An important attribute of tokenism is that many who acquiesce to it have a sincere wish that the issue in question could be addressed at a deeper level. They recognize the token for what it is, but they reassure themselves with the thought that at least it’s a first step in the right direction – that it’s “better than nothing.”
I believe, on the contrary, that this very predisposition is what makes tokenism worse than nothing – a step backward from goals that are widely desired. The token itself might be harmless or even positive. What makes it insidious is its framing, or the larger context in which it is put forward.
The image of a waterfall, a heron, or a sunset may remind us that nature offers us a wealth of inimitable wonder. Painted onto the back of an SUV, however, it’s the cynical expression of a posture in which everything in the universe has been tamed, packaged, and brought under control.
Tokenism is, above all, a form of misdirection. It’s the smiling Muslim kid on the school brochure, the black editorial assistant in the all-white newsroom, the telegenic woman serving as a campaign spokeswoman. By the mid-1990s, television and film had mastered this, too, dutifully checking off boxes with actors of color whose purpose was mainly to be seen. These were minor, disposable mascots who played to stereotypes, provided shallow comic relief or merely died first to show that others were in danger — the obnoxious gay best friend, the asexual Asian bookworm, the West Indian nanny. This type of character became such an established trope that the adult cartoon “South Park” featured an African-American child actually named Token. At tokenism’s cheapest and laziest, a mascot isn’t even necessary. People counter accusations of racism by pointing to their close but unidentified black friends.