Tokenism vs. Representation: How Can We Tell Them Apart?

January 18, 2021

Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests jolted the ballet world into action. All of a sudden, things that once “took time” instantaneously became easy fixes, like it was an episode of Oprah’s favorite things for Black people: “You get an opportunity, and you get an opportunity!” Much of this sudden, reactionary change has elicited high levels of skepticism, prompting the query: Is this true representation or is it merely tokenism?

There is empirical data that white people seldom keep their word when it comes to BIPOC individuals. Social justice (especially when it comes to Black people) has almost always been a trend, a tool wielded to benefit white people more in the end, and there usually is an end marked by a lull and a slow, silent rolling back of the majority of what has been accomplished.

In the early stages of addressing systemic racism, until companies have a proven track record, it will always be a “damned when you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Trust must be earned. Nothing done will be enough because it feels like trying to make an ocean out of a desert with an eye dropper.

That is not to say that there isn’t meaningful progress being made. We are in the midst of a global shift. Power is being redistributed, rules and criteria are being altered. The standards of what was once acceptable, or enough, no longer suffice. People are no longer just “grateful” to have a seat at the table—not only do they expect to eat, they want to help plan the menu. The truth is, we lack a suitable metric to measure this progress because we have never been here before.

What is “representation”? What exactly is “tokenism”? 

The Oxford Dictionary defines “tokenism” as “the practice or policy of making merely a token effort or granting only minimal concessions, especially to minority or suppressed groups.”

The complexity of the question “What qualifies as tokenism and what as representation?” rivals that of Blackness itself. There is often a conflation perhaps because representation is part and parcel of tokenism, making it difficult to discern one from the other, or at what point it shifts. What it looks like for the bystander may not be how it is experienced by the person in the situation.

It is important to note that the act of being the “only” or one of a few does not in and of itself amount to tokenism. Too often that assumption is made by the public and it is unfair, reductive and wounding to those holding those spaces. What determines tokenism depends more on why and how someone occupies the space.

This is where the process of diversification gets slippery, manufacturing conflicts of confidence for Black dancers who, like sacrificial lambs, may question the reasons they were hired, cast or promoted. Were they given an opportunity for their talent, or because they are Black, and in what measure? These are often the speculative whispers from colleagues, classmates, parents and patrons. It is a psychological head trip to which one will rarely get a satisfactory answer.

The way diversification is approached says everything. When the motivations are authentic, there will be respect, sensitivity and mindfulness; an effort to cultivate cultural competence will be made. This requires a great deal of humility. In order to be able to interact effectively with people of different cultures, racial and ethnic backgrounds, you have to admit that you have blind spots, and are ignorant of things and, more importantly, are desirous to learn. This requires engaging them as human beings, not just tools as a means to an end.

Faculty additions 

The recent hiring of full-time Black faculty members at Boston Ballet School (Andrea Long-Naidu), Pacific Northwest Ballet School (Ikolo Griffin), San Francisco Ballet School (Jason Ambrose) and School of American Ballet (Aesha Ash) all came to fruition during the COVID-19 crisis and the BLM reckonings. All four schools were part of the Equity Project’s 21-ballet-organization learning cohort—the three-year partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, Dance/USA and the International Association of Blacks in Dance that aimed to increase the presence of Blacks in ballet, onstage and off. (Full disclosure, I was a member of the design and facilitation team.) There were a number of school directors in the room, including BBS director Margaret Tracey, PNB’s Peter Boal (artistic director of both school and company), SFBS’s former administrator Andrea Yannone and director Patrick Armand, and SAB’s chairman of faculty Kay Mazzo.

One of the constant discussions was the importance of having representation on school faculties; it was drilled into their psyches. There were multiple conversations, and eventually the ball started rolling downhill. Unfortunately, the news of these faculty additions was only made public after last summer’s social media protests by Black ballet dancers, making them appear reactionary.

The announcements began with a cacophony of press about Ash’s appointment at SAB, which was met with underground backlash. Much like the overwhelming coverage about New York City Ballet’s first Black Marie in 2019, which other companies had been quietly and consistently doing for years (without fanfare), the jump over contrition and bolt towards heroism for many soured representation into tokenism. In contrast, when Balanchine took Arthur Mitchell into NYCB as its first Black principal dancer, Mitchell asked that there not be a press release heralding the advancement. Instead, he wanted simply to appear onstage as a matter of fact.

When you wave a flag too hard late in the game, and are overly pleased with the little you have done over decades, you get no pat on the back. Though pleased for Sister Ash, inherent distrust has the Black community sitting with its arms folded, watching and waiting to be served the pudding that holds the proof of change.

