“How do you avoid tokenism?” I asked. Because clients regularly ask me this question, I wanted to learn from experts whose work demands that they avoid tokenism. So, I turned to two video journalists, Kuwilileni Hauwanga and Abby Narishkin of Business Insider. They’ve made it their mission to create and produce videos that honor their diverse viewership, including the demographics they represent.

But before I tell you about what I learned from them, first some basics.…


Tokenism is the practice of doing something merely as a symbolic effort – for example, hiring a person who belongs to an under-represented group, only to prevent criticism, meet numerical goals and/or give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.(1) “Tokenism is about a box people are trying to check,” Kuwilileni said.

Why tokenism is a problem

At a time of growing public demand for effective diversity initiatives, tokenism hurts both people and business. Tokenism increases the isolation and alienation of employees of under-represented groups. It also increases their work load and overwhelms them because they have to show greater competence than their dominant-culture counterparts. “I end up taking on more work because I’m the one in the room who has to name the gap, the lack of diversity,” said Kuwilileni. “I look forward to when the white people notice and name the gap and help to find, value and pay the diverse experts.” The stress and isolation of having to carry that extra burden weighs heavily on people over time – lowering engagement, stifling innovation and increasing turnover.

What causes this problem

People’s individual actions do not come out of a void, they are a reflection of a larger system, such as a company and its culture surrounding them. Dr. Edward Deming (1900–93), renowned management consultant, argued that 94 percent of problems are caused by the system, not the individual.(2)

To see the implicit systems that influence the way we think, talk and act, we need to recognize a particular mental model in play within our culture: minimization. Fully 66 percent of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) assessment worldwide are right in the middle of the five stages of Cultural Intelligence, the stage called “Minimization”(3) The percentage is that high because it’s the default mindset of the dominant culture, of an organization and in society as a whole. Minimizing or ignoring different-ness creates an environment in which people tend to focus on what everybody has in common and assume others are “like us.”

The approach of focusing on what we all have in common may be well intended in dominant culture but the impact of minimization is dismissiveness of our own and others’ humanity. The result of this collective minimization, or mindlessness of one another’s heart and humanity, is tokenism. And the effect is deeply demoralizing.

How to stop the problem of tokenizing

The problem, then, is not that anybody’s inherently evil but that people have an inherited ignorance of the system. And here’s the good news: If ignorance is the fundamental problem, we are dealing with a fixable problem.

The antidote is to become more aware of the systems that influence us and others, making us less likely to perpetuate them.

To upend minimization, people of dominant-culture can become aware of their culture and its impact on themselves and others, and also recognize that each person’s experience is just one of many cultural patterns.(1)

The journalists’ experience

“How do you overcome tokenization as a manager?” I asked Kuwilileni. She said, “People need to see that their reality is only one of many.” She suggested that dominant-culture group members orient themselves toward people of non-dominant culture in the room and understand and affirm their experience as valid even if it’s different from their own. That will help them to notice who is and isn’t talking, encourage differing ideas and wonder who else needs to be in the room. She said, “When you notice and name the gap, you can begin to address the problem of obscured or silenced voices. In my case, as a black woman, there is a perception that I have to be smaller, less vocal and take up less space.” That can leave some silenced.

I asked Kuwilileni, “What do you hope for?” She said, “I’m excited for the day when the labor doesn’t fall on the handful of non-dominant culture people. That’s not happening now.”

“What would you describe is the ‘labor’ in this case?” I asked.

Kuwilileni said, “I’m looking forward to not having to point out the need for reparative justice and have conversations about why there are no black people here. I look forward to the white people doing that one day.”

I asked, “Considering this current gap, how do you manage your team?” For her, a huge part of it is conscious reporting. To represent people of non-dominant cultures in her stories without tokenizing them, Kuwilileni suggested everyone be trained in what to look for and why we’re looking for it. As a manager, there are questions she asks her team…

  • What is the industry?
  • What’s our goal with this story?
  • Who do we need to represent and reach?
  • Are all groups in that industry represented?
  • How are we finding these people?
  • What else does the story require and why does it require that?

As an example of effective inclusion of diverse voices, Kuwilileni highlighted two distinct stories covered by her team and produced with Abby:

  1. “How the NYPD Became the Most Expensive Police Force in the World”
  2. “Why Millions of Potatoes Are Being Thrown Away During the Pandemic”

“With the Police video, the need at the beginning was clear; we were talking about police violence against black people. We needed a black person with expertise to speak to that,” she said.

As production went on, Kuwilileni and Abby realized they needed more representation from the diverse community that makes up New York City. So in order to get a more complete story, they interviewed people from various backgrounds who could speak to the impact of policing from informed personal and professional experience.

