Appropriating the protest, a tale of tokenism.

Appropriating the protest, a tale of tokenism.

By Pam Plaschek.

In 1963, human rights activist Malcolm X said, “The American negro is nothing but a political football and the white liberals control this ball. Through tricks, tokenism, and false promises of integration and civil rights…, ”1 He is talking about tokenism, a phenomenon where a minority group is used symbolically, only to achieve the diversity quota or to appear more diverse. This happens, for example, within a company, a film or on a photo for an advertisement.  Almost 50 years ago, Malcolm X talked about American politics, the importance of black representation in voting and political party involvement. Malcolm X wanted to be more than a representation of.

Today tokenism is just as present - if not more present. There is more and more advertising and through social media you get more images and information than ever before. Protest is also used as a token, to make a company appear emancipated and woke2. Only to sell more and to keep up with the current trends.

For example, Blackout Tuesday3, posting a black square on your Instagram and for the rest of the day you don’t post. This is meant to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020.  Just about everyone participated, individuals, celebrities and companies such as Nike, TikTok, Twitter and Zara. Now you may be wondering what a company like Zara (or any other multinational) actually does to help with black emancipation and equal human rights. A company with approximately a market value of 14.7 billion4. But also a company that has been accused, several times, of exploiting their tailors in Morocco and producing clothing in China’s “re-education” camps, where the Uyghurs aren’t treated like humans with rights. 5A symbolic black square on Instagram for the American and European market, while, on the other side of the world exploitation and violation of human rights keeps on happening.

Another example of protest tokenism within large companies can be found in sport, Formula 1. First of all, Formula 1 is one of the most, if not the most privileged sports there is. On the site of Red-Bull, the sponsor of the Dutch Formula 1 driver, Max Verstappen, there is a short summary with nice gifs; How to become a Formula 1 driver. It starts with karting, which costs about 14 euros per 10 minutes. You have to practice a lot (and get good). Further on you have to find sponsors, otherwise you cannot afford it, if you could already afford the karting itself. Bottom line, only wealthy people can become a Formula 1 driver. The sponsors of the formula 1 have a track record as well. You have shell, one of the biggest co2 emitters there is6, Amarco, a company that drills oil and Emirates, an airline company. Companies that you absolutely cannot call sustainable and we haven’t even mentioned the formula 1 cars themselves.

Twenty days after #blackouttuesday, where Formula 1 also participated with a post about racism, they launched a campaign called #weraceasone7. A campaign to meet the challenges of Covid-19 and against inequality in the world. The first question is, how? You won't get equality with nice hashtags and little rainbow flags on Formula 1 cars. The FIA (the governing body of the racing world) shared on Instagram8 how they will approach this; Conduct research about more diversity in the programs that move on to Formula 1; Make karting more accessible; Inclusion and diversity in the media and educational programs where they want to inspire young people from all different backgrounds to race.

Besides that it’s a fairly superficial plan and other groups, for example women or people with a disability, aren’t  even mentioned. It is also very typical that these campaigns only appear when the protests are already happening, only when “the media” is already paying attention.  But when push comes to shove and one of the few black drivers, Louis Hamilton, is wearing a shirt that says: “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”, there is no room for politics9. Only  diversity and anti-racism tactics devised by white men in power apply. This leaves me wondering whether such a good looking campaign is not just symbolic, a token.

Formula 1 and a large sized company like Zara are not necessarily known as organizations who are super involved and woke. Formula 1 is known as a sport for tough men and  Zara as a fast fashion clothing store with a lot of profit. But even in places where the prejudice is left and committed, tokenism occurs. On June 15, 2020, an open letter appeared in the Theaterkrant10, signed by more than 600 art professionals. The title: “Wij zien jullie witte kunst- en cultuursector”. This letter expresses dissatisfaction about the way in which diversity and inclusion are dealt with. They write: “We see how policy and programming discolor diversity with homeopathic drops, but the core of the sector - boards, management, artistic direction - remains snow white. We see how that snow-white core is - and remains - the measure of all things. We see you ”.* A different place, world, like Formula 1, but the same structures; white policymakers who make the rules for inclusion and anti-racism campaigns. Tokenism is present in all corners of society.

But is tokenism necessarily bad? Aldith Hunkar, former presenter of Het Jeugdjournaal (Dutch news for children), says about tokenism in the podcast Grrrls11: “If you need a token, give me a call, but let's not pretend that doesn't play any part in your decision to choose me. Because if we do discuss it openly you can get much more value from it.”* The creator of the same podcast, Roufaida, has another example, her collaboration with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. They were looking for a Moroccan singer, in addition to three other ethnicities. This collaboration6 with almost all white musicians and almost all white conductors7 was well-intentioned, but for Roufaida it didn't feel right. By speaking out, the proposal changed, with this new concept Roufaida agreed.

The feeling here by is an ambiguous one. Roufaida who has spoken out is incredibly brave and has actually made a difference. Aldith has also found her place in Het Jeugdjournaal and NOS news to speak out about her perspective on diversity. Does this mean that  “the”minority should always speak up? Many people in minority groups could be oppressed and may not be able to speal out. Zara's and the Formula 1 token like behaviour, doesn’t change overnight, even when research shows they exploit people, even when the media writes about it.

What might have crossed your mind: at least these companies do something, isn’t that worth anything? Otherwise these companies only exploited people and emitted CO2 without doing anything about social inequality. Although I am afraid that appropriating the protest, using a token to keep up appearances, will do more harm than good. People may start to think that they are doing something good for the world but in reality it does far from. Perhaps we are exhausting the people we deploy to be tokens and speaking out against white men in power becomes more difficult due to the pretence of doing right.

I don’t know where structural change does begin, at least not with the token diversity in appropriated protests from the multinational.

Written by Pam Plaschek, 2021.


*translated by the author


1 Malcolm X, White Liberals and Conservatives, 1963, 2017?, youtube, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020,

2Wat het betekent om woke te zijn, FunX, 7 augustus 2017, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020,

3Zwarte vierkanten overspoelen sociale media in kader van 'Blackout Tuesday', NOS, 2 juni 2020, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020,

4Zara's brand value worldwide from 2016 to 2019, Statista, januari 2019, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020,,billion%20U.S.%20dollars%20in%202016

5Vicky Xiuzhong Xu , Danielle Cave , Dr James Leibold , Kelsey Munro & Nathan Ruser, Uyghurs for sale, Australian strategic policy institute, 1 maart 2020, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020,

6GROTE VERVUILERS Een selectie door Greenpeace, Greenpeace NL, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020, 

7Formula 1 launches #WeRaceAsOne initiative to fight challenges of COVID-19 and global inequality, F1, 22 juni 2020, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020, 

8F1, Instagram, 25 juni 2020, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020, 

9FIA verbiedt speciale shirts na protest Hamilton, RTL Nieuws, 27 september 2020, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020,

11OPEN BRIEF VAN 600+ KUNSTPROFESSIONALS: WIJ ZIEN JULLIE, WITTE KUNST- EN CULTUURSECTOR, Theaterkrant,  15 juni 2020, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020,

12Roufaida Aboutaleb, Tokenisme, gelijkheid en integriteit met Aldith Hunkar, GRRRLS, 14 mei 2020, geraadpleegd op 21-11-2020,