This is the flip side of the representation coin. Organizations can dust their hands off and feel good about the progress they have made, while the actual burden and responsibility of “representing” gets laid squarely on these new Black hires. Ironically, these Black instructors return to the space of racial isolation they inhabited as dancers, with one major difference: Now they are expected to be an agent of change.

With the media blitz around her being SAB’s first full-time Black faculty member, Ash is very clear when I ask her what her role is. “I am a teacher,” she says. “I am not there to transform the entire structure. I was hired to be a teacher and I am hyper-focused on being the best darn teacher that I can be.”

Ash, a slender Black woman, wears a black leotard and pants, with a high bun, plus silver hoops and necklace. She is walking in a studio, smiling.
Aesha Ash teaching at SAB

Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy SAB

Her refrain sounds exactly like most Black ballet dancers who just want to dance, but whose very presence is a statement of silent resistance to a centuries-old system of whiteness. With this lack of representation, coupled with the increased visibility via social media—whether intended or not—they are instantaneously branded as “role models,” and saddled with the pressure of expectations from the public at large, the Black community specifically, as well as their organization.

For these new faculty members, if and when their institutions make a faux pas, you can be certain the first question will be “Where were they?” When presented with this reality, Ash resolutely replies, “Let’s make it very clear that I’m not the executive director or the artistic director of the School of American Ballet. But if I see things that don’t look right to me, I’m absolutely going to feel very comfortable going in there and saying ‘This does not look right.’ ” She sees her role as a long-time member of the Alumni Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion as the space to do that.

Conversely, when asked what Ash’s role is, Mazzo replies—along with giving glowing compliments about Ash’s teaching abilities—”We feel that we hired an activist who wants to make more change,” referring to her creation of her Swan Dreams Project. “We’ll look to her for her perspective, her opinions or insights or feedback. It’ll carry an enormous amount of weight as we continue to evolve and learn. I think she might not even realize what that means.”

It could well be within this sliver of obfuscation that genuine representation can curdle into tokenism—the space where boundaries are unclear and assumptions are made. There has to be an agreement and clear boundaries with veto power enabling a person to control the way their Blackness, gender, sexual orientation or identity (in body and voice) are utilized both internally and externally for it not to wander into the realm of tokenism.

A person’s desire to participate (and to what degree) should not be assumed because they represent a particular demographic. Having your thoughts, feelings, experience and emotional labor taken into consideration is something that is often not afforded to marginalized people. Being granted the power of choice with regards to participation, though not the norm, would be equitable. In this way the truest measure of whether something is tokenizing lies with the person in the experience: If they have agency and are empowered, it matters little how things appear.

In extending the invitation to Andrea Long-Naidu to join the Boston Ballet School, director Margaret Tracey was clear: “I need someone like this to hold me accountable. Knowing Andrea’s commitment to supporting the Black student in the white ballet world made me think this is the kind of person I need on my team.” The discussions between the two solidified what feels like a developing partnership.

Long-Naidu is looking for a space that will allow her to stretch into her desire to be a part of the change, and influence the field’s push towards diversification. “I want to be at a high-level ballet institution where I am working with dancers, where I can make a difference,” she says. Over the past five years she has been stepping into her power, both as an educator and as an advocate. “I am finding my voice in this work. I want to be a part of helping predominantly white institutions be more welcoming for Black bodies.”

It helps that the two share history as former NYCB dancers, allowing for the uncomfortable dialogue necessary both for the learning curve and the strengthening of the new allyship. They align in their growth journeys: Tracey is prepared to receive radical feedback and Long-Naidu is ready to share. “Andrea is my first hire where I have shifted my focus from whether this outside person is a good fit for us to making sure that our environment is not stuck in a place that may not allow someone like her to fit in,” says Tracey.

Casting and marketing

We all want to see Black and brown dancers rise through the ranks. What we don’t want is Black dancers being cast when they are not ready, or prepared for a role just for a company to showcase it has them. This is the epitome of tokenism and sets dancers up to fail, a luxury, by virtue of their Blackness, they do not have. Blackness is held to a different standard so unlike their white peers, whose failings are their own, the “representation” Black dancers carry comes with the heavy burden of the entire race.

Artistic directors might not view it this way when casting, but being culturally competent would mean taking this into consideration. When fast-tracking a Black dancer, true equity would mean providing the extra support (technical and emotional) they might need to have them succeed. Hence, it’s not about what is normally done; it is about what is necessary in this instance.

Tokenism in casting can stigmatize the dancer amongst their peers and the artistic staff, setting off the cascade of whispering echoes of “They only got it because they are Black.” Even though white people have been getting opportunities because they are white for eons, it creates yet another level of isolation, stress and vulnerability in a Black dancer, potentially crippling both their confidence and their career.