On the other hand, the team saw a lack of diversity as they reviewed the Potato video. But as they dug in and analyzed the “system” around the people in the story, they realized that the majority of farmers in its setting of rural Idaho are white, and the people in the story reflected the community and the expertise needed for that reporting.

How to capture the story

“What do you do to capture stories with diverse perspectives?” I asked Abby, adding: “I’m guessing people from under-represented groups may not be inclined to speak with a white reporter at first.”

Abby said, “You’re right, people don’t always trust me. But that doesn’t mean the story shouldn’t be told.

After years of being belittled under the system of minimization, people of color, women and those who are differently abled may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss even when asked to speak up. As a result, it takes time to build a genuine relationship.

Abby explained, “As a white person, I have extra work to do – particularly with people from under-represented groups who are unaccustomed to being heard – to create a space where they feel safety and trust. It’s worth the investment of time, though, because I get to meet and talk with people I never would have known before, and Business Insider gets richer, more in-depth reporting.”

Thinking organizationally, Kuwilileni added that it’s huge “to not tokenize and to look around and see where you’re lacking in skill, background and culture in your own company. In our work, if we’re lacking culture, we’re missing money, because we’re missing an entire sector of the market.”

Teams and organizational leaders that acknowledge and support cultural differences and see them as an asset outperform organizations that are homogenous or minimize the differences of their diverse workers.(4) As an example, Kuwilileni said, “The highest-performing show on Business Insider is the most diverse; it’s called, ‘Still Standing.’ The show has a diverse network of freelancers all over the world who know what’s going on in their country, and they tell us because we’ve taken the time to build a trusting relationship with them.”

How to build trust

“How do you gain people’s trust?” I asked Abby. She said, “It takes courage. I straight up own my whiteness with new sources and how my cultural context can keep me from seeing other perspectives. I might say, ‘Because of my whiteness, I’m not likely going to see what it’s like for others. Would you mind telling me your perspective so that I can get a more complete story and share it with others who don’t know?’”

To build trust with others, it’s helpful to know that there are two types of trust, one from the head and one from the heart. Trust from the head, or cognitive trust, is based on the confidence that comes from knowing another person’s accomplishments, skills and reliability. Cognitive trust is built typically through business interactions and the conditions of the situation. A person works well, does good work and is consistent, so they are “trustworthy” – because people in dominant Western culture tend to rely heavily on cognitive trust.(5)

Trust from the heart, or affective trust, is based on feelings of closeness, empathy and friendship. This trust is built through sharing meals, drinks, coffee – social experiences. It’s typically less transactional than cognitive trust. Affective trust is built slowly over time. You share personal time and know one another on a deeper level.(5)

Abby has learned that she needs to develop both kinds of trust when she’s talking with anyone, but particularly people from non-dominant groups. She has learned she can slow down and shift away from the task-oriented, get-it-done behavior of the culture she represents and build a trusting relationship using both her head and heart.

Abby explained, “What I’ve learned is that it’s important to allow for unique reactions to questions I ask. For some people, being asked questions by a white woman can be a trigger of previous emotional trauma; whereas, for others, questions can be affirming of their experience. If someone is feeling tokenized as a result of my questions, I back off and affirm their feelings and respect their request to redirect the conversation or stop altogether. On the other hand, I’ve experienced people who want to be asked about their experience as a person of color or of an under-represented group, and I appreciate and affirm that too.”

When Abby and Kuwilileni express compassion for others within their particular contexts, they’re upending minimization; that’s cultural intelligence in action. It’s when they’re in conversation with people that they’re able to discern what people need to feel safe, and can adjust words and actions to show genuine respect.

Abby explained, “Each person, their experience and their reaction is unique. What’s important is to center the conversation around them, not me, that way they feel valued and heard.”

In any organization, tokenism hurts people of under-represented groups and it hurts the organization. However, diversity has meaning when dominant and non-dominant group member voices count, have influence and are seen as an asset. When members of all groups are working in cahoots, noticing and naming gaps, striving to create a culture where both historically dominant and non-dominant group members together feel heard and engaged, people feel valued, and organizations retain their people.   -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Who do you know in your network that would like to learn more about how to be a compassionate leader? Please share this link with them.


  1. Merriam Webster Dictionary:
  2. Deming, E. (2012) The System of Profound Knowledge. https://deming.org/demings-system-of-profound-knowledge/#:~:text=The%20System%20Of%20Profound%20Knowledge,theory%20of%20knowledge%20and%20psychology
  3. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  4. Distefano, J & Mazevski, M. (2012) “Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management.” Organizational Dynamics.
  5. Meyer, E (2014) The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. New York: PublicAffairs.
  6. Image: Fath, Randy. https://unsplash.com/photos/G1yhU1Ej-9A