Tokenism is the biggest pitfall to racial justice and we need to solve it

With the push for racial equality bustling now more than ever, also comes a bevy of threats to the cause—and tokenism is just one of them.  

What is tokenism?

Merriam-Webster defines it as “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate)”. In other words, acts of tokenism are performative, perhaps to jump on a trend or avoid criticism.

Some obvious examples include influencers posting empty black squares on Instagram without so much as a caption or meaningful discussion; TV shows inserting minority characters into the mix only to define them by their skin colour; political parties putting forward POC candidates in races where they have little to no chance of winning.

Or for instance, when prime minister Scott Morrison changed just one word in Australia’s national anthem. from ‘For we are young and free’ to ‘For we are one and free’. This does almost nothing for inclusivity, yet the peanut-sized effort can and will be defended by many as “better than nothing”.

Across the ocean, several Singaporean social media users blatantly exhibited tokenism at the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement. Influencers swarmed to their digital platforms to show support for the movement, yet continued to turn their backs on xenophobia and racism in their own homeland. 

Tokenism also presents itself in discreet ways, behind closed doors and with an airy disposition. Think teachers displaying boomerangs in classrooms during Reconciliation Week, but neglecting to engage students in a discussion about Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples, their culture, history, or tools.

In Singapore, school students are encouraged to deck themselves in other races’ ethnic costumes and play traditional games on Racial Harmony Day. Yet they aren’t taught the deeper meaning behind the very fabric they don, or the stories that lie beneath these toys—what is the point of all this, then?

Something even as casual as looking to an Asian friend as the voice for all Asians is very much tokenistic.

In a way, it’s a fuss-free form of activism for non-activists. It’s an easy way out. It’s more of a tactic to satisfy the public than an actual attempt to fight against racism—all at the expense of the marginalised.

How do we solve this?

Recognising your privilege and acknowledging past mistakes is a great first step, but it doesn’t stop there. We need to work towards being better allies, or more specifically, accomplices.  

protestors holding no justice no peace sign
Image: Brett Sayles | Edit: Marie Stella

Allies stand and act with marginalised groups and allow them to define the issue; promote voices instead of speaking over them; they do their own due diligence.

Accomplices will go a step further and utilise their privilege to disrupt these hierarchical systems.

University of Wollongong lecturer Summer May Finlay describes allies as ‘proactive’, but may ‘become uncomfortable and even defensive’ when their privilege is called out.

Meanwhile, she characterises accomplices as individuals who commit themselves entirely to addressing inequities ‘regardless of personal or professional cost’.

Daunting as it sounds, the benefit is well worth the work. After all, the movement is only as strong as the effort we put into it.

Keep in mind that being an accomplice doesn’t equate to being without faults – we are all humans here – but it is your willingness to listen and learn that sets you apart from tokenism.

At the end of the day, tokenists, allies and accomplices all have one thing in common (for the most part): we want to use our platforms for good.

That said, this ‘good’ can’t truly happen without acknowledging and unlearning tokenistic habits.  

In defence of tokenism

A classic argument in defence of tokenism is these efforts are well-intended and at the very least help the cause, which is certainly better than nothing.

The tricky part is these claims can hardly ever be disproven; after all, who’s to know what anyone’s true intentions are?

While this argument may very well be valid, it is precisely this mindset that allows tokenism to fly under the radar—and that’s what makes it all the more damaging.

In this sense, tokenism is like a trojan horse: it hinders the movement more than it helps it, yet packages itself in a neat little gift box that screams, “Hey, I’ve done my moral duty!”

And of course, not everyone can be an activist nor are they expected to be one. But it shouldn’t take being an activist to avoid perpetuating these performative behaviours.

This article was first published on City Journal.