Home News Center Anti-Racism Resource: Addressing the Token Organization

Anti-Racism Resource: Addressing the Token Organization

September 29, 2020
Courtney McSwain

This month, we’re continuing our breakdown of the Western States Center’s anti-racist organizational development tool in an effort to help NJJN members work towards adopting a truly anti-racist advocacy model. As outlined in the Western State Center’s assessment, organizations enter the anti-racist advocacy work at various stages. Last month, we highlighted the “All White Club,” which characterizes nonprofit organizations that – though unintentionally – have excluded people of color from their operations and decision-making. This month, we’re looking at the “Token” Organization. 

Organizations that fit into the “Token category are characterized as: 

The Affirmative Action or Token Organization is committed to eliminating discrimination in hiring and promotion. The Affirmative Action or Token Organization sets clear affirmative action goals, clear and unambiguous job qualifications and criteria, a percentage of people of color who need to be in a candidate pool for a new job, and a bias-reduced interview process. Staff and board are encouraged to reduce and/or eliminate their prejudice and the organization may conduct prejudice reduction workshops toward this end. There may be one or two people of color in leadership positions. For people of color, coming into the organization feels like little more than tokenism. The Affirmative Action oToken Organization is still basically a white club except it now includes structural and legal means to bring people of color in. 

- Western States Center Anti-Racist Organizational Development Resource Book 

The primary difference between the “All White Club” and the “Token” organization is those in the latter see equity through the lens of hiring, but do not necessarily pair new hiring practices with power analysis. Decision-making at “Token” organizations continues to be concentrated among a mostly white leadership. Positions occupied by people of color have high turnover and usually wield little power to create significant organizational change. Further, when discussing race, a focus is placed on reducing personal feelings of prejudice rather than addressing systemic oppression.  
Why don't “Token” organizations go far enough?  

Redressing hiring and operational practices toward diversity and inclusion are important steps to putting more people of color and system-impacted individuals in positions to lead the youth justice movement. However, we must be careful that our efforts amount to more than mere tokenism that doesn’t lead to fundamental change in how we approach our work. We must take the important next step to understand the root causes of oppression, and how even our organizational structures can recreate that oppression despite our best intentions.  

If your organization finds itself at the “Token” stage, now is the time to look at how decisions are made, who holds authority, and how to cultivate real opportunities for people of color to drive systems change.   

Further Reading:  

<- Go Back