How to Avoid Tokenism in the Wedding Industry

Guest pulling fun faces poking out tongues at wedding

SO diversity is clearly “on trend” at the moment and as a campaigner for diversity I am being tagged, emailed and pulled into multiple dialogues from readers and colleagues who are feeling a little jaded about businesses using the current “diversity movement” and tokenising.

So, I thought I’d interrupt the usual wedding pretty, to address this little matter, especially because most people don’t know when they are tokenising and most don’t understand the negative impact it has.

Are you ready? Let’s go.

As a person of colour, someone within a minority group, you can sense when someone is authentically trying to engage with you and those who are trying to use you to make their brand look better a mile off and it either draws you in, or it repels.  One of the things I love about using my professional background in equality, disability and mental health is that I get to work with epic businesses and educate about diversity and share stories of other couples in underrepresented groups and their experience of the wedding industry and how tokenism affects them.  Tokenism is a subject that comes up with my readers and with businesses time and time again and is one of the most popular topics in my workshops.

multicultural wedding couple having fun with wine on the dancefloorPhotography: Emma and Rich

Couples deserve more than being “used” to make wedding businesses portfolios look better.

They deserve more than being used so that brands can appear to be current and ‘on trend’ which is what generally causes offence when these same brands have previously appeared to care very little about diversity.

SO what exactly is tokenism and how you can avoid it?

What is tokenism?

Photography: Babb Photo

Tokenism: The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups, for example; in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality in the workplace.

In a nutshell, tokenism is diversity on a superficial level without the inclusion part. It is in the absence of consistently making the effort to include people in underrepresented groups. It’s being aesthetically diverse, but not attitudinally diverse. It is without any effort or desire to help improve the lives of people in minority groups who experience inequality or discrimination everyday.

Am I saying we all need to become justice seekers? (Whilst that would be amazing) No. But it’s all in our intention.

Common barriers and how to overcome

groom in a wheelchair kissing bride kneeling down Photography: Wild Connections Photography

1. Challenge: Fear

There is a real fear for many business owners of getting it wrong, of causing offence and even of tokenising.

A fear that putting out specific casting calls for people in minority groups will discriminate against people in majority groups. This fear actually gets in the way of making any progress to diversify our business in the first place.

Solution: Confront your fear

little girl in lilac dress playing games at weddingPhotography: Hannah Hall

The whole concept of the Equalities Act 2010 is to promote equality.  The Equalities Act 2010 legally protects people from underrepresented groups from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society (e.g: Age, race, disability, religion, gender reassignment, sex, sexual orientation). If you are consciously doing something to improve the experience, better include, provide more work, more opportunity for people in underrepresented groups to enable equality – this is OK and one of the sole reasons the Equalities Act 2010 is in place! Advocating for equality for an underrepresented group does not automatically mean inequality for a majority group. Let go of your guilt.

If your fear is governed because you are not sure how to include people without tokenising – read on!

2. Challenge: I don’t have a diverse portfolio

two men kissing on their wedding day in a barnPhotography: Louise Adby

These are common barriers I hear time and time again:

“1. I only have white heterosexual couples in my portfolio. 2. Diverse couples don’t enquire with me. OR 3. I’ve had some diverse weddings, but the couple wants to remain private, so I can’t share it on my website”

As suppliers, we are here to provide a service for our couples,  once that service is provided our job is done. They don’t owe us anything. It is not our couples jobs to make our businesses look more diverse. That is our job.

Solution: Be proactive

lady wearing red dress dancingPhotography: Emma and Rich

If you need to diversify your portfolio be proactive, don’t expect people to submit to you. I have readers who are so frustrated with being excluded from the industry they will intentionally choose to only work with suppliers who are representative of them in their portfolio.

Check yourself. Do you take time to stand up for underrepresented communities in all walks of life when you see injustice on or offline. If you’re a wedding professional in a wedding group and stand by instead of being an active ally when things get heated, but in the same breath post about looking for certain couples to expand YOUR portfolio;  if the community you wish to highlight gets minimal benefit for this, then there is more work to do – Sue Ann Simon

If you have cultivated an environment that has typically not included, for example; people of colour, or people in the LGBTQ+ community,  why do you expect them to suddenly fall head over heels with your brand and flood your inbox with submissions or enquiries? You have to cultivate it, consistently.

black and white photo of multicultural wedding couple on a bridge smilingPhotography:  Bridle Photography

Here’s a tip or two on me: If you’re a photographer and you want more multicultural or LGBTQ+ weddings, diversify your network. Build relationships with suppliers who already serve that community, consider offering a couples shoot as a competition in the community and work with a publication that serves that niche to get your message out. Get creative –  you’re creatives, right?

Ps. Styled shoots can be helpful, but I would err on the side of caution of orchestrating a styled shoot with models who are not in the LGBTQ+ community and are not comfortable posing as such, as it looks contrived and can come across as tokenistic, so consider using real couples instead. Be intentional, be authentic, be transparent.


3. Challenge: Labelling

bride having fun with groom smoking cigar on shouldersPhotography: Liz Wan

SO many people contact me feeling extremely conflicted about “labelling” couples in minority groups….

