Unmasking Microtokenisms

Unmasking Microtokenisms

Summer 2020

[Insert Corporation] is seeking to increase Black employees throughout the company by 20%”. “We recognize we have work to do”, [Insert “I have a dream speech” & a few references to police shootings & declines to provide a current state of the corporation or timeline to achieve new set targets]. “We acknowledge and recognize that not everyone in our communities has always been treated fairly. We have always tried to do what is good for our communities, however, we must do better” said a politician with no plan in sight & sharing similar sentiments almost a year later. [Insert Corporation] donates $** million to supporting justice initiatives, (approximately 0.002% of its revenues or 0.04% of its income). The same corporation ends up increasing revenues by over 50% year over year.

Fast forward to Black History Month 2021

“I began working at [Insert Organization] 5 years ago. I work with amazing people and they value your work”, said a Black employee at a large organization. “[Insert Organization] is an amazing organization to work for. I am happy to see [Insert Organization] taking steps to engage with Black employees” said another Black employee at the large organization. An employee from the same organization contacts me and says that leaders are saving face & nothing has been done to date since their summer 2020 statement. “[Insert marginalized employee’s name] has worked with [insert large govt agency] for ** years & we’re proud to feature his achievements during this Black History Month”. The same employee (senior leader) proceeds to praise the organization & express how no roadblocks exist within and he would leave others to say how they feel about that but that he certainly hasn’t faced any issues. “[Insert Corporation] is proud to feature [Insert Black Senior Leader] in our spotlight of the month during this Black History Month. [Insert Black Senior Leader’s name] has been with [Insert Corporation] for the last 30 years and has been a true inspiration for innovation at our Corporation” said the same organization that planned to increase Black representation by 20% in my opening remarks. Some employees at this organization end up leaving & whistleblowing on the performative acts in late 2020. Countless other organizations follow suit and hire or promote Black & other employees from a historically marginalized community devoid of a supporting environment & proceed to feature them as `First [insert community group]’ in their roles.

Performative Statement

If there is anything the last year has taught us, one would think it would be everything but being performative. Countless of organizations released press statements in the summer of 2020 denouncing hate & prejudice and a commitment to fighting systemic racism, or did they? Some bowed to the pressure from the public to respond by releasing statements for reasons best known to them. Perceptions are everything & I do not know of any organization or entity that does not try to shape or form public perceptions especially when it means there is something in return. The perception that an organization is fighting for social justice has incredible financial return in many ways which begs many questions. It’s not all bad as I do not want to take away from the good and intentional work so many are working on. However, there are always bad apples. Are organizations exploring with good intentions when they feature their employees from marginalized communities? Is this a result of public or internal pressure? Is it possible to proceed with a press release with good intentions before internal self-reflection? Is it ethical? Are the victims who are tokenized aware of the damage to others if these statements or acts are devoid of the reality within? Let’s explore.


Tokenism is the perfunctory effort to be inclusive like recruiting marginalized groups with an effort to give the appearance of equality while none really exists. In her book, Men & Women of the Corporation,  Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Professor asserted in 1993 that “a token employee is usually part of a socially skewed group of employees who belong to a minority group that constitutes less than 15% of the total employee population of the workplace. The social concept of tokenism first became understood in the 1950’s in popular culture in the U.S emerging as a solution for racial segregation. In his book, Why We Cant Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr discussed the concept of tokenism and how it constitutes a minimal acceptance of Blacks in mainstream U.S society.

Intersection between tokenism and microaggressions

It was encouraging to many when multiple organizations released statements condemning racial injustice last summer after the massive protests around the world. The protests propelled many to take steps in addressing systemic racism. While encouraging, many experts within the social justice realm were cautiously optimistic. Given the examples in my opening remarks, I cannot process at face value when an organization is releasing a press statement and perhaps, we shouldn’t. Many months after their statements release, this history seems to be repeating itself no different than the first time the concept of tokenism was coined. It is eye opening when an organization can manage to invest about 0.002% of its revenues with a return of over 50% growth year over year. Granted, there are many factors that may have attributed to the growth; however, it would be naive of us not to consider the impact of such performative statements on consumer behaviour. I’m intentionally not naming the organization as I have zero interest in blaming or shaming anyone.

