Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

Updated: April 26, 2021 outside the box

Let’s end tokenism

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
Check out Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns.
More Information

Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or 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 gender or racial equality within a workforce.

Years ago, a colleague told me I was a token in my organization. I was deeply offended. I was educated in my field, competent, forward-thinking, and I knew programmatic diversity, equity & inclusion work had to be informed by strategic efforts, and could not replace inclusive and equitable policy. Tokenism gives those in power the appearance of being non-racist and even champions of diversity because they recruit and use people of color as racialized props. I executed; I was not a prop! Why then, would she call me a token? The answer is it was not about me, tokenism is about racism at play. A devastating result of tokenism is when someone with talent stops being seen for their abilities.

I reflected and asked myself questions: Is my work valued and recognized here? Do I matter and make a difference? Tokenism doesn’t value the work or the person, only what a person represents.

A few examples of tokenism:

Recruiting people of color into leadership positions, with little to no decision-making power, and without the requisite resources and support to act as fiduciaries for the organization.

• Your marketing, development, business office, etc. is all white. Staff, and your volunteer storytellers, are Black, indigenous and people of color. This type of tokenizing can perpetuate economic inequality, and strip BIPOC of ownership over our own stories.

• You only hire BIPOC people to do BIPOC business. For years I refused to entertain the idea of working in admissions and recruitment in the nuanced role of a multicultural recruiter. Why is BIPOC are expected to understand everything about white peoples’ needs and business, but it is not reciprocated? How does this happen? It happens because white people don’t actually have a Black friend. White people don’t generally make it their business to know and understand the business of Black folks, for example, because they don’t have to in order to thrive …well except when they do, and then they hire a Black person to know that business. Stop it! BIPOC professionals not only bring unique perspectives having lived and thrived in a country built on racism, but they have skills in fundraising, strategic planning, marketing, facilitation, legal and more.

• Organizations convene special diversity councils but don’t build BIPOC leadership on the administrative leadership team. Many of these institutional councils are assembled to figure out “what’s really going on” with the state of BIPOC and help flesh out funded initiatives targeting BIPOC groups. The white leaders want to learn but while retaining their authority and avoiding the discomfort of having anyone on the inside challenge their privileged worldview. Where are the Black board presidents?

• You use POC as your mouthpiece and shield against other BIPOC. This type of tokenizing takes many forms, including when those in power call on a BIPOC to keep them informed of another BIPOC’s work; seek BIPOC to endorse them as not racist, or to validate their work or decision-making as racially appropriate to shield them from critique from other BIPOC. In this scenario, the racial hierarchy remains the same.

• Hiring only a few people from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences (outside of a homogeneity).

• Asking a person of color to speak on behalf of their entire race.

The three major preventative measures of tokenism are integrated, strategic, and sustainable diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, policies, programs, and initiatives. An organization recruiting and celebrating people from different lived experiences (diversity), ensures everyone has equal access to resources to meet their needs so they can thrive (equity), and one where everyone feels welcomed, heard, and valued, with a sense of belonging (inclusion), is an organization combating tokenism.

Bonnie J. Walker is the director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy, plying this arena in education in Mass. for 16 years. Contact her at

Sign up for Enews

WBJ Web Partners


Order a PDF