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I am struck by how often I observe tokenism in our current American political and social state.

In the deep work of transforming oppressive systems into a more inclusive intercultural healthy ethos, we must become aware of the insufficiency and oppression of tokenism. And we must face it, denounce it and change it.

A token is defined as, “done for the sake of appearances or as a symbolic gesture.”

Veterans of racial justice work have discovered that tokenism is often coupled with assimilation. When a person gets chosen to “break the glass ceiling,” implicit in that selection is the message that “We invited you into our exclusive group. You represent (x) (x=marginalized group). You must act like us, speak like us, behave like us and be loyal to us, what we stand for, our values, our ways, and our foundations.”

This action of tokenism is done as “the method of limited access that gives false hope to those left behind and blames them for ‘not making it.’ Tokenism is a form of co-optation. It takes the brightest and best of the most assimilated, reward them with position and money (though rarely genuine leadership and power) and then uses them as a model of what is necessary to succeed, even though there are often no more openings for others who may follow the model.” (Dismantling Racism: A resource book for social change groups, Western States Center, 2003. Pg. 31.)

With tokenism, there is no real change. There is only enough action to placate those that are asking for change. There is never any desire for true change. It is a superficial act designed to quell negative feelings and reactions of the public.

Beneath the token action, is the steely reserve that change will not happen, but those in power will yield just a little bit to give the appearance of change. The sad part of tokenism is that often, the people that notice the token, immediately slide into the judgment that the token is “not good enough” and “did not get here on their own merit.”

I often wonder why people, or organizations, (in this case, a well-established political structure) do not want to change. It is because it works for them. It is their system designed to work for them. We have to address their token responses to placate us and shut us up. We can no longer tolerate tokenism.

Tokenism Today:

This past week, most of my conversations revolved around the hearings for the Supreme Court confirmation regarding Judge Kavanaugh.

There is much to say about it, but I was particularly struck by Rachel Mitchell, the female outside counsel, that the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee brought in to interrogate Dr. Christine Ford. Did you notice that she was not around to interrogate Judge Kavanaugh? It struck me that the GOP side of the committee did not have a single female on it for over 30 years and they had to bring in an outsider, a token, to interrogate Dr. Ford.

Furthermore, as you probably know, the confirmation was delayed for one week for an FBI investigation. However, the FBI was given instructions which severely narrowed the scope of the investigation and limited it to the current witness list.

Both issues are perfect examples of tokenism: Doing the bare minimum, just to shut others up.

We know that this does not serve the larger community. This does not create possibilities for everyone in society. We know this. The more you try to control outcomes, the less room you make for magic to happen!

The truth is that most institutional change often begins with tokenism. It may even be a step in the right direction. But if you get comfortable with it, there will never be true change. Tokenism may be a good door opener, but we must make sure to burst that door wide open. Never be satisfied with mere tokenism. The full expression of our humanity requires genuine representation across the board. Equity is the proper response to tokenism.

I am a firm believer that the change we all want to see in the larger society must begin with each of us. If we stop tolerating tokenism in our own lives, soon, we will not be able to tolerate in our institutions. We will also have the courage to speak out against it.

I invite you to examine where you have contributed to tokenism. It is quite common, and I find that many people do not think about it.

  • Some of the questions you might ask yourself are:
  • When was I used as a token?
  • How have I supported a token culture?
  • Is tokenism present in my place of employment, house of worship, or organization?
  • Am I comfortable with tokenism?
  • Which of my relationships/friendships are based on tokenism?
  • How may I transform a token relationship?
  • Do I require others to be like me in order to be in relationship with them?

My personal writing:

Have you ever thought of counting the toll it takes on the person who is made a token? I had an experience recently where I became aware of the fact that a person I was in relationship with might be unaware that I experience it as tokenism. It was painful, but I share it with you so that you may consider the damage this ultimately does to the human soul.

Tokenism can occur in our personal relationships as well as in our institutions or organizations.

Furthermore, I firmly believe that oppression stems out of a place of true powerlessness and impotence, although, the oppressor may not see it that way. Therefore, for oppressions to heal, both the oppressor and the oppressed must discover their own wholeness.

I offer this piece to our collective healing of the damage the occurs with tokenism.

On Tokenism

It’s been a few days. I have sat on it and I wish it were not true.

I had an experience that I am still deconstructing.

