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Tokenism, Diversity and How to Tell the Difference Between the Two

When you see minorities on your TV screen, you likely see it as a positive form of representation. However, because of the way minorities have been poorly treated in this country thus far, the way that minorities are portrayed in the media is critical for their progression towards justice and equality. Unfortunately, tokenism is a dominant factor in the characterization of minorities in film and television, which harms minorities and benefits those already in power. 

In 2015 and 2016, the Academy Awards only nominated white actors, which kickstarted the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. This prompted the television and film higher ups to include more people of color in the production of their media. However, this was mainly not for the intention of implementing genuine diversity, but to stop backlash and save their reputations. This exemplified the already existent tokenism in media, which is identifiable with a little effort and education. Lucky for you, we have a crash course on it right here!


What is tokenism? 

It is easy to identify what tokenism is and how it is different from diversity once you understand the full definition. According to Merriam Webster, tokenism is defined as “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort to desegregate.” This is different from diversity, which according to Merriam Webster is “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, especially the inclusion of different types of people.” 

Tokenism is often masked as diversity. For example, when you see characters that are not white in the media, it is immediately thought to be a good example of representation. However, this is not always the case, because while tokenism is seen as inclusive at a surface level, it is harmful to those it applies to. Tokenism is projected through superficial methods that harm people of color through racist ideologies and hyperfocus on white characters. 

Where is tokenism?

Have you ever noticed how in many forms of media, there is a white protagonist and a person of color as their support? (Hint: “Clueless,” “Gilmore Girls,” etc.) Tokenism is prevalent in all areas where there are groups of people shown publicly, like the workplace, but it can be most deliberately identified in film and television. Actors of color are often cast as “the best friend” to help the white main character’s journey throughout a story. This is an example of tokenism, because there is no arc in the character of color’s storyline, and the character’s only purpose is to help the white hero’s journey. As said by Zoya Patel, the founding editor of Feminartsy, “Imagine if ethnic characters in film and TV were given the space to be complex and interesting and diverse, without being relegated to just another side plot.”

Tokenism in media is even more harmful when it is constricted to one racial stereotype. Limiting racial stereotypes in tokenism, like the “Asian nerd” stereotype Dr. Max Bergman has in “Hawaii Five-0,” restricts the potential of the character to cliché, worn-out, and untrue stereotypes. Destructive racial stereotypes in tokenism, like the “Black thug” stereotype, are harmful labels that reproduce racist perspectives. These tokenized characters do not have their backstory because the main focus is the white character and the POC’s service towards the white character’s plot. Additionally, there are white savior stories, where the oppression of a person of color is solved by the white hero. Examples of racist tokenism always boil down to the white lead role being the hero with the most story arc, with people of color solely being there for support of that character and stereotypes. 

Examples of tokenism in film and media: 

  • 10 Things I Hate About You
  • She’s All That
  • 16 Candles
  • The Blind Side
  • Clueless

Not Just Racially

Tokenism can also be present within media through nonracial minorities like LGBTQ+ characters and characters with disabilities. When characters with these traits are present in film and television, they can often be placed to represent the entirety of the minority group with stereotypes or to bring out traits of other characters like sympathy. An example of the tokenism of nonracial minorities in media is Damien from “Mean Girls,” who solely fits the gay best friend stereotype and has no depth characteristically other than his relationship to the main character, Kady. Additionally, Becky (who is a character with Down syndrome in the show Glee), was chosen as the character who brought the weapon in the show’s discussion of school shootings, thus villainizing the topic of disabilities.

However, this tokenism in nonracial minorities is avoidable. Examples of true diversity in the topics of LGBTQ+ representation and disabilities are the films “Call Me By Your Name,” and “The Fundamentals of Caring,” which portray gay characters and characters with disabilities in-depth and without harmful stereotypes. 

How to Do Your Part

While tokenism is easily visible on a screen, it is still existent in real life, especially in the workplace. Tokenism is a harmful and fake portrayal of diversity, as it uses minorities to selfishly benefit in any situation, not just in film and television. So what do you do with this knowledge of tokenism? When you see tokenism happening, help encourage companies and professionals to increase true diversity, inclusion, and equity. Additionally, advocate for minorities in your personal life, and seek out true diversity versus tokenism in media like in the small list below. 

Examples of true diversity in film and media:

  • Bring It On

  • Get Out

  • Westworld

  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine

  • Friday Night Lights

  • All American


Gabriella is a third-year student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo majoring in Graphic Communication. She is currently involved in Her Campus as the Cal Poly SLO chapter President, and in the past, she has had the roles of Vice President, Social Media Director, Instagram Manager, and editorial writer. She is passionate about writing, making art, volunteering, and pursuing a career where her creativity can be at the forefront. In her free time, you can find her attempting to surf and doodling anything at any given opportunity.
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