Ballet organizations that have been actively working to educate and examine themselves, and are successfully expanding recruitment, increasing diversity in training pipelines, company rosters, faculties and administration, are grappling with how to best communicate progress without tooting their own horns too loudly. This is the space between a rock and a hard place; if they quietly go about their work, no one will know, and if they promote too heavily it could be perceived as pandering.

This culture shift demands transparency. Gone are the days of blind acceptance; the people demand receipts. Ballet has seldom had to explain itself, aloft at the pinnacle of the dance hierarchy, supported by centuries of tradition, the very act of “showing” deemed beneath it. Those days are on the wane.

The majority of ballet companies use the traditional rankings system. Star power is real, ballet lovers are loyalist, and marketing campaigns often follow suit by using images of principal artists or those performing lead roles. Hence, when most of your diversity (specifically Black dancers) resides in the corps de ballet, purposefully diverting from the marketing norms to telegraph the presence of nonwhite artists is by definition tokenism.

That is, of course, if marketing followed that hierarchy to begin with. When Tamara Rojo took the helm of English National Ballet in 2012, the company underwent a rebrand, highlighting ENB as a company that tells stories. Together with Heather Clark Charrington (director of marketing and communications since 2014), she transformed the promotional black-and-white backstage images into evocative art pieces capturing a moment, feeling or mood of a work. Together, Rojo and Charrington identify the dancer who can best capture it, regardless of rank or role. Many times there isn’t correlation between the dancer on the poster and the principals on the stage.

Ironically, this nonhierarchical norm had gone unnoticed until 2018, when the breathtakingly stunning poster of Swan Lake featuring Precious Adams was released, and comments about casting and tokenism were raised. This is a prime example of when righteous indignation based on assumptions and lack of knowledge results in possible collateral damage to the very person you are advocating for. If companies are expected to do better by their artists, then the public needs to check itself, as well.

We need new procedures and practices to check our work. If your whole marketing department is white, perhaps consider enlisting the eyes of nonwhite members of the organization or cultivating external critical friends to look through a different lens to vet images and copy. The trick is you have to trust and listen to their feedback.

COVID commissions

The call to give Black choreographers opportunities was right up there with the call for ballet teachers, and the excuse was the same: “We can’t find them.” It seems that the glow from the world being on fire illuminated the field such that suddenly Black choreographers could be seen raining from the sky like extraterrestrial squids in Watchmen.

Black folk have been in the game long enough to know that the majority of recent commissions are purely reactionary. “Of course when I received multiple commissions, it crossed my mind that it was in alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement…and being a Black woman I tick two boxes,” says Francesca Harper, who has eight commissions on deck. “I have been creating films since the beginning of my career—two of the companies came to me specifically because I can create something for film.”

However, the nagging question of Blackness versus talent conjures uncertainty. “You wonder, Are they really looking at me?” asks Harper. “Are they looking at my work? That, for me, is always a painful moment.”

The “it takes time” and “we can’t find” mantras are to some degree the by-product of a lackadaisical attitude. One can believe that these recent gestures are earnest attempts to right a wrong. But the ease with which it could have been done before (and was not) is insulting, and makes it look and feel like tokenism.

It always feels like when Black people’s houses are on fire, white folk can’t seem to find a cup of water to fill it, yet when their houses are ablaze, here we come with buckets and hoses, always in service. At this critical time when the world is operating in crisis mode and on the learning curve of working remotely and presenting digitally, it feels like Blackness is used as a convenient tool to get out of the diversity doghouse. The fact that these opportunities are being given with anemic budgets cannot be overlooked and one has to wonder if these commissions offer parity.

Black people are too familiar with this type of post-woke euphoria, white guilt and shame married to a need to save face, creating just enough access and opportunity to smother the flames. Then, slowly, things begin to settle pretty much where they were before.

That being said, this time feels different (though we say that every time) because the landscape and the rules have changed. Increased exposure, transparency, the power of influencers’ individual platforms and call-out culture all make it possible for anyone to write or contribute to the narrative. This collaborative quilt of divergent perspectives, which in time will become history, will now include more voices and experiences, forming a mosaic revealing a more comprehensive picture.

The work that ballet is attempting is a process, not a project. As to whether or not this is sustainable representation or mere tokenism, only time will tell.

Theresa Ruth Howard, founder of MoBBallet,
has worked as a consultant at Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet. This piece is a companion to her piece in Dance Magazine’s March issue,
“What Makes It So Hard to Diversify Ballet Faculties?”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece included an anecdote and quotes from Darrell Grand Moultrie. They have since been removed because Moultrie felt they did not accurately represent his opinions.