We all want to see a fair representation of the mosaic that forms our society; however, we must be careful of how this picture is curated. It is important to celebrate these small wins by recognizing all employees especially from those groups who have historically been marginalized. It is however difficult for me as someone from a historically marginalized community to buy into the fact that an organization all over sudden just realized that one of their Black employees who has served faithfully for over 30 years is `now a true inspiration for innovation’ or feature a Black employee who does not see barriers within their organization. It leaves me questioning intent and if these organizations really get it. Perhaps they do, perhaps not.

In my last article titled Unpacking Microaggressions, I explored the concept of microaggressions. Dr. Kevin Nadal, a Psychology Professor termed “microaggressions as the everyday subtle, intentional and often-times unintentional interactions or behaviours that communicate some sort of bias towards historically marginalized groups”. Some organizations are in fact bowing to pressure and releasing press statements to address those concerns both internally & externally. How do we determine what causes more harm than good? Whose interests do these statements serve? Is it reasonable or ethical to release a statement before taking steps to get your house in order? Should the focus be appeasing minds or getting the work done?  I would argue that a lack of a timeline or target of an Organization’s initiatives should raise eyebrows. This is not always necessarily apparent to everyone including the employees.

If the statements are devoid of any consideration (intentional or unintentional) to address systemic changes, then in fact it does more harm than good by communicating a bias through minimization to those marginalized and it is in fact a microaggression. Couple this with a feature of employees belonging to a marginalized group in your organization devoid of the reality internally then it is also tokenism. This phenomenon of performative or exploitive acts whether intentional or unintentional having the appearance of responding to or addressing systemic change devoid of any consideration to actually addressing real systemic change or having the impact of minimizing the work that lies ahead intersects at these two concepts of tokenism & microaggression that I have yet to encounter and will term ‘Microtokenisms’.

Impact on the victims

Swindled: Victims of microtokenisms are largely unaware of the exploitive nature of their agreement with the aggressor. At first, what appears to be and may also very well be good intentions to taking concrete actions to effect change is exciting and convincing enough for the victim to participate. It only becomes apparent to the victim once they realize that there is in fact no clear plan to effect change whether that be a lack of resources or no intention from the aggressor to in fact effect real change. I was recently watching an online event where this gentleman had recently been selected by his Industry as the expert in leading diversity issues. His organization and industry as a whole had been heralded as champions in taking steps to address systemic change. The gentleman spent about 20 minutes talking about his achievements as a Black Professional within the sector despite the odds, of which his organization had largely featured. He was challenged on some of the barriers within the industry as that was the discussion at this event. I was struck by surprise when he mentioned that he was working hard to recruit young people from marginalized communities so that he could show them how to adapt to the industry. It then became apparent to me that he had been exploited by his industry as he was not a subject matter expert in equity, diversity & inclusion work and in turn everyone had been given the impression that this specific industry was changing. 

Mentally & psychologically draining: Victims of microtokenisms go through a stage of denial as they seek to strike a balance of having been duped to think they are in fact being brought in or part of championing the change that never comes. I read a blog recently about a Diversity & Inclusion Director who resigned from her role after having endured many months of a lack of support and resources after persistently requesting for resources for the work that lied ahead. This (champion in my eyes) expressed how mentally draining this experience was. This specific firm has done fairly well to fend off any thoughts of it’s diversity issues after having showcased their concrete action by hiring someone to do the work, a great minimization tactic.

Lost sense of belonging: The unfortunate thing about microtokenisms is that the impact extends way beyond that we can imagine. Consider employees within an organization who celebrate their Black colleagues who are finally being featured during a Black History Month event. While everyone celebrates, there are a few who note the exploitive nature of the event and choose to abstain which leaves those who are featured confused about what others are seeing that they cannot see as the organization has set out commitments publicly about their support for systemic change up until such time when the exploitive/performative acts become apparent to them. Some organizations have also decided to exploit marginalized employees who may not be experts in the complexity of systemic racism especially those within a leadership role who in turn become a powerful force for minimization especially when they are recruited to lead equity initiatives or tokenized. When everything becomes apparent to them, the result is someone who is fractured; a complete lost sense of belonging as they finally realize some of the damage they may have caused to their colleagues and themselves.

Impact on organizations

Racial Silos: Microtokenisms unpack themselves in due time. What appears to be well intentioned to bring about change is embraced widely at first, however as it becomes apparent that there is in fact no concrete plan to effect change, factions grow along racial lines which are fueled with distrust as everyone struggles to understand what side anyone is on. 

