Diversity is a hot topic within the literary world. As a teacher of Gender and Post-Colonial Studies, the question of diversity and its representation within literature is at the forefront of everything I teach, read, and write. Even though the larger part of the canon is still made up of white heterosexual men who write about other white heterosexual men, things are gradually shifting. Self-publishing is doing a lot to alter the gender dynamic: more women are successfully self-published than men, and I have high hopes for self-publishing to open the way for non-white and non-heterosexual writers as well. Next to that, more writers are becoming increasingly aware of the necessity to include a more diverse array of characters in their work.
This last issue is the focus of my new blog series on Writing Diversity.
Each month, I will address the complexity behind the portrayal of diverse characters in our work by diving deeply into a variety of topics, including representation, essentialism, gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. This month, I discuss the subject of ‘tokenism’—the inclusion of minorities for the sake of inclusion.
What is 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 in
order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.
(Oxford Dictionary online)
[T]he policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as
to desegregate). (Merriam-Webster Dictionary online)
Tokenism is inclusion for the sake of inclusion. It is inclusion for the sake of reaching particular quotas. It is inclusion for the sake of showing the world just how diverse and open-minded you are, without actually changing any existing power dynamics. This is why it is called a ‘perfunctory or symbolic effort’: tokens aren’t necessarily included because the ones doing the inclusion want to see actual change, or give a real damn about their struggles. They just don’t want to be caught dead showing in-group favouritism.
One of the best examples to explain how tokenism works in practice is talk shows. Whenever someone from a minority group is invited to the table without having an actual function—they are not there to discuss their own work, or offer their professional expertise on a topic—we call it tokenism. More often than not, only one individual of a minority group is invited—they are the only woman amongst men, the only black person amongst white people, the only gay person amongst heterosexuals, and so on—and they are only invited because one of the topics on the table somehow relates to the community they supposedly belong to. As if these individuals have nothing to offer on other topics. They are often not even expected to open their mouths about these other topics, except to ask questions to the people who are allowed opinions on matters that go beyond their cultural or ethnic background.
To give a more concrete example: last summer, Dutch-Moroccan presenter and television programme creator Ajouad El Miloudi explained in an interview why he never accepted invitations from Jeroen Pauw, one of the most well-known talk show hosts in the Netherlands. El Miloudi is only ever invited when they want his opinion on issues around (the failing of) multiculturalism and the clashing of cultures. They never once invited him to talk about his own work, or to promote a new show he was presenting or making, like they do with Dutch presenters and television programme creators, and he was quite done with being the token Dutch guy with an Islamic background who keeps being used as a spokesperson for the community.
What makes tokenism problematic?
On the surface, including people for the sake of inclusion doesn’t seem that bad. If visibility is what we want, why frown when someone only adds a diverse character or two as an afterthought, after the story has already been constructed? Because there are a few risks.
If we add minority characters as more of an afterthought, there’s quite a chance the story doesn’t leave any room for these characters’ lived experiences and realities to be fully investigated. If we only include them to make sure a particular minority is included, we run the risk of reducing these characters to one-dimensional summaries of what we think their community is like and thinks like. As a result, we end up with highly stereotypical characterisations that will do more harm than good.
In her slam poem ‘To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang’, Rachel Rostad critically discusses the stereotypical way in which the only Chinese character in the Harry Potter series is represented. Drawing, amongst other issues, attention to the fact that Cho is in Ravenclaw—or the ‘nerdy house’, as Rostad calls it—and that she, like so many female Asian characters before her, cries over white male characters more than she speaks, Rostad problematises her function as a positive role model for Asian girls.
As the Cho Chang example illustrates, token characters are often flat characters. Since token characters are only allowed to play a role in as far as they belong to a certain minority, it is virtually impossible to give them the depth and dimension a good, well-rounded character has. That said, a little research goes a long way, and knowing which stereotypes are prevalent among the minority you are making present will help you stay away from this trap.
