Tokenism transforms successes into messes

art of minorities trying to reach the light
(Lyndzi Ramos | Daily Trojan)

Diversity, equity and inclusion. This buzz phrase has been co-opted by companies and institutions to demonstrate their alleged commitment to 21st century social justice values. But despite the increase in awareness of the importance of representation and elevation of minorities, the landscape of most lucrative fields is still dominated by old, rich, white, cis-het men and their values and ideals. Even when an outsider is able to break into a hostile industry, the struggle against oppression rarely ends when they find success.

Rather than committing to revolutionizing society in favor of inclusivity, most institutions engage in tokenism. Tokenism — understood as incorporating people of minority status (whether that be gender, race, sexuality, disability or intersectional identities) into a group for the sake of appearing diverse and socially aware — keeps minorities, well, in the minority, allowing for white supremacy to continue unchecked under the insidious guise of inclusivity. 

At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ulta Beauty shared on Twitter that it would, in addition to amplifying Black-owned brands, Black creators and Black beauty, “continue to facilitate and reinforce not only our unconscious bias trainings, but further our curriculum focusing on privilege and systemic racism.” 

While this may be true, this distracts from the fact that Ulta Beauty’s CEO is a white man with only one woman of color on their leadership board. 

White power remains the dominant power as trainings, workshops and DEI initiatives only cover up the surface of discriminatory practices. Companies have gotten really good at looking diverse but don’t create real change in the system. Because of a fear of losing personal opportunities and ultimately falling back on complacency with bigotry, many minorities often feel pressure to conform instead of demanding more tangible changes.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the significantly male-dominated field of technology creates an “inhospitable culture … [that] forc[es] women and minorities to tolerate the environment or leave the field.” The report highlights statistics from Joan C. Williams’s study “The 5 Biases Pushing Women out of STEM” for the Harvard Business Review, which revealed that out of over 600 women in STEM surveyed, two-thirds, including three-fourths of Black women, reported “their success discounted and their expertise questioned.” Thirty-four percent reported pressure to play a traditionally feminine role and 53% reported backlash from speaking their minds directly or being outspoken or decisive. 

These experiences are rooted in tokenism. Large institutions bring in enough minorities to avoid backlash from the public eye but don’t do much to create feelings of safety and belongingness which is essential for success and productivity. 

In a report by the National Library of Medicine on imposter syndrome, it found that rates were “particularly high among ethnic minority groups.” It’s easy to be convinced by those around you that you’re only there for your contribution to an illusion of diversity rather than your own merits, ignoring the fact that you had to work so much harder just to be there. 

In an interview with Vox Media, Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, said, “[Through our research,] we found that even though there were female characters, they were on screen and speaking two to three times less. That gave us a whole other topic to talk to people about. You can have a cast of 100 and 50 are female, but are you hearing them?”

A diverse appearance in an organization means nothing if there’s nothing done to address the issues of discrimination and what minority groups experience directly. While Under Armour employed an almost even distribution of both men and women, female board of directors and those in leadership positions (22% and 33% respectively) are still heavily lacking. 

It was revealed in 2018 that Under Armour employees were allowed to use company money for strip club visits and “women were invited to an annual company event based on their attractiveness to appeal to male guests,” according to Wall Street Journal writer Khadeeja Safdar.

What’s the point of diversity if you continue discriminatory practices?

Whether it’s a boardroom or a school, workplaces should be just as diverse as and demographically reflect the communities they are located within. But this is just the first step. If we continue to challenge empty promises and societal ills, perhaps we can move towards a future where we can be seen, valued and recognized beyond what “diversity” we appear to bring. In order for DEI initiatives to truly work, companies and institutions need to organically incorporate diverse peoples into their homogenous groups to fundamentally change and challenge the normative makeup of ingroups. No progress is truly made if looking diverse is all there is to DEI — equity and inclusion must follow.