Toxic Workplace: With growing distrust among team members, the workplace turns into a toxic environment as a result of the deceit. As these performative & exploitive acts play out, they’re bound to face criticisms from those who are likely to be affected by change where every action is highly politically charged, everyone rolls their sleeves, and all hell breaks loose.

Loss of productivity: People cannot be productive in dysfunctional or toxic environments. We all need thriving environments to be productive. If I feel swindled into a situation, then I cannot be as productive and will likely be mapping out my exit strategy.

Lost credibility: Performative acts are just that, performative, and lead to no real concrete changes.  There is only so long that you can fool anyone and the moment they realize this, the people responsible and organization lose credibility. This is also a potential outcome for those that are intentional on bringing the necessary change however lack a focus on commitment to that change or do not necessarily consult with their stakeholders which slowly turns their good intentioned pledges to stale exploitive/performative acts.

Impact on the community

Unfortunately, complex systems of racism remain intact when statements are not followed with concrete action and most importantly, nothing changes when the impact on the community is minimized by microtokenisms while in reality, nothing is being addressed.

Confronting Microtokenisms


Dedicate yourself to learning: We are all on different points within our Equity, Diversity & Inclusion journey and we must strive to appreciate those differences. Things will not always be apparent to us and it’s difficult to dissect complex structures of racism. It takes time, commitment, and dedication to unpacking these complex systems. Intentions will always be difficult to dissect. If you find yourself unsure of any situation, double down by dedicating your lack of understanding to educating yourself further in order to inform your decisions.

Acknowledge the work ahead: I am in no way suggesting that we should not celebrate our wins. I believe it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the small wins towards our success. I do however encourage everyone to consider this carefully especially as it pertains to systemic structures of racism. While celebrating our successes, I encourage everyone to use the opportunity to acknowledge all the work that lies ahead with respect to dismantling those complex structures that create barriers for those that are yet to go over the hurdles, otherwise we risk minimization to the work left. 

Reflect on intentions: We should take a moment to reflect on the intentions and possible outcomes. Perceptions of appearing as an equity ally in the current environment are highly financially rewarding and I encourage everyone to pay attention to this fact. Reflect on the impact for those still facing inequities. Consider intentions of any organization that seeks to work with you, promote you, hire you, feature your successes and if well intended. If you decide to proceed with any collaboration, I encourage everyone to seize the opportunity to celebrate their success which is important while acknowledging the work that lies ahead. 


Resist the urge to respond: Organizations face tremendous pressure to respond to both internal and external pressure. Press statements or internal memo releases can be a good way to keep everyone informed of the change initiatives. While communication is encouraged especially when followed with concrete action, I encourage organizations to consider the minimization impact on your marginalized employees and community at large and emphasize the work that lies ahead. Consider replacing the urge to respond with a dedication to developing a concrete plan that allocates sufficient resources to address the structural changes coming.

Allow your work to speak for itself: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) are an outcome and I encourage organizations to allow their work to speak for itself. A few organizations have taken this path and doing great work in making structural changes within. If there are any plans to release press statements after the work, then please consider acknowledging the work that lies ahead both internally & externally including providing concrete initiative timelines. Remember, great work always speaks for itself.

Be patient: Unlearning and breaking complex inequitable systems takes time and I encourage organizations to be patient with the work. An unconscious bias training session, powerful keynote or two-day cultural awareness session will not cure systemic racism. It takes time to reflect and understand who we are as individuals and as entities including those interactions between us. Stay committed, generate a plan and open your mind to learning. EDI is a lifelong journey that can take many years to attain.

Cultivate thriving environments: Before taking steps to introduce employees who identify as marginalized within your organization, please consider a full self-reflection into understanding and identifying your environment. You would not want to hire an employee into an environment that is still struggling to find itself. This also refers to any employees who do not identify as being part of a marginalized community however looking to thrive in an inclusive environment. If we cannot clean up our own houses, the least we should at least come to terms with is the fact that it needs cleaning. When establishing change initiatives such as Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, consider appropriate resources required to do the work. Employees require psychologically safe and inclusive environments to thrive and I encourage Organizations to prioritize cultivating thriving environments for their employees first before anything else.

Author: Kevin Kamau, is the Founder and President of Kamau Consulting Group, a Management Consulting Firm focused on creating opportunities for inclusive participation through Inclusive Leadership

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