Jo Whittemore: Against Tokenism

By nature, I’m an incredibly gullible person. An infomercial convinced me a blanket with sleeves was fashionable and practical (but dangerous for the accident-prone). A salon stylist convinced me organic shampoo would do more than leave me smelling like a hippie armpit. And once my dad even convinced me he’d mastered martial arts from a Bruce Lee book. Then he accidentally kicked me in the nose.

Despite all my naïveté, there is one bit of fakery I can smell a mile away (two miles when the hippie armpit shampoo wears off). That bit of deceit? The token minority.

Bless your heart if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

The token minority is a tool used by writers who think their stories lack diversity and are looking for a quick fix. This happens at about the 3/4 mark when all the key players have been established. And it’s so poorly planned, so blatantly obvious, that it makes me lose respect for the story.

What are the signs of a token minority?

  1. The sudden mention of a character with an ethnic name (We went to Shanequa Johnson’s house)
  2. The sudden mention of an ethnic event (We went to a Juneteenth party at Shanequa Johnson’s house)
  3. The sudden use of an ethnic dialect (Me and my home-gizzirl went to a Juneteenth party at Shanequa Johnson’s crib.)

Okay, I’m exaggerating with the last one, but you get my point … and I’m sure you’ve seen it before. Some writers add a minority as an afterthought, and it’s honestly more insulting than being left out entirely. If the only nod an Asian character gets in a book is helping the MC with calculus in one sentence, does it really matter that her name is Annie Chang or that she has almond-shaped eyes?

For my first three books, I filled my fantasy world with all manner of creatures and races because that’s my idea of a great world to escape to. One where beings of all backgrounds mingle and marry.

For my fourth book, I portrayed the editor at a different school’s newspaper as an Asian because, honestly?, I was kind of casting myself for that role.

My latest book (out in a couple weeks) has no minorities. I didn’t realize this until after I’d written the story. There was so much else going on that my focus wasn’t on the diversity of the characters’ heritage but rather the diversity of family dynamics (divorce, abandonment, etc).

Will I go back and insert a few minorities? Absolutely not. Their presence would seem forced to me. Like a college brochure featuring someone of every color when it’s not really the case.

But it has given me something to think about going forward. Who else has a story I can tell? What other perspectives am I not considering?

Diversity is too big an issue for a one-sentence mention. If you want to include a minority in a story, make it count.

And if you want to avoid getting kicked in the nose by a very tall man … stand further away.

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[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Jo.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Jo Whittemore is the author of The Silverskin Legacy fantasy trilogy, as well as the tween humor novel Front Page Face-Off. Her fifth book, Odd Girl In, will be another humorous tween novel released in March 2011. Jo is a member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and is one of the founding members of AS IF! (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom) and The Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels. She’s also written for, and been featured in, newspapers and national magazines. When she isn’t writing, Jo spends her time with family and friends in Austin, dreaming of the day she can afford a chocolate house with toffee furniture. Visit Jo online at http://www.jowhittemore.com/.[/author_info] [/author]

14 thoughts on “Jo Whittemore: Against Tokenism

  1. Jo, what a fabulous post! Definitely gives me a lot to think about as a writer!

    I realized after writing my first novel that the entire cast was white. I sat back, thought about it, and realized that a) if I threw in a minority character just to make it diverse, without any other purpose, it would come off as super fake and b) it would especially be super fake given the setting of the book, suburban Maine, where it really is likely that the small group of characters WOULD all be white.

    BUT, going forward, I have really thought about setting and how that would affect my cast. What is the liklihood that a group of teens in San Jose wouldn’t include an Asian guy? What about a summer camp in Jersey, that pulls from the entire tristate area? That’s going to be pretty diverse, right? While, as a white chick from whiteland, writing across race is scary, I also think it’s important to do. And, like you said, not incidentally or as an afterthought. But with intent and purpose. BAM.

    <3

  2. Amen.

    It’s difficult for me to say more because the complications of racial issues surpass the space allotted here. All I know is, I write as many colored characters as I can. Lawdy knows we need the representation.

  3. I included people of all races in my fiction thesis, but that’s because I grew up in a diverse environment. It just reflects my life in high school.

    I wish more authors would try to write different ethnicities, just as long as they do your research.

    I also admire you standing firm about not having the token minority. If a cast is all one race, that’s fine to me. I don’t really think of race when I read books. It’s annoying if someone decides to change a characters race without doing the research is just… not very smart at all.

  4. This is a great post and I think you’ve raised a very good point. It’s all too easy to use convenient short-cuts or stereotypes in writing sometimes – often without realising it. I particularly liked the part where you said you were resistant to adding minority characters to your latest work. I think it’s more than likely that people will see themselves in that story anyway and it reinforces the idea that a person’s character or personality can be more important than their background or where there parents came from.

  5. Najela, yes, art should reflect life! And I too think it would be great if more authors wrote diverse characters…although, we’ve come a long way from when I was a kid. Growing up, I didn’t have many options beyond the Babysitters Club.
    Katie, you raise a good point, re: seeing yourself in a character. I’m always hesitant to go too much into description because if a character is too specific, a reader CAN’T imagine him/herself in that role.

  6. I so agree with the points you raised here, especially the Signs of the Token Minority. A friend of mine calls this the Here Comes Keisha moment, so it’s been observed by more than one person!

  7. “Some writers add a minority as an afterthought, and it’s honestly more insulting than being left out entirely.”

    Yes! YES (in caps)! Or even better HELL YES (again, in caps). It is insulting.

    Nauseating are the hold-hands-and-be-nice storylines… The “Over a Barrel” episode of the new MY LITTLE PONY stories is a good example of that.

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