Jo Whittemore: Against TokenismPosted by Jo Whittemore on Mar 14, 2011 in Blog, Featured, Guest Posts, Middle Grade | 12 comments
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?
- The sudden mention of a character with an ethnic name (We went to Shanequa Johnson’s house)
- The sudden mention of an ethnic event (We went to a Juneteenth party at Shanequa Johnson’s house)
- 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.