the [fake] ideals of representation and seeing someone who may look like you or share the same experiences as you. Tokenism results in contradiction overall as tokenism is supposed to be someone representing a specific community, when all it does is create stress and harm for the “token,” inevitably harming the specific marginalized community they were set to represent.
Our own West Chester University serves as an educational institution that prides itself on its tokens. The tokenism at West Chester University creates a great layer of hiding the controversies this institution has as well as the environment it has settled in and how that environment affects its marginalized communities.
One of WCU’s most celebrated and paraded tokens is the Fredrick Douglass statue. This statue was put there to commemorate the fact that Douglass’ last public speech was held here on the WCU campus. Douglass was born into slavery, fled for freedom and became a well-known abolitionist. The idea of a well known abolitionist choosing to speak at WCU creates an idea that this is a place that seeks monumental change (like abolishing slavery).
However, in reality, when WCU is tasked with creating real changes, the institution moves rather slowly. Recently it has been revealed that one of the science buildings on campus was named after a professor at WCU who was a eugenicist. After students inquired about this name decision, the university delivered underwhelming answers on the idea of changing the name until recently after months of probing at this issue.
Tokenism, used by many work and educational institutions, does more harm than good. It creates a place of stress, depression and anxiety, while still not accurately representing and/or creating a place for marginalized communities authentically. It is merely a ploy while looking diverse and inclusive on the outside but actually lacking that diversity and inclusion on the inside. While tokenism has been proven to be harmful to all parties involved, including the institutions that utilize tokens, institutions continue to participate in this culture. Even the very institution I attend, West Chester University, has its fair share of tokens while ignoring real issues that exist for marginalized communities on this campus.
Rebecca Romero is a fourth year English major. RR939049@wcupa.edu