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Looking Beyond Tokenism

Not too long ago, in 1970, February became the month dedicated to celebrating the history and successes of Black Americans. It originally began as Negro History Week in 1926, proposed by Carter G. Woodson. In light of this necessary month, it’s essential to look beyond tokenism and give credit where credit is due. We must celebrate the Black community and other marginalized communities this month and all year. Individuals and organizations must stop attempting to keep up appearances and make lasting changes within their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. 

What is tokenism? The BBC article Why diverse hires can’t always escape tokenism defines it as “…a member of a previously excluded group, often hired or promoted as a symbolic gesture toward inclusivity. Within social science, researchers define a token as an employee belonging to a minority group that constitutes less than 15% of the total population in a workplace.” Tokenism can set an individual up for failure before they begin though we must start somewhere. There will always be that first within an industry or organization, but when does this precedent end? I’ve personally had experiences of tokenism as a Black woman in the workforce. I’ve been hired as the only Black person on the team more than once. The organizations expected me to take on DEI efforts beyond my job description solely for forward-facing efforts to seem diverse and inclusive of minority communities. However, I can only represent myself as a Black woman. Though Black people applying may or may not have more accolades or academic achievements, we are still being paid less and looked over for positions that could catapult us to the next career phase. Though I have three college degrees and am well qualified for any role I apply for, the companies still asked me to recruit other Black employees without pay. 

Boards Need Real Diversity, Not Tokenism by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) released an article in August 2021 that “the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has approved a proposal from Nasdaq to enhance diversity and inclusion in company board rooms.” The U.S.-based stock exchange must disclose board-level diversity and requires at least two directors from underrepresented groups. However, it allows companies who do not meet the requirement to explain why they don’t. “Too often, we limit our understanding of diversity to identity-based differences. When we do this, we overlook diversity’s true force: the unique and varied expertise and experiences that, when integrated, drive problem-solving, improve decision-making, and expand our creative potential,” the article continues. 

What can we do about tokenism? The answer starts with diversity, equity, and inclusion. Preventing tokenism begins before we hire employees to be in a company that could cause psychological damage. Companies must implement inclusive hiring practices, so no one is the token. Companies should look beyond tokenism and see employees as whole individuals and not solely by their marginalized identities. Organizations can start by building positive morale and getting to know employees beyond the surface level. Employees can also call on employee resource groups (ERGs) for a safe space to unpack. Some ideas to build positive morale are hosting monthly employee events, leadership meetings one-on-ones with employees, and specific ERGs hosting events for employees to feel safe and seen. 

Happy Black History Month! I hope everyone takes the time to genuinely nurture their co-workers in underrepresented groups and place them in the positions they deserve. Look beyond tokenism and curate genuinely diverse organizations that reflect the populations you serve by learning from your biases and creating psychologically safe environments. 

About The Author:

Kierra D. Gray is a diversity, equity and inclusion practitioner, clinician, published content creator, and journalist who assists others in concretely achieving their short- and long-term goals. She’s a diversity and wellness changemaker on a mission to transform work environments that reflect key values in diversity and inclusion. 

If you’re interested in hiring a DEI consultant and advancing your company’s DEI initiatives, you can reach out to Diversity Crew at

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