If you have ever seen a movie, watched a television show, or read a book you have probably been exposed to some form of tokenism. As a term “tokenism” is something that may not sound familiar, but it is hard to miss once you realize what it is. By definition, tokenism is the recruitment or inclusion of underrepresented populations as a means to make it appear like there is diversity. That being said, virtually anyone can be tokenized, but there still lies incredible differences in how this tokenization plays out.
Tokenism is like meeting a diversity quota and emphasizing whatever qualities that makes that individual appear “diverse”. It is closely related to stereotypes, especially in forms of media, as it relies on stereotypes as a means to characterize that tokenized individual. Common characters of tokenism include the token black friend who always has something funny to say, the token gay best friend stereotype, the token blonde ditzy friend or the token angry Latina character, to name a few. You can almost always guarantee that these characters are meant to be a source of comic relief, but on a deeper level, it says a lot about the way in which we characterize cultures and identities. The commonality of this phenomenon, especially on such an influential platform like media, really sets limitations for the ways in which we explore culture.
When we have the tokenization of cultures, we get comfortable with those ideas and it turns into an expectation. For example, we expect Sofia Vergara’s character, Gloria, on ABC’s Modern Family to always provide some funny comment matched with a delivery that is interrelated with the culture she is representing. During her time playing that character, Vergara had encountered criticism regarding how she was playing into the stereotype, but she argued that this was a way for her to express her culture. In this case, what is considered fair cultural representation on an indidivual level to Vergara was also deemed as tokenism by critics. This is a fine line that is also pretty blurred because of its subjectivity.
Although Vergara feels positive about her character playing into stereotypes, it does not mean that those who share a similar cultural background with her do as well. However, because this is what is being showcased, it also gives the illusion that everyone who shares a similar cultural background with Vergara also shares the same experience. This is the danger that lies behind the tokenized character. It fails to leave room for the individual to flourish, yet it is heavily used as a means to define what an individual should be like. It is kind of like a rule book that has guidelines with the proper—or status quo—way to express your culture.
The process of tokenism can be pretty subtle and hard to detect. As mentioned earlier, tokenism is something that is more likely to be experienced by underrepresented populations and suggests the illusion that there is equity within a social setting regardless of how an individual might identify. There are multiple levels in which tokenism can play out. A common one, especially in the university or professional setting, is the utilization of an individual from an underrepresented population as a means to showcase diversity for the benefit of that respective university or workplace. It puts the underrepresented individual in an awkward position as they suddenly become the poster child for diversity. It also alludes to this idea of spokesmanship making them responsible for being the voice or go-to person in order to understand underrepresentation as a whole.
While it can be argued that there is a level of truth in stereotypes, it is important to refrain from using cultural stereotypes as a means to gain a full understanding of the individual’s identity within culture. Tokenizing cultural identities keeps us from seeing the value in how an individual navigates through culture.