Literature Review for Project: Token

Draft (2) of Literature Review | Composed 10 April 2020

The following scholarship  strengthens a theoretical framework for combating tokenism on college campuses through creative, community narrative projects. 

Keywords: racism; cultural psychology; social inequality; tokenism; social ecology; higher education; biographical narrative interviews’ narrative questioning; the healing effects of storytelling 

Table of Contents: 

  • I. Introduction
  • II. The Social Ecology of Tokenism
  • III. The Reproduction of Tokenism
  • IV. Combating Tokenism through Storytelling

I. Introduction

Following the examples of Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander, you might argue that in a world where overt racial slurs and forms of segregation are no longer socially acceptable, expressions of racism become more subtle, often taking the form of microaggressions:  

the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group (Sue, Capodilupo, et. al., 2007). Perpetrators are usually unaware that they have engaged in an exchange that demeans the recipient of the communication.

Sue, D. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

The culture of silent pain, created by the conscious or commonly unconscious disregard for such occurrences, leaves those inflicted by such violence without support or acknowledgment. Through the efforts of four students at Davidson College, Project: Token began with the objective of targeting a specific subtle violence: racial tokenism on college campuses (beginning at Davidson College). 

Before initiating community outreach, Project: Token sought credible definitions of both tokenism and the token. As a social phenomenon, tokenism is the enactment of policies or practices in “only  a symbolic effort (as to desegregate) [or] to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly” (“Tokenism.”) Tokenism intentionally deceives onlookers with a false sense of equality, when in reality, disregarding the needs of minoritized populations. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her classic book on power dynamics in the workplace, Men and Women of the Corporation, provides an effective introductory definition of the token: 

Tokens are not merely deviants or people who are different from other group members along any one dimension. They are people identified by ascribed characteristics (master status such as sex, race…) or other characteristics that carry with them a set of assumptions about culture, status, and behavior highly salient for majority category members. They differ from dominants, not in ability to do a task or in acceptance or work norms, but in terms of secondary and informal assumptions. Tokens can never be just another organizational member while their category is so rare. […] In these contexts the word token reflects one’s distinctiveness in the context and status as a symbol of one’s kind.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. Men and Women of the Corporation. Basic Books, 2010.

In other words, tokenism provides the minoritized with opportunities, unequal in comparison to the well-serviced majority, and built upon the aesthetics of inadequacy. As a result, the token, those impacted by tokenism, experience an array of exploitation and social-psychological wounds inflicted upon their identity (i.e. the terminology “token”) and psyche.  Project: Token relied on both definitions to begin supporting students of color, specifically Black students, largely minoritized on private, predominantly white colleges. 

Racial tokenism originated in the 1960s as a social phenomenon in response to desegregation laws that advocated for the integration of Blacks into schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and additional public and private spaces (“Tokenism”). The social and racial climates of many predominantly white colleges and universities, especially private institutions, reflected the historical anti-black sentiments of larger society. Such attitudes have persisted today in many higher education institutions, if not blatant, then embedded in the culture, or represented by the non-diverse student-faculty demographics. Tokenism itself can continuously manifest in a variety of ways. Two common examples of tokenism on college campuses include 

1) the selective acknowledgement of the “successful minorities,” who then become the “website mascot,” or another commodified statistic for the school’s diversity quota and 

2) a scarcity of curricular, or extracurricular, resources (in and out of the classroom) by school’s claiming to practice progessive diversity and inclusion methods. 

The lack of substantial support for students of color compounds the distinct otherness felt by many minoritized populations. Without proper outlets for expressing such feelings, students of color can develop psychological ailments including imposter syndromes, inferiority complexes, repression, depression, and anxiety. As researchers from the National Public Radio (NPR) have shown, first generation students, for example, feel more discrimination, isolation, and loneliness. All these factors discourage belonging and social cohesion of the student body. On the other hand, students of color reporting higher levels of optimism also report higher levels of satisfaction which translates to improved performances in the classroom, extracurricular, and social life. Project: Token acknowledges and grapples with the dichotomy, or metaphorically, “both sides of coin,” seeking ways to bolster the positive experiences while mitigating the negative. 