Tokens are often cast as sidekicks. Think of the gay or black best friend. The main character, whether male or female, is part of the dominant category in that they are white and heterosexual, but their best friend proves that they are open-minded and in touch with the world around them. In other words, as pointed out by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward in their wonderful book Writing the Other, the best friend, or close co-worker, is only there to demonstrate something positive about the main character.
In that same chapter—chapter 7—Shawl and Ward argue that, if the token character isn’t the main character’s sidekick, the only roles out there are often that of what they call ‘bit-players’, such as cops or bodyguards—roles that don’t necessarily push the story along. If they do have a bit of a better role, they argue, they are often killed before the story is well on its way. They are, as such, replaceable characters and don’t add anything meaningful. Rachel Rostad brings up the same issue in her slam poem, when referring to the fact that there are about five explicit people of colour in the Harry Potter series, and they are all minor characters.
Adding a few minorities to our work here and there in order to increase our work’s diversity isn’t a problem per se, but when we do, we have to make sure we are giving them the attention they deserve. After all, if we’re adding these characters for the right reasons, and not for the sake of it, we should be properly invested in them. This brings me to my next point.
If we want to do diversity well, we’ll have to make sure to do the research and check the background of the people, the place and the era our story is taking place. If we don’t, we run the risk of putting our characters into a context that neither matches reality nor the expectations of our readers. In their discussion of sidekicks, Shawl and Ward bring up the example of a novel taking place in St Louis, in the United States, which features only three black characters. Considering the novel’s setting, it is highly unbelievable that no more than three black people enter the stage.
Another example is one I came across when critiquing a chapter from a book. I only critiqued the one chapter, so I can’t be sure about the rest of the book, but I took issue with the way the author introduced one of the minority characters. The novel, taking place a few decades ago, if I remember correctly, is about a girl who travelled from Russia or Eastern Europe to the US to start a new life. In the chapter I critiqued, she went with her friends and a few acquaintances to celebrate the Fourth of July.
This main character was well done, in that it was clear how she was both excited about her new environment, as well as doubtful from time to time whether she had made the right decision, leaving everything behind, and overwhelmed by this new culture that she wanted to be a part of. In other words, she had complex emotions, and there was, at least in that chapter, nothing stereotypical about her. She was a minority character—she was white and heterosexual, but she was also a woman and not from Western Europe or the United States—who was well developed. However, while out celebrating, she meets a young Native American man who left the reservation, where his family has lived for generations, in a jeep to travel around the US, and came straight to New York to experience the Fourth of July celebration in that city.
Obviously, being part of a minority group doesn’t mean you have to be politically engaged. So, the minority characters in our stories don’t have to be political, either. That said, the way the different elements in this chapter came together made it, in my point of view, impossible not to bring it up at all. It was the Fourth of July, he was a Native American, the word ‘reservation’ is mentioned, he came to New York, which is known for its role in populating the US with people not originally from the US, because he wanted to see how Independence Day was celebrated and yet there isn’t a single critical reference to the role the US played in decimating his people and relocating them to the place where his family still lives? It simply doesn’t strike me as realistic.
Of course, the man could be sick and tired of hearing his family complain about the hardship that they have (had) to endure because the white man stole their land, and so on and so forth. That is totally legit, as far as I’m concerned, and he was the right age to be rebellious, to want to prove to himself that he wasn’t going to let that history keep him back, that the world was his oyster. But, if we bring in a character whose community has suffered traumatically from the events that led to the Fourth of July, the least we can do is acknowledge that tension. For example, by having other people respond to the fact that he—the last person one would expect to celebrate Independence Day—was present amongst their midst, and him shrugging it off, or saying something along the lines of that it’s no use living in the past. A single reference would have made his presence in New York much more realistic. And will save the story from being interpreted as ignorant of real life struggles.
How can we do better?