If equality is our desired state, why do we need to label – shouldn’t we be treating everyone the same? This is a common concern I receive with keywords:

“I don’t want to label “black bride”, I just want to call her “a bride”, you wouldn’t label a bride “white bride” so why make people stand out –  isn’t that the opposite of being inclusive?”

I understand this conflict. If this statement mirrors your thoughts, the point to remember is, you are most likely not in a minority group so you have always been catered to which is why it feels contrived. You want to create a space for people who have not previously been included and therefore, will struggle to find visual representation online because it is dominated by the majority group (which statistically speaking is white, heterosexual, able-bodied, size 8)

Photography: Andrew Billington

For example, If I am a curvy bride of Chinese heritage marrying a Scottish groom and I want to see myself represented, how will I find inspiration? If you are black bride and a wheelchair user –  how are you going to find specific inspiration in a pool of billions of image sources that almost always show white able-bodied slim women when you type in the word “bride” ?


Solution: Be helpful, when relevant

cheeky groomsmen speech at Italian, British and Greek weddingPhotography: Matt Badenoch

Consider using keywords, titles, or search terms that are relevant to the couple or wedding you are sharing, especially on instagram or on your website SEO.

But be mindful and don’t stereotype.

In the same way I wouldn’t make an assumption about someones ethnicity just by looking at the them, try not to make an assumption about someones gender. Take your lead from the couples use of language. Some couples race,  heritage or sexual orientation is important to them, it forms part of their love story, their identity and they’ll want to shout about this, some wont. If you aren’t sure, if it’s appropriate, just ask.

Photography Emma and Rich

You don’t need to label everything all the time. I don’t – but when it is relevant, it is REALLY helpful for couples in minority groups to be able to find your content and let them know you are here and creating a safe and inclusive space for them.

It’s easy to forget, many people in minority groups face discrimination** and prejudice on a regular basis, even during their wedding planning – it’s our job to create safety and do better to include people.

multicultural wedding couple just married on rooftop in NYCPhotography: Schryver Weddings 

It’s one of the reasons I LOVE working with SNAP Photography Festival and supporting photographers in how to authentically engage with couples and diversify their portfolios. It is a community that has inclusion at the core of its values to train, support and nurture photographers who care about diversity. It’s one of the reasons I chose all of the images to illustrate this article from members of the SNAP community.  I asked Laura Babb photographer and founder, to share a few words:

At SNAP Photography Festival we are trying to cultivate an environment and culture where people feel safe and supported and where everyone can equally access our offering. We have a set of community standards, which echoes the protections in the Equalities Act. Last year we ran an Aspiring Female Speaker Scholarship (which Nova kindly supported with mentoring!) [to encourage more female speakers] and this year it’s going to be extended to applicants from any under represented group.

We definitely don’t include a diverse range of speakers to be tokenistic, but I feel a duty to ensure as many communities as possible see themselves in our line ups, so they feel comfortable to be a part of snap.

two women getting married on their wedding day wearing blush coloured wedding dressesPhotography: Casey Avenue 

If you are trying to include an audience that has previously been excluded, if you don’t use keywords, how will they find you? Being inclusive means consciously and intentionally including specific groups, when relevant.

4. Challenge: Intention vs badge of honour

african american wedding couple jumping for joy on a sunny dayPhotography: Alakija Studios

Celebrating diversity is a great thing. It’s in my DNA and what the very foundation of my business and the work I do is built upon. I want to see and make a difference by campaigning, educating and speaking publicly about it to challenge perception, bias and barriers to promoting diversity. However, there is a fine line between celebrating diversity and tokenising to make your brand look good.

Photography: Wild Connections Photography

You don’t need to mention the minority group that are featured. Only mention that you are posting for diversity if it’s absolutely relevant. To me, that defeats the point of trying to be more diverse. Laura Anne MUA

Solution: Check your intention

wedding couple walking in snow mountainsPhotography: Wild Connections Photography

Are you including someone because you are inspired by their wedding and their love story and they happen to be in a minority group, or because you’re frightened of losing business and need to fill a quota on your website, magazine, or instagram feed?

You shouldn’t need to talk about how diverse your brand is just to make a point, it defeats the object of inclusion and is performative. Consumers can instantly observe how diverse a brand actually is (or isn’t). It should consistently be demonstrated in your brand aesthetic, your language, your content, your behaviour,  your network and by continually making an effort to include diversity, (not just when Meghan Markle joins the Royal family). Intention is everything.

Photography: Casey Avenue

Are you being diverse because you actually care, or is it to check a box, you might think no-one can tell but an inauthentic intention can be seen a mile away. Nicola, A Life More Inspired


5. Challenge: Inauthenticity

Wedding couple smiling under confettiPhotography: Babb Photo

Don’t force it. If it doesn’t feel right, or feels contrived it probably means you shouldn’t be doing it right now.

Solution: Take Responsibility

Photography: Louise Adby

Take responsibility and be authentic and relative to the content you are posting.  Sometimes I intentionally only want to speak to black women, or people over a size 14, or people experiencing mental vulnerability. That is ok –  you lose the power of engagement and authenticity if you try to include everyone, all of the time. That is not what enabling equality and being inclusive means.

