And Another Thing: On Tokenistic Writing

In my post about the usage of the phrase “forced diversity” to refer to books that have multiple “minority” characters, I briefly mentioned what tokenized characters read like. Book Riot already has a few articles that elaborate on the topic (See: Read Diverse FAQs), but I’m here to talk about a particular kind of tokenizing that is new to me. (Though, I really should have seen it coming.) Last month, I had the privilege of listening to Jacqueline Woodson speak at a Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable event, and she said something that stayed in my head for a long time. Woodson mentioned that she’s noticed a bunch of writers who, because of the growing prominence of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, have taken to throwing in certain kinds of characters into their stories in order to be marketed as “diverse.” My reactions to this observation went something like this:

  • Nah. People wouldn’t do that.
  • Would they?
  • What am I saying? For money and fame? Yes, they’d totally do that.
  • Well, that’s just … rude.
  • And kind of mean.
  • Shut. It. Down.

I briefly wondered: “Would it matter, though, if the writer had researched the character and if the character was not hidden in the shadows?” Maybe in the short term, it would not matter. In the long run, however, we’d notice that literature isn’t just about the craft and it is also a culture that affects the mindsets of the masses. We’d acknowledge that the book sold because the character was “unique” and not because they were diverse in the incredibly mundane and human ways that most people are. We would notice that by encouraging writers who half-ass their way through a “marketing trend,” we are also encouraging the fetishization and dehumanization of people. In the long run, we’d realize that we are rewarding the very people who are erasing the voice of the “others” they claim to be animating within their stories. Basically, we’d be right where we started: celebrating the parts of the person that makes them a commodity and ignoring the rest.

This call for diverse representation is not new. It’s just that our voices have gotten stronger and our chances of shaping the future of the literary canon are stronger. It’s a little sad that I need to remind writers and publishers of this but trends are, in their essence, temporary. People? Not so much. Perhaps I worry about issues of representation too much. Perhaps I let one aspect of a story dissuade me from spending time and money on what might otherwise be a classic in the making. But consider this: the English literary canon looks the way it does for a reason and it has certainly affected the books we read now. Not many in the past have worried about representing me, people like me, or even people unlike me. I just think it’s time the “many” started worrying, too.

And to anyone who has struggled with feeling like a fraudulent lit student or like less of an objective reader because of the books you’ve picked, here’s a reminder from someone who often feels the same way: it’s okay to choose a book based on how you anticipate it making you feel. Choosing books by writers or characters is no less a filter than if you went by genre or time period or popularity. Books are meant to send joy through your veins, spark at your nerves, and make you gasp for breath as you laugh or cry. But books should not devalue your being, your people, your history, your culture. This, I feel, is worse than not being represented at all. And if your personal choices can convey to writers and publishers that meaningful representations matter— that we matter— then all the more reason for you to be picky about the characters you let roam in your mind.

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