Project: Token centers around the lack of expression experienced by students of color and offers a space to break from tokenistic facades. By first recognizing how easily institutions can strip agency from minority voices, Project: Token attempts to reclaim narratives. Therefore, community outreach began through a series of oral narrative interviews with the inaugural leg of participants at Davidson College, called “the original 17,” who brought context to an array of experiences, for example, a dominant sense of otherness felt by students of color navigating private, predominantly white college campuses. Additionally, the original 17 narratives revealed levels of comfort coexisting in the tension of alienation. By building relationships one person at a time, the growing community helped stimulate conversation about tokenism and the counter-narratives while spotlighting students of color thriving in ill-designed social environments. 

Moving forward with a focus on curating dichotomous and representative stories, each interview occurred where each participant felt most comfortable on Davidson College’s campus. Alongside the oral narrative interviews, community outreach continued with photoshoots at the respective locations. 

After three months of interviews and photoshoots, Project: Token mounted the community, student voices of faces of color, onto an art installation: three shadow boxes collectively ten feet high by twenty-four feet wide (10’ x 24’). The art installation stood for a single month defamiliarizing (disrupting the common aesthetics) and deterritorializing (reclaiming predominantly white space for the minoritized) Davidson College’s campus. Spatializing photographs and narrative texts onto an art installation allowed for visual confirmation of the struggles and triumphs experienced by students of color and often disregarded by the larger campus climate. Additionally, the space surrounding the art installation confronted onlookers with material evidence about racial tokenism. Onlookers could no longer consciously or unconsciously ignore minoritized truths or candid dialogue concerning racial tokenism. Ultimately, the emotional transparency of students of color sharing their narratives broadcasted a resounding message of resilience. 

II. The Social Ecology of Tokenism

Within the continued efforts for preserved and sustained dialogue, Project: Token has co-sponsored with various ethnic and artistic student organizations, and campus-wide inter-departmental projects, in the creation of narrative-based events. The objective has been to empower voices of color through additional visibility and acknowledgement. However, as the definition affirms, if tokenism relies on providing minoritized populations inequitable (access to) resources, within the aesthetic of false diversity, then Project: Token will require more effective social justice strategies to remove the scarcity or help correct the inadequacy. In “The Social Ecology of Tokenism in Higher Education,” Yolanda Flores Niemann argues that tokenism in higher education produces and reproduces itself through the interaction between student and faculty communities and social powers (including policies, discourses, aesthetics, and so on).  Niemann identifies institutional barriers including _____. Project: Token aligns _______ scope. The community outreach on Davidson College’s campus had largely occurred on the student level. The co-sponsored narrative based events had successfully brought students together in dialogue about racial tokenism. Project: Token had not yet developed a methodology for halting the production and reproduction of racial tokenism on an institutional scale (at the level of policy, campus-wide aesthetic, and so on). Whether by lack of legitimacy, scale, or opportunity, Project: Token’s efforts had been a bandaid on a larger institutional problem. 

In helping reconfigure a tokenistic culture, Project: Token sought a better understanding of the forces that produce tokenism and solutions for mitigating them. The field of social ecology, founded by the prominent 20th century ecologist Murray Bookchin, offers valuable insight into breaking down the hierarchical, authoritarian, power structures between human communities and nature to create a more sustainable environment (“What Is Social Ecology?”). Niemann relies on Bookchin’s societal views to diagnose the relationship between tokenism (as a community-bred social phenomenon) and the institution of higher education. 

Social ecology positions human beings equally within the larger global ecosystem and identifies dysfunctional human society and social issues, including racism, sexism, and classism, as damaging factors to all living organisms and the physical world we inhabit. The inextricable link between social issues and environmental damage demands more introspection and accountability from human societies. In healing environmental damage, social ecologists do not propose radical changes to human society. Rather, they seek to bolster communitarian approaches (the collective efforts between all organisms) within a firm practice of cooperation, collective action, and equality. (“What Is Social Ecology?”). 

