Tokenism is not a substitute for inclusion

Elsa Maishman 6 May 2015

At a recent hustings event in Cambridge, five rival parliamentary candidates made a point of battling each other to boast the highest amount of supporters, candidates and representatives they had who were women or from minority backgrounds. It was the familiar barrage of clichés: ‘UKIP isn’t a racist party; our Commonwealth Spokesman is black!’ or ‘The Conservative Party no longer welcomes misogynists – our membership is over 40% women!’, as if including people with brown faces means you can’t perpetuate systematic structures of white privilege, or including women means you must be infallibly egalitarian with your eyes always fixed on gender equality.

Too often tokenism is a mask for box-ticking, an easy gesture to show that parties are ‘doing enough’ to combat the marginalization and symbolic violence inflicted upon minorities. And if we allow political candidates to get away with using reductive statistics about minority supporters as a substitute for genuine engagement with very real structural inequalities in the UK, we fail to be serious about combating those inequalities.

It just is not true that if she’s sufficiently clever and articulate, any black disabled woman will inevitably rise to prominence in UK politics. The starting position for people who are queer, female, disabled, working class, people of colour or immigrants – let alone an intersection of some or all of those groups – is simply not the same as the head start with which white cis straight men are blessed. That is a truth about how our society has always been. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and certainly an overhaul of systematic power relations might take generations. There is a case to be made, then, for the visibility of women and minorities in the highest echelons of political office. However, it has nothing to do with empty gestures of tokenism, and everything to do with action.

The visibility of a black woman as First Lady or, more provincially, of a gay man as Lib Dem candidate for South Cams, isn’t just symbolic. It can do something real. It can disrupt, however minimally, a trend of social injustice where white, cis, able-bodied heterosexual men are seen to be the paradigms of political leadership and, therefore, of power.  It changes what people think when they think of political representatives, so often captured in the aristocratic Great Statesman. It bucks a trend. It dismantles an unrelenting assumption that politics need not make a nod to minorities, that such nods are ‘PC-fetishism’ to show that 'the work is done’, and instead acts so as to raise consciousness, to remind us of how far we still have to go, to challenge the status quo.

Tokenism means including minority groups because it’s deemed politically correct or, moreover, politically advantageous, to do so. This inclusion of minorities leaves the existing power structures that harm women and minorities unchallenged, or at any rate barely wounded. Having a British-Pakistani Muslim Shadow Justice Minister regurgitate rhetoric of ‘cockroach’ migrants and ‘scrounging’ single mothers is just as damaging for the victims of that rhetoric as if it was said by the whiter-than-white Dave Cameron. So, let’s include minorities, but let’s not distract ourselves into thinking that the odd non-white face or trans* voice will change a system of systematic structural injustice before. Inclusion of women and social minorities is a laudable political project, but if parties are serious about combatting the domination of certain groups then they must go beyond simply boasting of token minority representatives.