Tokenism: What It Is and Its Mental Health Effects

Diversity and inclusion are important goals, but achieving them this way has mental health repercussions.

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Equality should be a priority for all of us, and the media, politics, and the corporate world need to be more diverse. And genuine intentions are key when it comes to efforts at diversity—otherwise, it's little more than tokenism.

Generally speaking, tokenism is about including someone in a group purely for the sake of sounding or looking diverse. Tokenism is not genuine: Instead, it's keeping up appearances.

Here's everything you need to know about tokenism, and why it's so controversial.

What Is Tokenism?

The idea of tokenism is based upon one person being included in a group in an effort to show that a group is diverse, for example. This token person may be invited to join a group not based on merit, but based on things like:

"Tokenism happens when someone is viewed by the dominant majority group as [a representative] of a minority group: for instance, a Black person surrounded by White people," Kristen Martinez, a counselor at Pacific NorthWell in Seattle, told Health. "In this example, the sole Black person is put in the position to speak on behalf of all Black people in the entire African diaspora on various topics."

The practice is a talking point, Martinez said, because the events have left many people fed up with superficial indicators of diversity and inclusion that don't lead to any real structural changes in our society.

"After witnessing George Floyd's death and the uprising around the movement for Black lives, as well as more generalized calls for real social justice with concrete and systemic changes, tokenism stands out as false, placating, and ignorant," Martinez said.

The media and entertainment industry often tokenize people on their discussion panel or TV show by including one woman, one person of color, or one queer person.

However, casting certain people just because you feel that you have to is not true diversity. True diversity would be casting the right people for the role and still ending up with a diverse group of actors.

Tokenism also happens in politics, in corporations, and in offices. "When you see a person with a marginalized identity who is acting solely as a seat-filler to appease folks who want more diversity and accurate representation, that is tokenism," Martinez said.

Tokenism Examples

Not all attempts to be more diverse are tokenism. But certain things give it away, Jo Eckler, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of "I Can't Fix You—Because You're Not Broken," told Health.

One sign is any mention of identity in situations where it's not warranted. "If someone is referred to by their identities while other employees are not, they might be a token (such as 'our South Asian female board member, Ms. Khan')," Eckler explained.

Tokenism can also happen during presentations. "Another common example of tokenism is someone being asked to present at a conference, but it's always on being a person of that identity in that field rather than their work standing on its own—for instance, 'Being a woman in tech," Eckler added.

It's not always a bad thing to have a presentation like that or to include identities when referring to someone, Eckler said. But when it happens often and in certain settings, it is tokenism.

Tokenism and Mental Health

Tokenism doesn't do anything to promote diversity. Authors of a July 2022 article noted that there are three major negative effects of tokenism in general:

  • Higher attention from others (leading to pressure)
  • Further separation from those in non-tokenized groups
  • Association of stereotypes with the group a tokenized individual belongs to

With those effects in mind, tokenism has a serious impact on an individual's mental health. For example, authors of a 2020 article mentioned the idea that tokenism has the potential to lead to depression, burnout, attrition, and minority tax.

More About Attrition and Minority Tax

Attrition refers to the action of people leaving employment. (It may also refer to individuals dropping out of a program, organization, etc.) Minority tax relates to when a person from a minority group is given extra responsibilities to make it appear that diversity is present.

Below are more details about how tokenism can play a role in mental health.

Feelings of Isolation

When someone experiences tokenism, they may feel alone. "As you might imagine, tokenism is lonely!" Eckler said. That loneliness can be the result of not having anyone who understands you or your identity.

"Being the only one or one of a few people who share your identities can feel isolating. You might not have colleagues to turn to for support and validation when microaggressions (or aggressions) occur. If you find yourself in a token situation, it is important to find mentors and supportive communities outside your organization if you don't have any inside it," Eckler added.

Being in the Spotlight

Additionally, being a token makes you extremely visible in an organization. "Think of someone being the only person of color in an all-white workplace or the only woman in a conference room full of men," Eckler said.

But being in the spotlight isn't always a good thing. "This visibility can come with scrutiny and pressure to represent an entire group," Eckler added.

And that pressure can lead to other issues. "Naturally, people who are tokens often experience stress and depression, as well as anxiety. They might even be tempted to overwork in order to try to be a 'good' representative of [that] identity group, which can lead to exhaustion, guilt, shame, and burnout," Eckler explained.

Lack of Acknowledgment

At the same time, if you're a token, you can feel invisible, especially if your achievements go unacknowledged or your contributions are ignored.

"You might also get a sense that people in the organization don't really know you as an individual and are seeing you as just a representative of your identities (like race, gender, etc.)," Eckler said. This invisibility is not only lonely; it can lead to frustration, anger, helplessness, and depression.

Experiences of Burnout, Exhaustion, Stress

Burnout comes from workplace stress that is out of control. It can result in low energy, feeling negatively toward one's job, or a reduction in how effective a person works.

It's possible for a person who is tokenized to experience burnout, exhaustion, and stress. The authors of an August 2022 article found that professionals working in the area of diversity and inclusion associated burnout with:

  • Tokenism experiences
  • Lack of clear job duties and support from managers
  • Conflicting job responsibilities

Being Pigeonholed

Some people might be chosen to educate others about their specific identities. For example, a transgender employee might be expected to lead sensitivity training or be the go-to person for everything relating to transgender issues—even if they don't want to.

You might be asked to take over everything that needs to be translated if being bilingual is part of your identity. "Another more subtle example is the entire meeting room looking at you when [race or gender] arises and expecting you to be the expert on diversity issues," Eckler said.

If true inclusion includes recognizing and respecting people's backgrounds, experiences, and identities as oppressed individuals, tokenism is erasing the full complexity of those identities.

"You are a walking, talking billboard for whatever marginalized group you have been propped up to represent," Martinez said. "You may feel worried and preoccupied to always be on your best behavior as the model for your minority group and make sure you don't propagate any stereotypes intentionally or unintentionally."

The Need To Be on Guard

Overall, tokenism can leave individuals to fend for themselves. "You are always on guard and hypervigilant to possible microaggressions or violence," Martinez added. "You may get the impression that nobody fully understands who you are and, moreover, isn't trying to."

A Quick Review

Tokenism is a practice where people from minority groups are chosen to help a larger group appear diverse. However, this practice is not healthy for individuals who experience it or helpful for those who do it. Therefore, it's important to understand what tokenism is and how to avoid it.

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