Last year, when former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that a word would be changed in ‘Advance Australia Fair’, the country’s national anthem, from “For we are young and free” to “For we are one and free,” the move was criticised by many for being tokenistic. Every now and then, we read critical pieces about how cinema often displays token characters to represent marginalised communities, thus perpetuating stereotypes about them. We hear the word ‘tokenism’ everywhere these days: in discussions on politics, in debates on representation in films, and at workplaces.
Tokenism is the act of doing something in order to show that a person/company is including people from minority or marginalised groups, but without sincerity and without showing an intent to increase diversity and promote inclusivity. The members of a group — whether women, or black people, or people from lower castes — are hired only because of their difference with other dominant members —i.e., men, white people, people of higher castes. Tokenism serves the interests of the dominant group. For example, in a company, hiring more women is the easy, temporary fix to a structural problem and gives the company “evidence” to show that there is no discrimination at the workplace. In such scenarios, the hires, or tokens, become mere props or symbols.
Tokenistic acts can be dangerous and counter-productive for the tokens. One, they do not change prejudices about the community in question; on the contrary, they may, in fact, only reaffirm them — for example, if a black man in a film dominated by white men and women is depicted as brutish and hypersexual. Two, they don’t contribute to diversity, for diversity is more than just mere representation. For instance, if a woman is hired at a male-dominated workplace but her ideas or inputs are not considered, this defeats the purpose of hiring her so that the company can have diverse views. And three, they provide some ammunition to those engaging in these acts to ward off critics. For instance, in films, having tokenistic characters allows directors to escape the responsibility of doing some serious research on the character’s historical, political and cultural background and accurately portraying her with nuance.
In “Tokenism and Women in the Workplace: The Limits of Gender-Neutral Theory”, Lynn Zimmer wrote, “Perhaps Judith Long Laws (1975) can be credited with popularising the concept of tokenism with her analysis of the special problems faced by women who entered the male-dominated academic setting.”
Laws wrote that the token is permitted entrance, but cannot fully participate. This makes “the token woman similar to Georg Simmel’s ‘stranger’ (1950) and Everett Hughes’s ‘outsider’ (1945): someone who meets all the formal requirements for entrance into a group but does not possess the ‘auxiliary characteristics’ (especially race, sex and ethnicity) that are expected of persons in that position. Consequently, tokens are never permitted by ‘insiders’ to become full members and may even be ejected if they stray too far from the special ‘niche’ outlined for them.”
In 1977, Rosabeth Kanter, in Men and Women of the Corporation, studied a large corporation, Indsco, and found that the majority of women there remained concentrated in typically female jobs. Among those who did move into management positions, many failed to achieve equality with men.
As tokens, women were scrutinised more, felt overwhelmed to perform, and tended to overachieve or underachieve. Being tokens also psychologically impacted the women, who either went out of their way to emphasise their “outsider” status or tried hard to become insiders, without fully succeeding. While Kanter believed that hiring more women would solve the problem, others have argued that power, prestige and privilege are the issues that need to be tackled.
Let’s take the two examples given in the first part of this article — of the Australian anthem and depiction in films. In the first instance, Mr. Morrison was criticised because the health conditions, life expectancy and other determinants of well-being are all higher among non-indigenous Australians compared to indigenous Australians, also referred to as First Nations Australians. Conversely, rates of incarceration and deaths in custody are higher among First Nations Australians. So, how can all Australians feel “one” when there are clear differences and discrimination between the treatment of non-indigenous Australians versus indigenous Australians? The solution is to ensure that non-indigenous Australians have better access to healthcare and a good life and are also not discriminated by the police and other arms of the state. In other words, to be inclusive requires effort, time and a long-term view. While symbolic gestures, such as replacing a word in the anthem, are important, they are far from sufficient. Symbols must be backed by concrete action.
Similarly, simply portraying a gay character in a film or series is mere tokenism unless that character is well written, has a definite arc like the other characters, and has some purpose in the story.
The manner in which the character of David Rose (played by Dan Levy) was written in the Canadian series Schitt’s Creek was appreciated across the world. There was an easy acceptance of the character in the town where the series was set, yet no downplay of the queerness; the discussions about being queer were positive and breezy; and there was no ‘big deal’ about the character belonging to the LGBT community. David Rose was unapologetic, funny, sarcastic and went through the same motions as the rest of the characters did.
Tokenism can be felt at the individual level, the institutional level and at the systemic level. Unless there are efforts, both short and long term, at all three levels, true diversity and inclusivity will remain a chimera.