Is ‘tokenism’ a sign of progress, or just as bad as racism?
"Tokenism" entered the Mirriam-Webster dictionary in 1961, used to describe something that was around for some time even before it became an actual word. It’s when that one black, Hispanic, Asian or other ethnic group is “chosen” to show that there is inclusion; be it in a movie, sitcom, television host, in sports, the theater or the workplace.
Those of you who are familiar with this practice are nodding your head now aren’t you? Nodding because you have noticed time and time again, that lone black actor or actress in that big budget movie who more often than not, is killed off rather quickly into the plot?
Or the lone Asian, black in a sitcom with an otherwise lily white cast? Hollywood and the theater are especially guilty of this. Throwing one “minority” in there like somehow that represents a quota--a sign that they are diverse when picking actors/actresses. But not just any actors. Oh no—these artistes of color must be a “type “and play certain roles.
In the old days of overt racism, you know the legal kind, black actors/actresses were pigeonholed into specific roles. Only few great actors, like Sidney Poitier, were able to break through “the color ceiling” and get meaningful, powerful parts occasionally.
Most times blacks played maids, nannies, janitors, chauffeurs, prisoners, bellboys, handymen, and other service bits and pieces. Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t anything wrong with these roles on the surface. After-all, acting is just that, acting. But when an entire group of people with a plethora of diverse talent is reduced to confined, specific roles only, an obvious limit is placed on them. A limit which interprets as you’re not good enough, qualified enough, to be versatile.
It is now 2012 and lots of things have changed, but plenty have remained the same. Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Will Smith are a few of the actors who can cross what I call the “color ceiling.” Whoopi Goldberg, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones are some of the veterans who are part of that vanguard of actors in movies and on stage who got some of those limited roles—meaning they were the only “color” in many of those dramas.
There is an entire casts of brilliant actors and actresses who are deeply under-rated and relegated to mostly only “black movies or roles.” Like Don Cheadle, Jamie Fox, Viola Davis, just to name a few. Legendary roles are always given to white cast members. Will there ever be a black dramatic action figure like a 007, Spiderman or Jason Bourne character?
They are trailblazers, but the dark underbelly is there lurking behind the breaking of barriers. If Hollywood is giving brilliant talent a chance to showcase, why isn’t there more inclusion now?
This brings us to the workplace. Remember when BP had that catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and their Chairman made that “little people comment?" The company’s public relations department immediately kicked into overdrive and put a black spokesman in their ad to appease the chairman’s faux pas.
Or when Michael Steele was chosen as that token black guy to head the Republican National Committee? He was the first man “of color” to hold the chairman position and interestingly, he was picked after Barack Obama became the first black president. Suffice it to say we all knew why he was given the role and why it was swiftly yanked away. The GOP wasn’t happy with their “experiment.”
Now there is talk of the Republican Party being more inclusive to those who do not look like their majority membership. You know, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans. Though the emphasis seems to be on Hispanics. The GOP have their eyes on the fastest growing demographic but sadly think patronizing or “tokenism” is the way to a 2016 victory. They fail to realize than talking down, talking at or talking about is not the same as talking to, listening to, enacting laws that say you’re included and you matter.
The biggest test is to see whether the election of Obama is not the biggest sign of tokenism this country has ever undertaken. Let’s see if the Democratic Party will push other leaders of color to the top. As for the Republican Party, they have a long way to play catch-up. There is talk of Marco Rubio, who they think covers the Hispanic side, but no talk of any black, Asian or Native American yet. Maybe Mitt Romney can lend them his “binder full of women.” Another binder will have to be created for the male candidates.