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Sports Psychology

Tokenism in Fitness Spaces—What Is It and Why It’s Harmful

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Tokenism in Fitness Spaces—What Is It and Why It’s Harmful

Reading Time: 4 minutes 17 seconds

Over the past couple of years, but even more so within the past few months, companies have been awakening to the need for a focus on increased diversity and inclusion within their organizations and industries. It seems as if everyone is realizing that perhaps that they haven’t been as intentional about diversity as they would have liked. 

Even on social media, in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, there was a call to “highlight black voices.” While the intention was likely good, what ended up happening to many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) fitness professionals, is that that we found our inboxes and DMs flooded with requests from individuals with whom we had never interacted requesting appearances on podcasts, as guest speakers, or other opportunities looking to increase the diversity of individuals or companies.

For those on the receiving end of these requests, it felt a lot like they were being tokenized to meet the needs of others. Tokenism is defined as “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.” 

Representation, while super important, is only meaningful when it comes from a genuine place. So, while the intention may have been good, it felt inauthentic because the goal was to quickly create the appearance of more diversity or to quickly bandage the problem by performing token gestures without doing the necessary work to create meaningful true diversity and inclusion. Tokenism treats the work of diversity and inclusion like a checklist. It’s not enough just to make a minimal or symbolic effort to create the appearance of more diversity. It takes deep commitment to change and likely many difficult discussions and hard decisions along the way. 

As discussed in this article from Medium.com, Beyond Tokenism, tokenism is a misguided attempt at diversity. It’s what happens when we make quick-fix attempts instead of taking the time to slow down and ask some difficult questions such as:

  • Why don’t we have more diversity within our company and the fitness industry?
  • Why aren’t we elevating the work of BIPOC on a regular basis?
  • Why don’t we have POC or members of diverse backgrounds on our panels and at our conferences?
  • In what other ways have we fallen short in terms of diversity and inclusion and why?
  • Why hasn’t this been a priority for us?

So, here’s the real question: How do you do the work of diversity and inclusion without erring towards tokenism and making BIPOC or members of the LGBTQIA+ community uncomfortable? 

3 Ways to Avoid Tokenism

Here are three actionable steps you can put into practice today.

1. Be Honest 

In order to avoid tokenism, it’s completely necessary to take a step back and be honest about where your business and the fitness industry currently stand in terms of diversity. What does the diversity of your workplace staff look like at all levels - from entry-level to C-suite. When you can honestly discuss the current status of your organization, you can assess how much work you may need to actually do in order to achieve true diversity, the first step on the journey to inclusion and changing the status quo.

If you don’t like what you see, then you must own up to it and decide how and why you ended up where you currently are. Sometimes, these are hard realizations to face, but they are completely necessary. Commit to making diversity and inclusion a core part of your practice and set actionable steps towards doing that, whether it be education via books and webinars or hiring a consultant to help you jumpstart the process.

2. Don’t Treat Diversity Like A Box You Check

It's obvious when a company or individual is making an attempt to appear diverse or check off the diversity box by including one BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ person in their campaign or speak at an event. It feels cheap and artificial.

Don’t tokenize people to check your diversity box. Do the work required to actually be inclusive and recognize that true change takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight, particularly if you are just beginning the journey of creating a more inclusive space. If you catch yourself reaching out to someone because you don’t have anyone with their minority background currently working with you, take a moment to pause and question your motivations. More importantly, think about how the person on the receiving end of your request may feel.

3. Expand Your Social and Professional Circles

If the majority of the people in your social and professional circles look and act like you, try to diversify your life. Expand your circles to include people of varying race, sexual orientation, body size, and more. Without the power of a diverse circle, you can fall into the trap of groupthink, wherein everyone you know holds similar belief systems. In addition, you can fail to see the harmful effects of tokenism and racism if those in your circle don't have the lived experience of dealing with it.

While you seek to widen your group, remember to be mindful of tokenism. Seek to develop genuine relationships with BIPOC, not as an attempt to check the diversity box but as an opportunity to learn and grow. Most importantly, don't enter these new relationships with expectations for anyone to explain racism or share their experience with you. Enter the relationship because you have a genuine interest in making new connections. 

In the words of writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, "It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences." Engage with individuals different from yourself with a genuine appreciation and celebration, without expecting anything other than human connection in return. 


Even if you live in a homogenous area of the country, the fitness and wellness industry is about more than just in-person connections. Social media allows for connection and engagement with all different types of people, all over the world. Then, if you want to take it to the next level, sign up for ISSA’s Online Coach Certification—build an online fitness community that supports diversity and inclusivity as part of a holistic take on health and wellness.

Chrissy King

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