The social ecology of tokenism, as Niemann proposes, posits Bookchin’s ideologies within the ecosystem of the academy or higher education institutions.  Niemann identifies human social issues (racism, sexism, classism, and so on) as the progenitors of tokenism, and as such, damaging to the minoritized populations who inhabit the academy. As previously stated in the introduction, the token, those impacted by tokenism, experience an array of social-psychological wounds inflicted upon their identity (i.e. the terminology “token”) and psyche. Detailing the breadth of the injury, Niemann list eight key effects of tokenism:

  1. Tokenism destroys the token’s agency.
  2. Tokenism produces tokens from the low numbers of the minoritized population. 
  3. Tokenism creates a dynamic of “the perceived and the perceiver” between the token and the majority population.
  4. Tokenism ignores the valuable intersections of identity and reduces the token to the more exploitable racial classifiers.
  5. Tokenism lumps the token with other similar racial groups and ignores individual distinction.
  6. Tokenism thrives within the everyday conscious, subconscious, or unconscious biases of the majority population.
  7. Tokenism in higher education thrives through intentional hiring practices that benefit the majority group.
  8. Tokenism can be overcome by the intentional efforts of the majority group. (_____________).

Project: Token has achieved valuable insights about the experiences of students of color from the original 17 narratives and co-sponsored narrative-based events. However, what’s lacking by the small sample size can be supplemented with a diagnostic understanding of tokenism’s effects. For example, tenet #4 contains an intriguing insight that even students of color, when seeking mentors or racial guidance, can tokenize faculty of color. The reduction of an individual to their racial identity will have detrimental effects even when framed in positive intentions. Due to tenet #4, Project: Token recognizes that even tokenized students of color may not be able to lean on tokenized faculty of color for support. Such an odd double-bind shows the urgency of combating tokenism through meaningful dialogue building between the hierarchies in higher education. 

Project: Token will rely on Niemann’s interconnected tenets not only in further review of participant narratives, but also when synthesizing new voices of color into an understanding of racial tokenism. Though each tenet informs the other, and combating racial tokenism would requires addressing each one, the insights gained from tenets #2, #7, and #8 hint at the potential for targeting tokenism on the demographic level. In her research Niemann establishes that tokenism can exist most blatantly when the minoritized population does not exceed 15% of the entire population. If tokenism requires that numerical threshold of 15% or less (tenet #2), then reforming tokenistic hiring practices (tenet #7). The approach would require mobilizing the majority group (tenet #8), would remove tokenism’s sustenance. Project: Token can develop more actionable steps, through a closer examination of the interconnected tenets, and activate community narratives in pursuit of tokenism reform. 

Due to Niemann’s research centering around the experiences of faculty of color, Project: Token has to  identify parallels between the experiences of students of color. When seeking social reform in the inherent hierarchy of the academy, students deferring to faculty, faculty working alongside staff, Project: Token recognizes the value of Niemann’s and Bookchin’s communitarian approaches. Institutional change will first require clear dialogue between all participating members of the higher education ecosystem. Actionable steps to changing a tokenistic culture can begin after comprehending, then understanding, the social-psychological effects that tokenism inflicts on the entirety of the minoritized community. 

III. The Reproduction of Tokenism.

Project: Token deals specifically in combating racial tokenism as opposed to tokenism based on gender or sexuality. Such an intentional distinction allows the project to center around identifiable ethnic minority populations, without ignoring their intersectionalities (or any additional identity classifications), and to focus dialogue around racialized experiences. Furthermore, due to tokenism’s various manifestations, which result in an array of social-psychological wounds, Project: Token narrows its scope to the production, reproduction, and impact of racism. In “Racism in the Structure of Everyday Worlds: A Cultural-Psychological Perspective,” Phia Salter, Glenn Adams, and Michael J. Perez argue that racism persists in the dominant culture not because of overt racial animus, but through entrenched systems of white privilege that reproduce themselves, often unconsciously. While Niemann speaks from the perspective of a social ecologist, and articulates many social phenomena (racism, sexism, classism, and so on) that produce tokenism, and negatively impact the token, Salter et al strengthens an understanding of racism’s persistence in the world. Project: Token establishes a bridge between Salter et al and Niemann’s sixth interconnected tenet of tokenism (broadly listed above though quoted directly here):

