Diversity vs. Tokenism

Diversity is an important step towards equality, a relatively simple one that emphasizes equity and fairness. According to the Oxford dictionary, diversity is defined as “the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.” Diversity is important for a number of reasons. Foundationally, it provides different perspectives based on lived experiences that can broaden people’s views on life, and help prevent ignorance/oversight. With a lack of diversity, people may not be exposed to different opinions and views, resulting in a narrow and close-minded view of the world. Additionally, a diverse workplace can reduce discrimination and racism, as it may minimize the chance of outsiders being singled out and ostracized by the majority. People who have not experienced much diversity should still be able to treat others with respect and refrain from participating in racism/discrimination, but experiences with people from other walks of life serve as opportunities to learn about others and become exposed to views different from their own. Workplace diversity (and more specifically, inclusion) allows people to feel more welcomed and comfortable in the work environment, and has positive impacts for all sides. Workplace diversity can lead to improved hiring results (Glassdoor reported that 67% of job seekers stated diversity affects their view on job offers), improved decision making (a study by Cloverpop found that diverse teams outperformed individual decision makers by 87%), more innovation, and higher employee engagement. 

Furthermore, representation is an important result of diversity that has a positive impact on many groups. In certain industries dominated by a majority (ex. White actors in the film industry), a diverse cast in a film is a positive change. In particular, films featuring BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) actors highlighting stories that are genuine to their experiences are powerful, and can instill a sense of pride and hope. Think of the way Marvel’s Black Panther (cast pictured to the left) resonated with the Black community; Black children finally had a Black superhero they could look up to. They could see themselves on the screen. In a context that may be closer to home, representation is crucial for positions of power for the exact same reasons. The youth need real life superheroes that they can look up to and see themselves in, whether that is a female Prime Minister, a BIPOC Principal, or an 2SLGBTQ+ teacher for example. 

At the same time, it is important not to run the risk of falling into tokenism, a term defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the practice of making only a 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”. This is essentially an empty gesture to hire/cast/include people from minority groups for the sake of it, generally for the company/person/group in power to appear that they are diverse. Tokenism has sometimes been referred to as “diversity without inclusion”, which is an interesting way of viewing the issue, and a concept that I’m fond of. Diversity and inclusion are two terms that are often lumped together,  On the surface level, it looks like diversity, as there are people of underrepresented groups included, but the question is “to what extent are they actually included?” Are their voices being heard, or must they stand there in silence like a statue while their leaders boast of their own moral correctness? Are they able to share their truth and bring attention to the lived experiences of people like them, or are they forced to fit the White, able-bodied, heteronormative mould?

In North America, positions of power tend to be dominated by White men, and this begs the question, how does this impact minorities? Whose stories are we telling? Whose ideas are we learning and teaching? Whose ideas are we centering and celebrating?

Everyone in a position of power has the opportunity to exercise their power responsibly, and these questions can inform their actions. Many (if not most) societal structures and systems were created and are run by heterosexual, able-bodied White men, and may not adequately support minorities. If this is the case, it is upon others within these systems to make the most of their power to create space for minority voices. 

Last year I took an American Literature course instructed by a professor whom I admire. Besides his bountiful passion for literature, it was his openness, attention to diversity, and his compassionate nature that resonated with me. In one of the first few lectures of the course, my professor spoke to the class transparently about his choices for class texts, emphasizing his desire to prioritize quality of content, while highlighting a diverse range of perspectives from authors. This is where I was first introduced to the idea of tokenism. He told us that he had tons of novels he wanted to cover, but could only fit six into the syllabus. Within these texts he wanted to expose that class to a diversity of authors’ backgrounds/life experiences, writing styles, cultures, ideas and perspectives. At the same time, he did not want to choose a specific text solely due to the author’s race. Ultimately, our syllabus consisted of a wide array of authors and narratives, spanning from James Baldwin, to Tim O’Brien, to Louise Erdrich, and beyond. It was a conscious decision and by no means was it an empty gesture, as these choices propelled discussions in class on a myriad of topics. It also exemplified how one can responsibly exercise their power to strive for diversity and inclusion. 

My professor’s handling of the situation sticks with me as a reminder of how to responsibly navigate the distinction between diversity and tokenism, the need for inclusion, and the importance of using your power to amplify minority voices and perspectives.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.