Skip to content
ICE Community blog

Tokenism: a rage against the machine

25 November 2022

Tokenism should not stop our efforts to be inclusive, says ICE Fairness, Inclusion and Respect committee member Meshi Taka.

Tokenism: a rage against the machine
Meshi Taka says it was difficult seeing some of the racially toned reaction to the installation of Rishi Sunak as the UK’s prime minister. Image credit: Shutterstock

It was difficult seeing and hearing some of the racially toned reaction to the installation of Rishi Sunak as the UK’s prime minister last month. 

We can acknowledge the importance of the first-ever British-born prime minister of Indian heritage.

But we can also recognise that that in itself that does not address or resolve the important issues experienced by the majority of the racial minority in the UK.

Representation is very important, now more than ever.

It can also feel jarring when our views and experiences do not align on political, socioeconomical, or other characteristics.

A timely reminder that no one size fits all.

What is tokenism? 

When I first considered this blog, honestly it was to vent on the runaway train that is tokenism - the idea that having that 'token' member and celebrating that one day a year is good enough!

The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines tokenism as "the fact of doing something only in order to try to show that you are including people from minority groups, but not in a way that is really sincere".

What are examples of tokenism?

Have you heard or come across any of the following? If so, you'll have witnessed tokenism:

  • Had a conversation or seen a post on LinkedIn calling out performative celebration on annual equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) events such as International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), Pride, Black History Month?
  • People wanting to keep their heads down so as to not rock the boat and say they would rather not get drawn in. Even though it doesn’t really directly affect them!
  • Stepping up to 'represent' to promote diversity in the workplace, showing other employers how diverse your workplace is; welcomed at top level and public circles, but marked down at the 'day-job' level.
  • Talking about lived experiences, on racism for example, and being received with doubt, a default to dismiss someone else’s reality as untrue and invalid.
  • Hearing the same argument about how the UK isn’t as bad as the USA (and other countries) as if that somehow resolves the issue.
  • Hearing a senior manager (usually female or from an unrepresentative group) being dismissively referred to as a token hire even when they come with a proven track record.
  • Companies hosting EDI events but not wanting to pay for the time of their panellists and/or speakers.

These are not the only accounts, there are so many more.

We need to tackle tokenism

I hold strongly that scrapping EDI awareness and celebration is not the answer.

Tackling tokenism is.

Capitalising on performative action feeds suspicion, fuels mistrust and disengagement.

It works against achieving a sustainable EDI culture.

The reality of being the 'only' is the widely held belief that these accomplishments could only have been achieved because of the need to tick a box or fill a quota.

As well as simultaneously being showcased as the poster child for diversity.

Tokenism is not representation; it is superficial and a false economy.

It bypasses creating, investing and nurturing inclusive workplaces, communities and societies.

More action, not just words

Black History Month this year highlighted the need for more action (not just words).

I think part of that is tackling the prevalent tokenism culture in the UK.

Black History Month ended last month - will that also be the end of your active engagement? Or will you be building on the momentum generated?

A robust EDI policy is a good start, but it also needs to be effective at influencing and changing the workplace culture, by:

  • Embedding EDI into performance assessments in the workplace.
  • Creating safe spaces to encourage open dialogue including opposing views.
  • Recognising and rewarding EDI productivity alongside technical productivity.
  • Allocating funding for long-term investment through training, recruitment and staff engagement.

There are many organisations in the UK doing very good work in supporting employers and their workplaces with diversity and inclusion.

ICE resources on diversity and inclusion

The ICE now has a dedicated space for diversity and inclusion on its website, which sets out its diversity and inclusion policy, shares details of its Fairness Inclusion and Respect (FIR) Action Plan, the FIR committee, and links to the ICE’s Anti-Racism Toolkit.

The second version of the ICE’s anti-racism toolkit was rolled out in September 2022.

It provides helpful tools, practical guidance and material for employers and organisations to help them nurture inclusive places to work.

  • Meshi Taka, associate director at Waterman Aspen