“tokenism does not necessarily arise from intentional prejudices of white persons or persons of color in the workplace, whose conscious and unconscious biases and perceptions are affected by the context (italics added)”

(Niemann 457)

Salter et al’s research confounds social-psychological thought with a cultural-psychological perspective that acknowledges racism, not only by its individual performance, but also the contexts that produce the in and out groups, the marginalized and dominant, the low status and privileged. In such a way, Salter et al supports Niemann’s communitarian investigation of tokenism reform. Within Project: Token’s continued efforts to reconfigure tokenistic cultures in higher education, thorough insights about the origin of racist culture will help advance tokenism reform into the institutional level.

The cultural-psychological terminology that Salter et al. introduces provides Project: Token with a vocabulary for understanding how students of color (the original 17 narratives & additional co-sponsorships) instill feelings associated with tokenism. The term “mutual constitution…the idea that psyche and culture are inseparable outgrowths of one another,” identifies two valuable social phenomena: 

  1. The environment will (re)create itself in the psyche, and the psyche (re)creates itself in the environment. 
  2. Racism exists as the simultaneous production of a racist environment and the structural foundation for the dynamic reproduction of racist action (Salter et al, 151). 

In other words, and in the context of tokenism in higher education, a compounding cycle occurs: a tokenistic environment produces both tokens and tokenizers; in return, both the  token and the tokenizer will recreate the same tokenistic environment. The art installation that spatialized voices and faces of color has been Project: Token’s most visible attempt at disrupting the cycle. The campus could no longer ignore the experiences of students of color due to heightened visibility. However, the art installation lasted only a month. The visibility boost continued in the co-sponsored narrative-based events that lasted temporarily. Salter et al’s vocabulary alludes back to the labor of tackling Niemann’s interconnected tenets. Project: Token will require more sustained disruption to help dismantle cycles of tokenism production and reproduction.

Project: Token must emphasize permanence because the violent nature of America’s colonial origin has been reproduced more sophisticatedly in new contemporary contexts. Salter et al illuminates the colonial cultural-psychological roots through the Marley Hypothesis that states, “white American students perceive little racism in U.S. society because they are relatively ignorant about critical historical knowledge” (Salter et al., 152). A culture of silence and disavowal has produced color-blind ideologies, “I don’t see color!,” or complete ignorance to history’s honest brutality. American culture promotes cultural tools of silence and disavowal (textbooks, museums, national holidays) to intentionally manipulate racial memory. Institutions for higher education could negate such complicit erasure. Once again, Niemann’s eighth tenet roughly states, tokenism can be overcome by the intentional efforts of the majority group. Salter et al echo Niemann with a candid cultural-psychological affirmation. Both Niemann and Salter et al challenge Project: Token to create honest, permanent, cultural artifacts informed by voices and faces of color. 

The cultural-psychological approach does not exclude social reform at the level of the individual, but assumes a greater responsibility for halting the reproduction of racist mentalities in culture. Salter et al pose a salient metaphor  to describe the approach: 

Rather than something extraordinary or rare, racism is akin to the water in which fish swim. […] A cultural-psychological approach suggests that the solution to the problem of racism is not to change the fish so that it can survive in toxic water but instead to change the water the fish has to live in. 

(Salter et al, 150, 153)

In order to change the waters of tokenism in higher education, Project: Token must practice more intentional cultural-psychological approaches and activate community narratives with the intent for institutional reform. Reiterating insights above, the approach will require substantial hierarchical dialogue in the academy, targeting the interconnected tenets of tokenism, and producing permanent cultural artifacts in opposition to silence and disavowal. 