Ask yourself –  Am I truly being inclusive, or am I doing this out of obligation.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be lazy

Guest pulling fun faces poking out tongues at weddingPhotography: Angela Ward Brown

Being inclusive and reaping the rewards of diversity in your business takes more than relying on a few images to make your instagram feed look good.

Don’t be lazy, do your research. There is so much out there in the world-wide-web!

Don’t try to wing it, you’ll end up tokenising.

Photography: Esme Robinson

It takes awareness, being sensitive, time, effort, investment and ultimately genuine desire. Including diversity positively impacts on business if your intentions and strategy include being open to cultural and mindset change; and on the flip-side it can negatively impact your business, if you want a quick fix.

Photography Emma and Rich

We all hold prejudice and bias, which gets in the way of our businesses being more representative than they currently are. Without this level of understanding and respect of cross cultural nuances; miscommunication, generalisation, offence and tokenising happens. It takes a real commitment to improve diversity in your business and you can’t cut corners. Don’t be lazy, if it was that easy we wouldn’t have such disparity in the UK with inequality and the Equalities Act 2010 would not have to exist!

Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong

Wedding couple jumping for joy in sunset by trees | Alakija studiosPhotography: Alakija Studios

Feel the fear and do it anyway! Even I get it wrong sometimes too.

The landscape around diversity is forever evolving. Look how many brands get it wrong in mainstream spaces? The key part is how we learn, how to listen, how to avoid being defensive, so we can grow. I would much rather see people trying and getting it wrong and listening and learning from it, rather than being defensive, in denial, or not making an attempt at all.

Amplify voices

Wedding guests dancingPhotography Emma and Rich

Use your platform to promote others who are doing great work in the diversity space.

Talk about them, share their work, sponsor them, align your brands with them. Especially those actively advocating for equality. If they inspire you, tell them! There are so many of us doing HARD work to improve the aesthetic of the wedding industry and it is TOUGH and at times it’s painful. I experience casual racism on a regular basis, we often get demonized, trolled, accused of being ‘trouble-makers’ for raising awareness about discrimination and inequality and we are often overlooked as brands people want to sponsor, because our numbers are smaller. BUT…

And though she be but little, she is fierce. W. Shakespeare

two women cuddling on their wedding dayPhotography: Louise Adby

Invest in us so we can continue to do this important work to educate and share articles to help your brands like this!

Support niche publications too – here’s a few I frequently recommend:  Catalyst Wedding Co  who also shared a great post on avoiding tokenism for photographers worth reading.HandH WeddingsSmashing The Glass, Rock n Roll Bride, Whimsical Wedding Wonderland Aisle Perfect , We Fell in Love,  Gay Wedding Blog, Bridechilla, and of course some of my equality-minded supporters

Reach out

Tamil Polish wedding couple hugging with parents on wedding dayPhotography: Andrew Billington

  • Seek help
  • Widen your network and have a desire to invest in it.

Yes, we’ve seen that lack of diversity impacts negatively on business now more than ever, we’re seeing businesses fail as a result. We’re all seeing the stats that diversity is good for business, but here’s the thing;

don’t expect people in minority groups to educate you so your business reaps the rewards. Yes they want to be better included, but they shouldn’t be expected to roll out the red carpet for you if you suddenly decide to include them. It is not their job or responsibility to make your business diverse.  It is your job to do the work.

It is your job to make couples from a variety of backgrounds feel welcome and safe so they submit / enquire with you.

It is your job to invest in diversity, research and expand your network and if you need support, it is your job to seek out consultancy or training, ask for help – it is there – but you shouldn’t expect it for free (alas, this one’s on me!)

A recent Nu Bride survey, (which you will have if you’re on my mailing list) revealed *66% of Nu Bride readers have experienced some form of prejudice when planning their wedding and 80% do not feel represented by the mainstream wedding industry.

It is our collective job to cultivate an industry and an environment where people are better represented and treated of equal merit – not to make your business look good or because diversity happens to be on trend right now, but because they damn well deserve it.

If you are an equality-minded business and you want to find out more about how to make the industry and your business more authentically inclusive, have a diversity business review, or attend a straight talking diversity masterclass  like some of the other rockstar wedding pros I’ve had the pleasure of working with this year who are transforming their businesses! Reach out – I am here!

The Talent

Header image: Angela Ward Brown | A huge thank you for everyone in the SNAP community for sharing their beautiful work to illustrate this piece.

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2 Responses to “How to Avoid Tokenism in the Wedding Industry”

  1. Rowan
    June 14, 2018 at 10:22 am #

    Another brilliant blog post Nova. Thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom and put this together. 😘

  2. Krishanthi Williams
    June 14, 2018 at 5:50 pm #

    Thank you so much Nova for taking the time to construct such a valuable piece- as always!! And beautiful photos to match. We all need a reminder to seek equality and, you’re right, we have a responsibility to represent diversity in our work. Lots of food for thought (and action!). Krish x