Beyond the Count is one of few studies to gather data on the experiences of racism Jews of Color face. This racism, from microaggressions to overt challenges to the validity of their Jewish identities, is now represented in data and the written word. By learning what Beyond the Count teaches about the types of racism Jews of Color face, we can make decisions and take actions to better interrupt the cycle of racism.
In the survey, participants were asked to reflect on experiences of racism frequently experienced by Jews of Color. Of these experiences of racism, which were developed from themes in the qualitative interviews, one was tokenism. And 60% of participants said they have experienced it.
Tokenism, sometimes referred to as tokenization, is when People of Color are included or assumed to be included simply “because” of their race. Tokenism is present when (white) groups or organizations prioritize someone’s presence only for the usefulness in maintaining their own positive image or meeting a diversity goal rather than valuing and respecting the person as a full human being with specific, contributable expertise.
This type of inclusion of People of Color can be very superficial and lead white individuals in that group or organization to believe that People of Color are there only because it is required or expected, rather than seeing their inherent value. Token inclusion is sometimes touted by white individuals, groups, or organizations as “proof” that they are sufficiently antiracist and don’t need to make structural changes.
As the white Jewish community confronts the reality that Jews of Color have long been excluded from communal and institutional Jewish settings, many community members and organizations are seeking to include Jews of Color. While inclusion efforts must be made to counteract the inequities that persist in our community, efforts that rely on tokenism will not heal our racial wounds.
Jews of Color who participated in Beyond the Count shared some experiences of tokenism they have faced in the Jewish community. One African American woman in her 50s emphasized that having a single Person of Color in an organization is far too low of a bar for diversity, and that organizations have to consider how power is distributed.
“My Black face does not now make an organization diverse,” she began. “If it’s just me, or me and one other person, and if that’s what they’re calling diversity, they’ve got a much bigger problem. Because let’s look at your board, at your employees, at the people you serve. None of the people who have power in this organization look like me.”
Other Jews of Color have experienced tokenism by being showered with unwanted attention. A non-binary Black person in their 20s shared that they often feel that their struggles as a Person of Color are treated as “inspiring,” or that they are expected to shoulder the burden of educating their entire community. This participant said that a common response they receive when they speak out on racism they’ve faced is, “you’re really inspirational, teach me all you know.” This can feel tokenizing to a community member who may not want to take an educational role, and who may feel harmed by seeing how the systemic racism they’ve faced is reduced to an inspiring moment for white people who don’t experience the costs of racism.
Because tokenism is felt so widely among Jews of Color, it is shaping the extent to which Jews of Color feel a full sense of belonging or comfort in Jewish spaces. A non-binary Latinx person in their 20s shared, “The times I’ve attempted to make my identity as a POC [Person of Color] more visible in large Jewish groups, I’ve been met with significant tokenism or racism. So, I choose to be very selective about where is safe for me to show all of me.”
This participant quote highlights how tokenism maintains a racial divide in the community, often causing more direct harm to Jews of Color. An entry on tokenism from the Encyclopedia of Counseling says that tokenism can result in individuals feeling “dehumanized, stereotyped, marginalized, and depersonalized.” From superficial inclusion to romanticizing the struggles of racism, tokenism causes harm to Jews of Color in the community.
What can allies do to interrupt tokenism of Jews of Color in Jewish communities?
1. Don’t view Jews of Color and their experiences as unicorns.
Racism causes deep, intergenerational harm and trauma to People of Color in the United States, and stories of encountering racism or “beating the odds” should distress us, not inspire us. When you hear a Jewish Person of Color share their negative experience, focus on what structural changes could stop that experience from happening again.
2. Don’t prioritize a group or organization’s image over the wellbeing of Jews of Color.
For example, if a synagogue only has two members who are Jews of Color who are repeatedly asked to speak on their experiences, this might feel draining. Perhaps these community members don’t want to be spokespeople at all. It’s important to get to know all community members as their full selves without an expectation that Jews of Color need to speak at or lead events or need to shoulder the burden of transforming a community.
3. Don’t only think to include Jews of Color on topics of race and racism.
Jews of Color have vibrant and multifaceted Jewish and professional lives and can contribute to all elements of Jewish community. Perhaps a community member who is always asked to speak on racism actually wants to lead a challah baking class, learn Talmud, or join the Board Audit Committee. Assuming that Jews of Color should only be included on topics of race and racism can pigeonhole individuals rather than creating opportunities for them to express their full selves.
4. Don’t wait until last minute to “tack on” a single Jew of Color to existing programming.
Programming should be developed through a racial equity lens—ideally alongside Jews of Color—and for a multiracial community. Jews of Color shouldn’t just be included to uphold a positive image for a white organization but because, as their full selves, they bring inherent value to the program.
5. Work for structural change, not superficial inclusion.
Know that including Jews of Color in programming is just one small step, not the end goal, and that structural change hasn’t been attained until those in positions of power reflect our multiracial reality as a people.
Delgado-Romero, Edward A., and Eliza M. Wells. 2008. “Tokenism” pp. 1350 in Encyclopedia of Counseling.