IV. Combating Tokenism through Storytelling. 

Project: Token’s community outreach began with two students conducting a series of semi-conversational oral narrative interviews with the original 17 participants. Each oral narrative interview began with a single open suggestion to “speak your story” and occured on Davidson College’s campus at the participant’s selected “site of comfort.” Alongside the open-ended prompt, the interviewer guided the conversation with questions in response to the interviewee’s narration. The interview did not have a clear objective centered around themes of tokenism. Rather, Project: Token simply encouraged each participant to tell their story and focused on the cathartic act of storytelling. After a single session with the participant, lasting anywhere from thirty minutes to the two hours (all depending on the conversation), the interview closed and the interlocutors continued with a post-debrief. The original 17 narrative texts informed the inaugural leg to then jumpstart the conception of Project: Token. 

Though effective for the semester (the two students curated 17 oral narrative interviews in the span of eight weeks), the qualitative methodology could have been greatly improved. Firstly, the two students, one a college Sophomore and the other a college Senior at the time, possessed novice to intermediate social researching skills. Rather than inviting the participants into a formalized setting, Project: Token’s initial community outreach began improvisational and with more structure towards the final interviews (essentially as the student social researchers “got the hang of it”). Secondly, the semi-conversation interviews could have been supplemented with clearer guiding questions. The insights derived from each interview varied from participant to participant and reflected the detail of the conversation. The interviews lacked a clear thematic continuity centered around tokenism which resulted in both positive and negative consequences. 

Positively | Project: Token organically resembled a space for storytelling and invited participants into a “low stakes, low pressure” environment to speak their truths. 

Negatively | Qualitative data concerning experiences of tokenism may not have clearly appeared in each interview, or had to be carved out of the narrative text post-interview, by the project coordinator.

Thirdly, each interview occurred in a single session. With interviews ranging in length and varying in focus, a single session could by no means encapsulate the student’s entire life story, even in the semi-conversational model. After the original 17 oral narrative interviews, Project: Token ceased interviews to practice campus-wide community outreach through the co-sponsored development of narrative-based events. 

During the hiatus, the project coordinator began to address the critiques and seek a stronger qualitative method (eventually for the next wave of interviews). Gabriele Rosenthal’s article “The Healing Effect of Storytelling: On the Conditions of Curative Storytelling in the Context of Research and Counseling,” recollects her groundbreaking work in biographical case reconstruction using biographical-narrative interviews. Rosenthal provides psychological evidence, through her first-hand experiences interviewing trauma survivors, refugees, and asylum seekers, that biographical case reconstruction through storytelling, and generating a life story, empowers and restores agency to the traumatized. She notices that the past trauma, when materialized and made real through vocalization, exists in seamless continuity with the present, and thus becomes capable of overcoming. She notes that the first sign of trauma is the inability to speak about it: silence. As previously established by Niemann, and supported by Salter et al, the token experiences an array of social-psychological wounds (resulting from alienation, prejudice, and so on) to their psyche and identity which qualify as trauma. Within the biographical-narrative interview, and encouraging, and guiding, the interviewee to find a language for trauma, the act of speaking stimulates the curative process. In other words, speaking and acknowledging leads to healing. Storytelling, the act of acknowledgement, can offer an avenue to heal the trauma impressed onto the tokenized. Within a culture of silence and erasure, Project: Token comforts students of color, who may feel a lack agency (#1 of Niemann’s interconnected tenets), to speak their story, and thus challenge tokenistic environments. 

Rosenthal further identifies the immediate curative value of the biographical-narrative interview (healing that begins with the first interview), and the narrative-conversation-guiding method, for research and counseling purposes. All the while, Rosenthal continuously stresses the duty of a social researcher, also referred to as the interviewer or an interlocutor, to practice ethical interview strategies with care and consideration of the participant’s mental health. The article’s four sub-categories: 

  1. How to conduct a biographical narrative interview
  2. The main narration’s curative chances for coming to an understanding of oneself
  3. On the curative effects of directly asking the client to narrate
  4. Conversations during acute life crisis

effectively, and thoroughly, deconstruct the methodology, benefits, and limitations of the biographical-narrative interview (as if reading a how-to manual). Ultimately, Rosenthal stresses the careful utility of biographical-narrative techniques, and teaches social researchers how to cater those techniques to participants ranging from 1) being plagued with trauma to 2)  living in a stable life. No matter the degree of mental health damage experienced by the token, Project: Token must strengthen its qualitative method to cater specifically to the participant and their biography. 

