Tokenism: What It Is and Its Mental Health Effects

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

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 a symbolic effort to show, for example, that a group is diverse. This token person may be invited to join a group not based on merit, but based on things like ethnicity, skin color, or gender identity.

"Tokenism happens when someone is viewed by the dominant majority group as an [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 by including one woman, one person of color, or one queer person on their discussion panel or TV show. 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, said Jo Eckler, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of I Can't Fix You—Because You're Not Broken.

"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 told Health. "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.'"

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

Tokenism and Mental Health

Tokenism doesn't do anything to promote diversity, and it can have a serious impact on an individual's mental health.

"As you might imagine, tokenism is lonely!" Eckler said. "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."

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.

"This visibility can come with scrutiny and pressure to represent an entire group," Eckler added. "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."

Aside from stress and depression, tokenism can have other effects on mental health. According to a December 2015 entry in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism, people who are tokens may also feel like tokenism exaggerates their differences and that they have no room to grow in their role.

Being Unacknowledged

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.

The authors of a Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal study published in August 2022 found that professionals working in the area of diversity and inclusion associated burnout with tokenism experiences. Thus, burnout, exhaustion, and stress can also be triggered by the pressure put on people who are tokenized to educate others.

This could also be the case for those who have been 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.

Being Pigeonholed

If being bilingual is part of your identity, you might be asked to take over everything that needs to be translated. "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."

Being 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."

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