Tokenism in the Classroom: An Anecdote from My Life as a Barnard Student

“Tokenism” is a term that has been thrown around recently by intersectional feminists and social justice activists on social media. We hear about how companies will hire one individual of color in order for the organization to appear more diverse and progressive. Or when an African American, for example, makes a guest appearance on a news channel, and is expected to represent their racial group as a whole. Well, guess what? I inadvertently witnessed a real-life example of tokenism in one of my courses. It got me thinking about how the dynamics between people of different sociocultural identities unfold in shared spaces. More specifically, I wanted to examine the ways in which white people — often unknowingly — target an individual from a marginalized group to speak for their experiences, and make wide-reaching assumptions based on the words of one person. 

A question must be asked before I begin recounting what happened: What is tokenism? Tokenism is a subject not frequently defined in articles pertaining to the topic, since they often launch straight to how tokenism is applied in a variety of public settings. After doing a quick Google search to find out more, the definition I found was: “Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of racial or sexual equality...” This definition refers to workplace tokenism, which occurs when a company or business hires a person of color primarily to diversify the workplace without putting any real effort into beginning a discourse on improving relations between people of different races and religions, or  implementing anti-racist or anti-xenophobic policies.

But what about tokenism in an educational setting? How does it affect students of color or those from religious minorities? Student tokenism occurs when educators single out students to validate their opinions and ideas, even if these come from a place of bias. Many times, students themselves do not realize that they are being tokenized, and they sometimes internalize it. Tokenism is a process that is so ingrained in the U.S. because of the country’s insidious history of persecuting and discriminating against nonwhite groups. Even today, racism and xenophobia have not disappeared; instead, they have mutated into subtle forms of prejudice that permeate public spaces. 

On one ordinary Tuesday afternoon, I trudged my way to campus and took a seat at the roundtable meant to stimulate a seminar-style discussion, not suspecting that discourse that day would take an awkward turn. As the discussion that day was to be about Islam, I did have an inkling that my peers and even my professor would arrive to class with preconceived notions about it. 

The discussion began in a relatively smooth manner in which the professor talked about different sects of Islam. When he began discussing the five pillars of Islam, he turned to one student wearing the hijab and asked her to explain what they were. Her discomfort on being picked was palpable, as she hesitatingly spoke up. 

Another instance that day — which truly struck me as hitting the crux of the issue — was when the discourse turned to the topic of jihad, which is charged with prevalent misconceptions in America, and is often associated with Islamic extremism and terrorism. When the professor asked the class to define jihad, one student (who happens to be white) chimed in: “Jihad’s a struggle to defend Islam through waging holy war, right?”

This question was punctuated with an awkward silence, and the professor asked the class to elaborate more as he looked at the student wearing the hijab to answer. Just as she was reluctantly about to form a sentence, I spoke. The student and I exchanged glances, and she looked grateful that she wouldn’t have to talk about Islam for the hundredth time. 

Although these everyday interactions seem insignificant, they involve individuals whose identities enable them access to certain modes of knowledge and resources. White people (who often identify as Christian) occupy privileged positions, so they can afford to remain ignorant about issues affecting marginalized groups because they are able to disconnect from the process of racialization. They are not obliged to talk about their racial or religious identity to strangers or engage in discourses about the effects of racism and xenophobia on their groups. In America, their identity is considered the norm, with whiteness being something that everyone should aspire to. 

As a South Asian woman of Muslim identity, I cannot escape the questions I am bound to receive about my intersecting identities. To others, these identities are markers that help them pinpoint aspects that make me foreign, and determine who I am to them. Of course, an individual is not only defined by their identities, but by the experiences and people they are exposed to. Being able to understand that people are more than just their race, ethnicity, or religious identity is so important when having conversations about potentially sensitive topics. Additionally, people of the same race or religious identity hold views that differ from one another, and this in part is what makes humans multifaceted. 

In one sense, I was able to escape the scrutiny of the professor that day in class because I do not appear outwardly Muslim to the passerby since I don’t wear the hijab. I was not expected to magically know all the answers to Islam because of my religiously ambiguous appearance. After all, are Christians generally expected to memorize all of the Old and New Testaments? Expecting a Muslim person to know everything about Islam is ultimately hypocritical because Christians are generally not expected to be informed of their religion to the same extent. White people are allowed to be ignorant because they do not need to question the status quo due to their privileged position in society. Whereas minorities such as myself are forced to think about the ways in which bigotry and discrimination will affect us in the long run. 

This disparity in the understanding of race and religion between white Christians and those belonging to marginalized groups in America is precisely what brings about tokenism in shared spaces such as the classroom. In an academic setting, where a professor and students of various identities gather to discuss intellectual topics, one does not automatically shed their biases about certain groups. Our prejudices, which are shaped by our families, schools, and the media, are so ingrained in us that even when we seek to shed them, they still appear subtly in the thoughts we form and the words we speak. 

Those in privileged positions seeking to understand the perspectives of others should not simply expect to be educated about racism and xenophobia in a way that is easy to digest. Rather, they should seek to criticize their own biases made manifest in their thoughts and behaviors, and endeavor to actively research issues of interest to them instead of assuming that a person of color or of a religious minority will automatically educate them on everything they need to know. 

In the end, tokenism is a facade that weakly attempts to glean over racial and religious prejudices. The sooner we realize that just the presence of individuals from marginalized groups in an educational setting is not enough, the sooner we can construct discourses in a way where one individual’s input is just as valuable as the next person’s.