Project: Token dealt, and will continue dealing, with college students commonly ranging from ages 18-21. In such a developmental period, transitioning from teenage years into young adulthood, a participant’s “life story” will not contain the breadth of Rosenthal’s participants, many in their late adulthood (40 and older). Some of the original 17 narratives ended shortly because the interlocutors ran out of things to speak about! Rosenthal’s methodology for conducting a biographical-narrative-interview would help Project: Token develop interviewers more proficient in stimulating the narration process. The phases of Rosenthal’s biographical-narrative approach apply several critical interventions for advancing the field of qualitative inquiry. 

  1. She encourages a preliminary session (the first phase) for constructing the interviewee’s “entire life story’s structure, or Gestalt, and the whole life narrative” before forming any social science research questions. The biographical-narrative interview’s curative value relies on the successful narration of the participant’s individual developmental phases, building trust, and establishing a space for intentional, deep listening, between the interlocutors. 
  2. The curative process continues (in the second phase) with the interviewer acting as a guide, or a medium, for generating narration. The interviewer does not intervene, or assert personal bias, onto the participant. Rather, through the careful employment of narrative-generating and questioning techniques, aids the participant in successfully remembering, (re)constructing, and articulating their biography. Rosenthal reframes the role of the interviewer as less extractive and more generative. 
  3. Especially noted through Rosenthal’s experiences interviewing refugees, the relationship between the interlocutors should extend beyond the interviews and into a realm of tangible, actionable support (i.e. additional resource provision or referral to mental health services). In such a way, Rosenthal’s views align with both Niemann’s and Salter et al’s concerning a communitarian approach, and coalition building between a variety of organizations, services, and resources,  for meaningful healing. 

Project: Token seamingly combined the three phases together with less efficiency. The original 17 interviews provided the biographer with an open space to tell their story. However, the interview quickly became guided by follow-up questions, rather than an uninterrupted session. Moreover, beyond the immediate warmth and support of providing a space for conversation, Project: Token could do much more resource provision. 

Already centered around empowering participant life stories, and attempting to mend the damage of tokenism through creative storytelling forms (photography, videography, poetry, and so on), relying on Rosenthal’s qualitative methodology, and acknowledging the curative process of biographical-interviews and biographical case reconstruction, will strengthen Project: Token with more effective, and intentional, interviewing methods.

In conclusion, moving forward with the intention of institutional reform, Project: Token will continue its effort in combating tokenism on college campuses through creative, community narrative strategies. With a final reiteration of core insights, the next phase of Project: Token will gather voices and faces of color, empowering them with curative biographical-interview methods. The cultural-psychological approach will activate community narratives with the intent for institutional reform, necessitating substantial hierarchical dialogue in the academy, targeting the interconnected tenets of tokenism, and producing permanent cultural artifacts in opposition to silence and disavowal. 

End of Literature Review.

Works Cited

Niemann, Yolanda Flores. “The Social Ecology of Tokenism in Higher Education.” Peace Review, vol. 28, no. 4, Oct. 2016, pp. 451–458. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10402659.2016.1237098.

Rosenthal, Gabriele. “The Healing Effects of Storytelling: On the Conditions of Curative Storytelling in the Context of Research and Counseling.” Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 9, no. 6, Dec. 2003, pp. 915–933, doi:10.1177/1077800403254888.

 Salter, Phia S., et al. “Racism in the Structure of Everyday Worlds: A Cultural-Psychological Perspective.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 27, no. 3, June 2018, pp. 150–155, doi:10.1177/0963721417724239.

“Tokenism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 27 Mar. 2020. 

“What Is Social Ecology?” Social Work Degree Guide,

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