SAY CHEESE!: How tokenism impacts minority students

Jared Byrd, St. John's College High School

Jared Byrd delves into his experience with tokenism. (Published: 2019)

The bell rings. A class of energized eighth graders in Bethesda, Maryland files in for another social studies class on another normal day. The teacher is ready to begin another lesson on the history of the United States, but before the class continues, there’s a knock on the door.

The teacher answers it, and an admissions faculty member smiles as she walks into the room.

“May I see —x— please? We are taking a school biopic and would definitely like to include him in the picture.”

After the teacher affirms it, the black boy accompanies the admissions member to the playground, where a diverse group of students has assembled to take a quick picture.

After a short assembly, the photographer looks and tells the black boy to “say cheese!” The black boy smiles, takes the picture, and goes back to class happy that he was in a school photo.

The next day, the same social studies class files in for a lesson.

Shortly after the class begins, the same smiling admissions member walks in and asks for the same black boy. The boy thought the photo opportunity would be a one time thing.

Yet, he was pulled over for the photo shoots again. And again.

And over and over, he was invited to open houses, school events, and other admissions based activities where he was put in the spotlight for what he thought was his academics.

The little black boy didn’t think much of the constant attention and he may have appreciated the spotlight. What he did not know, however, was that he was being used as a prime example of something that has had a negative effect on many less diverse areas in the DMV—tokenism.

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, tokenism is defined as “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort” to be inclusive to members of minority groups by recruiting a small number of people from those groups in order to give the appearance of inclusivity. Tokenism in society today takes on many differ ent forms and has many effects on minorities nationwide.

The black boy in the anecdote was me.

But why is tokenism such an issue in the DMV area, specifically?

Although it is subtle and is sometimes accompanied by good intentions, tokenism and its consequences in the DMV area have had profound effects on the tensions between different races of people.

Tokenism affects minorities in class rooms when uncomfortable discussions about race make certain people look at the affected racial minority in the class. It affects minority students in music when a rap song invokes a question on whether the minority students student listens to and enjoys it. It affects minority students when inquiring if your black friend watches "Madea over Friends." It even affects minority students in photo ops and open houses, like I was, to portray inclusiveness and diversity when the reality is the opposite.

Some well represented groups and institutions genuinely want to promote diversity and include different perspectives from different groups of people.

However, racial tokenism becomes a problem when the intentions become so insensitive that it becomes invasive, turns into opportunistic exploitation, and creates rifts between different groups of people.

How, then, can tokenism and its negative effects be corrected in putting tensions at risk and not exploiting an underrepresented group?

The answer lies in adding more diversity and inclusion to the community. By making sure that all different types of people are aware of tokenism and its effects, it can not only eliminate tensions between different groups of people, but it can also ensure that we include diverse perspectives to improve the relations and images of our communities and country.