People of Color Aren’t Just Tokenized in Nonprofits, It Happens in Schools, Too

“We haven’t been sending you any Black candidates, well, because you’re Black.”

After reading an article by Helen Kim Ho, I couldn’t help but to think of this quote made by a central office staffer many years ago. It was made as my school leadership team and I (the principal) confronted the staffer about the lack of candidates of color we were seeing. If I started the meeting incensed, this remark left me enraged.

Throughout my 15 years as a principal, Black water cooler conversations have included the existing tokenism in education. So, when I recently read “8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits” by Helen, I could not help but reflect on how this variation of racism played out in our schools and districts across the country.

“He’ll keep on granting tokenism; a few big Negroes will get big jobs, but the Black masses will catch hell …”—Malcolm x

While many of us reimagine education, we must also reimagine what being wholly committed to anti-racist thoughts, trends, and actions actually look like. The examples shared by Helen in relation to non-profits directly correlates with the Black experience in schools and districts. Schools operate as non-profits, so the parallels are deep and contiguous.

There’s a type of racism in the workplace many of us have personally witnessed, perpetrated or experienced: tokenism. Nowhere have I seen this play out more than in the nonprofit space.

Tokenism is, simply, covert racism. Racism requires those in power to maintain their privilege by exercising social, economic and/or political muscle against people of color (POC). Tokenism achieves the same while giving those in power the appearance of being non-racist and even champions of diversity because they recruit and use POC as racialized props.

But how can a sector dedicated to the common good fail at being the most diverse, safe and woke-est place imaginable?

The work of educators of color calls for battling and resisting on all fronts. While working to reimagine what education has typically meant in Black communities, we must also hold accountable those who claim allyship and collaborative relationships in this work.

Tokenism is as rampant in “Ed reform” circles as it is in other non-profits doing work in largely Black and Brown communities. Therefore, resistance will always be a full-time job.

“Tokenism does not change stereotypes of social systems but works to preserve them, since it dulls the revolutionary impulse.”—Mary Daly

Erin Johnson, a friend, colleague, active freedom fighter, and a racial equity coach and facilitator who helps leaders in education and social justice organizations boldly interrupt racial inequity, shared these words in an email to Black and Brown educators that was full of warnings, reminders, love, and encouragement:

Greetings and Happy Friday!

I would like to share some resources with you that will hopefully spark courageous conversations in your organizations and communities. My purpose for sharing articles and blogs is to provide insight into experiences that people may not always feel comfortable sharing. I also hope to start dialogue that leads to healing from trauma, authentic relationships, action, and change. 

Exploring Fear and Shame

For many people of color in non-profit, and especially in education-focused organizations, speaking truth about issues of race and equity can have harmful consequences and potentially perpetuate trauma and lead to retaliation including social isolation, loss of credibility and even employment. 

We are often silent and fearful of the responses of white people. We may even fear the responses of other people of color that come from shame and fear. Yet, our silence doesn’t stop the inequity. 

We also fear that nothing will change, so we become apathetic and/or hopeless. These emotions are the result of oppression, and we have the power to change how we feel and act. 

Healing, Agency, and Action 

Tokenism represents two sides of the coin of systemic oppression: internalized dominance for white people and internalized oppression for people of color. It is important for people of color to recognize and heal from internalized oppression when it keeps us silent and isolated in the face of oppression within our organizations- especially since many of us work in organizations serving people of color.  When this happens, we can find our voices, sense of agency and ability to have authentic relationships that validate our humanity. 

Here are a few of resources that can spark a deeper and more nuanced conversation about racial dynamics that may harm people of color, relationships, and organizational culture.

What is internalized oppression? (Racial Equity Tools)

Healing from the Effects of Internalized Oppression (Community Tool Box)

Compassionate Activism – Healing from Internalized Oppression (Compassionate Activism)

Erin further reminded us (Black and Brown educators) to remember a few things:

  1. Take care of your hearts so you can lead from a place of compassion for yourself (first) and others.
  2. You have the power and agency to achieve your goals for equity and make the change you want to see in the world.
  3. You deserve to be loved and to have authentic relationships.
  4. When we see and speak the truth with love and compassion, we have all the tools we need to take action and lead for equity.

With love and solidarity,


Erin’s explicit message for educators of color to notice and interrupt the patterns of tokenism and the ways we are used and exploited is vital. Her email to us is NOT to be mistaken as a message saying that tokenism is the fault of people of color who couldn’t speak up and challenge it.

Erin Trent Johnson and I will collaborate on a future post that explores the the ways in which white peoples’ internalized dominance permits them to exploit, tokenize, and use Black and Brown people in education reform. This future post will be specifically dedicated to address the work that White people need to do to stop tokenism in ed reform. 

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.



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