One of the best examples I have come across in the past few years when it comes to doing diversity right is Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter series. In the series, which is made up of multiple trilogies, we meet a vast array of characters: people of all colour; people of all sexualities; people of all cultural backgrounds. While this is in itself promising, some of Clare’s main characters—Clare uses multiple points of view in her work—belong to minority communities. There is Jem Carstairs, a heterosexual guy with Chinese roots; Alexander Lightwood, a white gay guy; Magnus Bane, a bisexual guy of Indonesian descent; Simon Lewis, a white heterosexual Jewish guy; Maia Roberts, a heterosexual biracial girl; Christina Rosales, a Hispanic heterosexual girl; Sophie Collins, a white heterosexual servant girl; and so on.
These main characters are all individuals in their own right—they are complex characters with conflicting desires and they aren’t reduced to their social status—and they all play a significant part within the series. At the same time, the story leaves room for their struggles to be present.
To give but one example: in the Shadowhunter community, being gay is one of the worst offences, so it is only natural that Alexander Lightwood’s sexuality plays a significant part within the story. But, Alec is never reduced to just his sexuality. Yes, he is gay, and that shapes him and how he relates to the world around him, but he is also a caring big brother, a loyal son, a skilled fighter, and a highly educated kid. Next to that, he isn’t some flamboyant caricature—if anything, his lack of interest in outside appearance makes him the worst dressed person in the entire series. He falls in love with quite a flamboyant character, but throughout the series, Clare is adamant that Magnus Bane is not gay by lending weight to his past relationships with women.
Next to these main characters, the minor characters are also quite diverse, which makes the series rather realistic. These characters, even if they are the only representatives from a particular community, aren’t turned into stereotypes, either. That Clare is actually invested in the writing of diverse characters, and not in inclusion for the sake of inclusion, is clear from the equality issues that she brings to the fore within her work: she touches upon gay rights, racism, interracial relations, bisexual invisibility, class issues, and so on.
To sum all of this up, these are some of the issues to keep in mind when writing diverse characters:
- Research your characters’ backgrounds.
Proper research into our characters’ cultural, historical and political backgrounds will go a long way in creating more well-rounded characters. We should make sure to give them proper names, proper jobs, proper world views, proper friendships in line with the context they are living in.
- Acknowledge struggles (without turning them into a character’s biggest problem).
On the one hand, adding minority characters to our work only because we want to discuss a particular issue or struggle could very well lead to tokenism. On the other, adding minority characters without any kind of acknowledgement of where they are coming from—think of that young Native American man mentioned earlier—could be interpreted as gross neglect of a people’s past and present struggles. Finding the right balance—like Cassandra Clare did with Alexander Lightwood; the struggle is there, but he is not reduced to that struggle—is key to providing well-rounded, realistic characters.
- Investigate ongoing stereotypes (and go against them when possible).
If we take a little time to research ongoing stereotypes (hello, Google!), we can easily make sure not to perpetuate these often harmful stereotypes (read the previous blog in the Writing Diversity blog series [link essentialism blog] for examples). Actively going against such stereotypes (for instance, by making one of our gay characters into an unfashionable young man—thank you, Cassandra Clara!) will help us create diverse characters who might actually prove to be positive role models.
- Allow characters to be individuals in their own right.
If we keep in mind that all characters, no matter how similar their backgrounds are, are individuals in and of themselves, we avoid the trap of turning these characters into spokespersons for their entire community. Even if you only have one character from a particular minority in your work, allowing them space to be their own person will go a long way in making sure they aren’t interpreted as representatives for an entire community.
- Give characters meaningful roles.
In the end, one of the easiest ways to prevent tokenism is giving our diverse characters meaningful roles that help push the story along. Even if the only diverse characters you have are minor characters, it is still possible to give them roles that help push the story along. It is turning them into so-called ‘bit-players’ that is a massive red flag when it comes to tokenism.
Correct me if I’m wrong
If we want to make our stories more diverse, it is important to understand why we do. If we include diverse characters for the sake of inclusion, for the sake of not being called out, we are not doing ourselves, our work, and our readers any favours. Not only do we run the risk of producing flat, stereotypical characters that will perpetuate rather than challenge the status quo, we also risk writing characters that our readers will have a hard time relating to or identifying with. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not why we wanted to become more inclusive in the first place.
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