Corporate Black Tokenism

Posted on October 16, 2008. Filed under: Academic Publishings, Corporate |

Jackson, Pamela Braboy; Peggy A. Thoits; Howard F. Taylor. Composition of the Workplace and Psychological Well-Being: The Effects of Tokenism on America’s Black Elite. Social Forces, Vol. 74, No. 2 (Dec., 1995), pgs. 543-557.

In evaluating work stress and psychological symptoms of token black employees, this article uses Rosabeth Kanter’s theory of proportional representation to determine the differences between gender and race and work related difficulties. Kanter’s theory “argues that individuals who occupy token positions in their work settings experience three sources of stress: performance pressures, boundary heightening, and role entrapment (543).” Leadership manifests itself through juggling the delicate balance between the personal and professional lives, but for token minorities, additional stress factors must be added in order to accurately reflect leadership access and capabilities in the workplace.

As workgroup dynamics research unfolds, it is evident that group demographics greatly influence the interactions of its members, and that its success is rooted in the perspective and accomplishments of its participants. “Research suggests that minority-group size affects attitudes, achievement, and the frequency and quantity of interpersonal contact between majority and minority group members (543).” As Kanter’s theory supposes, additional stress factors influence the interactions between majority and minority group members. With fewer minorities, they inherently exhibit token-like behaviors whereas groups with larger numbers of minority-group members, interpersonal dynamics enhance workplace performance and decrease stress factors.

Racial differences are experienced across all aspects of the workplace. As the authors suggest, minorities entering a white-male dominated environment will undergo racial categorization and stereotypes that must either be overcome or fulfilled. In fact, “Hughes…described the potential perpetuation of status conflict based on stereotyped expectations for behavior, highlighting the particular dilemmas faced by women and blacks who enter male and white occupations (544).” For this reason, women and minorities, including black women as well, are conditioned to operate according to their environments. These interactions are manifested through three different forms of workgroups in white-male dominated environments.

Workgroups vary among composition, either being fully mono-racial, slightly integrated, or as a fully diverse group. According to Kanter, these groups were labeled ‘uniform,’ ‘skewed,’ and ‘balanced.’ In uniform groups, the members are homogenous – meaning that they are assigned to the same gender and racial categories. Skewed groups have a small number of women and or racial minorities and are the majority remains in control, whereas balanced groups have an even split of diverse group members for both race and gender. However, in the skewed groups, thee minorities are seen as the token representatives of their race or gender, and are expected to experience higher levels of work stress and lower levels of performance.

In these groups, tokens experience three sources of stress; performance pressure, boundary heightening, and role entrapment. “Because their ‘differnetness’ is highly visible, tokens feel that they are always under scrutiny (545).” In order to compensate for expected failure, women and racial minorities must perform at higher levels in order to compete at a ‘level playing field.’ Because performance measures and evaluations are primary tools used to assess potential management, tokens must work diligently to prove their worth and strength, particularly since their careers are at stake. One key factor in this belief is that tokens believe that they are being evaluated more heavily by their master status than their performance, which results in either two effects; to overachieve in order to be recognized, or to avoid the spotlight by completing tasks as assigned as discretely as possible.

The second stress factor is boundary heightening. In order to demonstrate their affability, majority group members will either exaggerate their similarities or point out their differences in order to connect with group members. “Tokens are repeatedly reminded of their difference through jokes, interruptions, exclusion from informal activities, and various ‘loyalty tests’ (545).” This leaves tokens with limited options, including; either to isolate themselves from their counterparts, or to demonstrate their defining professional attributes in the pursuit of inclusion.

The third stress factor is role entrapment. This factor involves the application of stereotypes and behaviors onto tokens from majority members. Tokens are expected to behave under applied stereotypes and are evaluated accordingly, and consequentially, assume the inferior status prescribed by the majority. “Those who resist stereotyped roles are ‘trapped in a more militant stance than they might otherwise take’ (545).” These tokens deny token assimilation and stereotyping, resulting in a perceived aggressive stance against it. In either situation, they both hinder the perception and evaluation of token leadership. In order to succeed, tokens must undergo behavioral readjustments in the workplace.

These stress factors result in higher levels of distress for tokens in skewed and homogenous groups. “Black leaders who are outnumbered by whites in their work situations exhibit higher levels of distress than those in balanced situations in which blacks outnumber whites (550).” This social and statistical relationship holds true to gender tokens as well. In groups other than balanced, tokens exhibit these three stress factors, resulting in psychological and social hindrances, and thus, hindering their professional development.

In conclusion, as more blacks enter a workgroup, less stress factors are applied, which can also be applied to the gender model as well. Tokenism is an applicable model in all group interactions, contributing to increased levels of distress and decreased levels of performance and job evaluations.


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