Many, many times – too many to count – I have been a token.

I was only 16 years old when I came to this country, bright eyed and bushy tailed. I have a big personality. I am kind. I am outgoing. I love to help people.

Yet, honestly, I can be quite naive. It took me many years to discern when I was being treated as a token. I was not skilled in the art of that particular form of detecting.

Since then, I have come to recognize that I often get treated as a token for a being an immigrant, being black, being a woman, and a couple of other things, too.

How do I describe how it feels for my whole personhood to be relegated to a box with a checkmark in it? The words do not exist.

It took me a very long time to figure out the slight aroma of decay that I would associate with that experience, how something did not smell right. How something felt dirty about the interaction. The diminishment of my soul. How the contraction into smallness would get stuck in my jaw and my shoulders and in the shallowness of my breath. The low rumble of disruption in my soul. The fracture that would result. The way I would introvert heavily after such an encounter.

I did not know how to read the signs.

As I am doing as I write this – introverting to reclaim myself.

You see, precious souls, some of us are really trying to create inclusive communities but we don’t know how. We don’t want to do the hard work of really, really looking at our souls and discovering our true motives, limitations and blind spots. We are such experts are taking on superficial band-aid solutions. We truly live in a culture that rewards appearances and what things look like and not what is within. As long as we look good doing it, that is all that matters.

And, we take the very limited knowledge that we have, add a generous dollop of the best of intentions, and awkwardly reach out, not even paying attention to our own discomfort, and intensify the distance and the separation of “the other.”

Why should we work hard at renewing ourselves internally? Our social and religious christianized (yes, a small “c” because it really is not about Christ with a big “C”) ethic tells us that our shadow side is so bad and so wrong and so evil. That seeps into the culture. We must always be right, right?

*Caveat: I use the term “christianized” because this country’s social ethic is historically based on Christianity (the Pilgrims and fleeing English religious prosecution.)

Somehow being wrong, vulnerable and human is dirty and evil.

And so, we make tokens out of others when our priority is to make our desire to be inclusive the hero of the story. Some of us may believe that as long as there is representation of a group in our world, we have met the standard.

This is how we reduce others to their race, class, social standing, gender, or whatever category that is.

We make them mere tokens of representation of their group.

We don’t know them personally. We don’t know their relationships. We don’t know what matters to them. We don’t know their values. We don’t know how they are shaped by a world that places them in a category that, daily, breath by breath, makes them an “other.

  • We describe them as their “otherness:”
  • My transgendered friend.
  • My black friend.
  • My Latino friends.
  • My Native American friend.
  • My friend that went to prison.
  • My Canadian friend.
  • My gay friend.

We don’t know them. We know their othering label. And pretty much, that is it.

Somewhere in us, we think as long as we acknowledge them in their little black box on white paper with the check mark on it, we have included them.

No. No. No.

Know me. Know my struggles. Know my joy. Know my presence and be changed by it all. Hear my perspective. Consider things you have never had to consider. Know me as a person and not this box that is checked off on a piece of paper.

Knowing me moves you out of your safety zone as well as your comfort zone, spaces within where you feel your most powerful.

Yet, that is a fallacy. Your power is in your ability to continuously expand yourself. Not in staying safely in your box.

As an immigrant, I have had to consider all of you majority Americans (Whites and Blacks) without you even knowing it. I have had to assimilate, not to thrive, but just to survive and that gives me an intimate view of your world.

To intentionally learn a system is to become fully aware of that system and its nuances and its detours and benefits. To be born into a system that was built for you and you never had to intentionally learn that system means that you are probably unaware of most of that system.

Therefore, my assimilation into the American system and what knowledge that brings to me is not the equivalent of your mere acknowledgment of me.

Know me.


At the end of the day, I am you and you are me. We are simply humans trying to create a better life.

In your true knowledge of me, you expand yourself and get to know yourself in more ways than you can imagine.

Let’s be human(e) together.

And when I say, “know me,” I am not necessarily talking about me, Iyabo. I am talking about the person you “other” the most.

Know the other.

Hugs on the journey.

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I am committed to the success of all peoples. I actively work towards the equitable thriving of all human beings regardless of race, ethnicity, physical ability, sex, gender or national status. I offer a sliding scale for single parents, active-duty military, veterans, military spouses, the long-term unemployed, refugees and the formerly incarcerated.

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