In my first term in DLSU, when I was still getting to know the people in my block, assumptions were immediately made of myself and the other two people in the block who are also Chinese. I recall a time when my classmates asked one of them how to say her Chinese name. She replied, and they then kept using the name all day to address her, all while refusing to acknowledge her insistence that they pronounce it correctly.
We were shoehorned into certain tropes and were expected to live by their expectations. Before they could even know how well we’d do in class, we were expected to get the highest grades. People would joke about us eating dogs. They would tease us by saying we’d get to school by helicopter because we’re rich. All of these occurred in the first few months of my stay at DLSU. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the people in my block have bad intentions. I think they don’t know any better and are so used to the toxic status quo society has set for us. While I could go on and on about why racism is wrong and why people should change their mindsets, I want to focus on the reason why racism runs rampant in our lives nowadays. In my humble opinion, the answer to that question is because of tokenism and its extensiveness in our lives nowadays.
That thing called Tokenism
Tokenism is something that’s not uncommon to our society; it’s something that is prevalent and blatant, and goes over the heads of so many. The practice of handpicking people from certain races or those who have certain sexual orientations is everywhere in the world today, particularly in the media. Movies and television are filled to the brim with people from minority groups, shoehorned in to represent their entire race.
Some forms of tokenism have become so common that we are familiar with the clichés and tropes that follow them. We’ve all seen the gay best friend, or the African-American guy who dies first, or the nerdy-smart Asian kid somewhere on our screens at one point in our lives. It’s a way for big-shot studios and writers to say that they’re combatting racism and promoting diversity in their work.
It’s ridiculous. Contrary to what many may think, however, tokenism is not the opposite of racism, but far from it. It deprives members of minority groups of power and reduces them to whatever tropes mainstream media need them to fill in. It reduces these people to mere prizes—tokens—that provide no purpose whatsoever to the story it’s telling and are there to portray a false sense of equality and variety between groups when there really isn’t.
I asked Luigi Gonzales, a Filipino director who taught film electives for a few years in Xavier School, about his take on tokenism in the Philippine media. After expressing his opinion that tokenism is extremely prevalent in the industry, he went on to explain why he feels that this is the case.
“Like with most elements of storytelling, tokenism has to do with who’s telling the story. The Philippines is a melting pot of a multitude of cultures, and if a film resorts to tokenism to paint its world, what do you think that says about the writer?” Luigi says. “Filipinos are very racist if you haven’t noticed.”
Philippine social media has recently hyped up the emergence of Rita Gabiola (the PBB Badjao Girl) and Jeyrick Sigmaton (the Carrot Man), so much so that they were, at one point, some of the hottest topics in the country. These people, however, are products of tokenism at its very worst.
Rita was cast into Pinoy Big Brother, but was kicked out immediately after via elimination. Jeyrick, after gaining popularity from candid pictures taken of him, was signed up by Boardwalk to be their brand’s spokesman. These people are being taken as representatives of their entire ethnicity and are not allowed to express any aspect of their own characters beyond their looks and the shallowest facets of their backgrounds.
Beyond the scope of the Philippine scene, there are also popular movies and shows that exhibit tokenism, which only make the problem worse. Such movies include the movies X-Men: First Class (in the character of Darwin) and Pitch Perfect (in the character of Cynthia Rose). The TV show Glee (in Asians Mike and Tina and Charice Pempengco’s portrayal of Sunshine Corazon) is also guilty of tokenism.
These characters create the illusion that the casts of these movies and shows are diverse, but the characters serve little to no purpose in shaping the story. For the most part, these characters’ growths remain stagnant, and the stories told by these forms of media would have ended in more or less the same way had these characters not been in it. They are otherwise mere tokens, there to serve as a symbol of a fallacious way of thinking.
The effects of Tokenism
Tokenism holds us back and has been doing so for the longest time. People are so hung up on stereotypes that were established so long ago. To this day, people are expected to play into these roles based purely on their skin color or sexual orientations. It sets a standard for people, telling them that it’s okay to put these people into these boxes because any two people who are alike are perfectly identical.
It’s a disgrace to minority groups who truly deserve real representation, one that represents them as living, breathing people with hopes, dreams, and stories of their own. It’s crazy how in a world where female empowerment, LGBT rights, and other social issues are being cast into the light, people still choose to look over a long-standing problem.
Tokenism isn’t just a problem for minority groups wrongly represented but a problem for everyone. It creates an unrealistic view of the world, limits the capabilities we as human beings can explore, and prevents a variety of role models from ever having their time in the light. Ditching the ignorance that allows for tokenism to fester should be a huge priority for everyone. Without age-old stereotypes and false representation holding us back, the possibilities are endless.
Imagine a world where the greatest minds from all nations can come together and make massive strides without being held back by roles typecast for them. Imagine a world where the most creative storytellers can weave tales imbued with aspects of different cultures from all around the world, enlightening a massive audience while also captivating hearts and minds everywhere. Imagine a world where two people from different upbringings and cultures can meet for the first time, each not knowing anything about the other, but can have open-minds about the stories they can tell without immediately placing each other in a pre-assigned box. Imagine what we could do; what we could learn.
Tokenism has been alive for so long that this utopia feels like a distant dream. At the same time, I believe the dream is reachable. Should we get our heads out of the holes we dug them into and learn to challenge our expectations of others, the distance to reaching this dream will surely be closed down at a rapid pace.
It costs nothing to hope, and so for the sake of the world and the potential that may go to waste should we continue the path we are on, I keep the hope of seeing a dream come to fruition alive.