Sporadic tokens or a plethora of white?

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Summary: How about token minority characters in TV shows, books, movies, and so forth? Are they a legitimate way to add in other races? Or are they are a cheap shot at multi-culturalism? However, is the alternative any better?

Saturday, 05 December 2009

(21:05:31 CST)

Sporadic tokens or a plethora of white?

For our last couple of sessions of LS522 - Young Adult Services and Materials (I may have those words in the wrong order) we talked about multicultural books and other things. While talking about multicultural books, I could not help but think of the token character. Think of a movie with a bunch of white kids and somewhere there is the one Asian or black teen. In Not Another Teen Movie, they lampooned the character concept with the "Token Black Character" who said parodical statements and self-denigrated about being the only one around. Later on, a second black character shows up, and the token asks him to leave. Contrast this to something like Friends, which was regularly joked about because "What, there aren't black people in New York?".

Would it have been better if one of the core six was black? Or would that have been a token?

That is the primary Catch-22 of the situation. If you include minority characters, then you get called out for token-izing them. If you do not include them, then you get called for excluding them. You could possibly throw in three or four minority characters (of the same minority, unless you want to be called for multi-tokenization) but in small troupes, that is just not possible. What's more, if you somehow cross the line of more than half of your characters being of a particular minority, well, you just wrote a multicultural work and you will find yourself shelved in "Urban", "African-American", "Hispanic", or "GLBTQ". Somehow, maybe, you could perfectly balance a half-dozen kids of different cultures and whatnot, but then you are working a technical exercise for the sake of proving you can.

Just to sum up, so far, here are the common choices:

  • All white characters.
  • Mostly white characters except for the one or two tokens of different groups.
  • Mainly white characters except for a couple of members of another group, probably siblings or a couple who will play off each other with culturally significant in-jokes.
  • About half-white, half-other and your work will likely be in the cusp of "Multicultural fiction". You will be discussed as "exploring outside of your racial boundaries". Those characters will not be allowed to just be themselves. Someone will likely have to die, and it probably won't be the white girl.
  • Similar to above, except your work will be about half-white and half a series of tokens. Your work will be called Star Trek.
  • Mostly "other", and your work will firmly be in "Multicultural". Expected to find in bigger bookstors clearly labeled: "Hispanic", "Asian", and so forth.

How do we fight back against this? Yes, I dig it: people want to read about people like them. At least some of the time. It is good for me, as a Southern White Male to occasionally read detective fiction or horror or whatever involving others like me. It triggers a positive response in the brain. However, this attitude propagates the "us v. them" response. If we continue to see blacks or Asians or homosexuals as side characters who always have to represent their group, then we will always celebrate their differences. Jack is gay and that's funny because he talks with a lisp! Tom is black and that's funny because his hip-hop music is whack!


And, let me point this out, lampshade hanging only slightly works. I'll give Not Another Teen Movie and South Park a pass, but if another sitcom has the Asian woman who, despite being tired of having her ethnicity pointed out, still slips a few "r" and "l" sounds around; I may have to shoot someone.

If I were to disect the rules of tokenism, I would get something like this. (a) Tokens are ambassadors. They visit white-land (unless the show is non-white, and then they represent white-land) to share wisdom. (b) Tokens can never be lesser than the whites around them. That would be racism/sexism/etc. (c) Tokens can only be central to plot arcs that somehow highlight their outsider status. (d) It is not, however, racism/etc to have a token's stereotypes be used in a way makes fun of the way they talk or mannerisms, as long as you allow facial expressions (such as bugging eyes or sly winks) or the laugh track indicate that it is humor. Because, (e) it is sexist/etc to have one of the characters point out mannerisms in-show, unless you are Scrubs, in which case it is really the nerdy white guy who is funny. Or, you are a slubby white middle aged mail making fun of your wife for liking shopping just too much. For instance, if a black character says "We be chillin'", it is strangely worth a laugh and is not racist. He will nod his head and smile to let you know it is ok. If said black character does bad on a test, that's racist, unless he is allowed to be best at something else. The black character will have to regularly explain black culture to his white classmates. If any white classmates make fun of his broken "racially approprate as written by sit-com writers" English, the show is being controversial and exploring racist themes. Every episode that focuses on this character must involve his race, with any given stereotype being good seeds for a plotline. He could have a single mom. His dad could be on drugs. He could be trying to get into college. Et. Cetera.

Or, I again, we could have just white characters with maybe some non-white cameos.

It really is a gordian knot. You cannot solve this crap. We are not a post-racial society, and will not be for a while, and that is the main problem. Even if we don't mind other races, sexualities, or what-have-you, we still think in terms of them. As best I can, though, I will give my tips for how to write outside of a "token mindset".

  1. Foremost, drop the ambassador thing. Black characters can stop telling white people that they like big butts. Let that joke go.
  2. If you do have a single character of an outside group, aka "a token", then try and not point it out for 99.9% of the time. Audiences can figure out that it's a woman in a book with mostly men without you calling her "one of the boys" every two pages. If they cannot, write for better audiences.
  3. Allow the "token" to have a family that is not from the old country. Stop showing how well some Korean girl fits in by showing how poorly her family does (exception: if you are a Korean girl writing a semi-autobiographical novel, and that was your family, go ahead).
  4. People can eat culturally appropriate food just like we eat hamburgers. When is the last time you sat down and defined the long history of a hamburger before eating one? There you go.
  5. If your cultural outsider has to explain things to your white insider, make that a ditto. Let the Indian character be confused about why we are so fat so much of the time. See, stereotypes hurt.
  6. Let the "token" screw up for time to time. It is only racist if you make it due to his/her race.
  7. If you have a gay character, please tone it down a notch.
  8. If you make your "token" black male into Classical music, pointing it out should warrant a shooting. It is never funny for a black man to like Classical music. Stop telling the audience to giggle over it. Likewise, if your Asian cannot play a stringed instrument, actually saying it in the show/book makes me want to stab you. Of course, said Asian token must be good at math. It's in the rules, racist.
  9. Believe it or not, potraying all Latinos as ladies-men and hot, sassy women is not really not racist. It is actually, by definition, racist.
  10. If your token dates a non-token, it can end in other ways outside of tragedy. If a boy hangs out with his gay friend, you do not have to beat him up.
  11. Sometimes, "tokens" can make jokes about themselves or their race without being honestly racist. This must be used in small quantities and should be avoided unless you are sure you know what you are doing.
  12. Yes, it is a little unfair that blacks and latinos and so on can make fun of white America without the same backlash. Let's just pretend this is us whiteys making up for their being a black character on M.A.S.H. named "Spearchucker Jones". It is going to take us a while to burn that one off.
  13. Finally, for now, the only two shows that have gotten funny accents right are Monty Python's Flying Circus and Allo! Allo!. If you are not currently writing for one of those show (read: you are not), then don't write an accented character as a punchline. "Oh, look, the car talks GERMAN! RIP ROARING HAR-DE-HARRRRR!"

I am not an expert on these matters, I know, but I can point out things that trigger my ire. I appreciate, as a white male, to see shows like Doctor Who and Neverwhere have black characters that are never explicitly named as black. It gets tiresome to see some writers continue to drag up racial differences, sexual differences, and so forth for no other purpose outside of a quick emotional jab. "Can their love last?" indeed.

Then again, maybe I am all wrong. We do need to sometimes point out differences for all sorts of reasons. I guess all I am asking for is the chance to see some gay characters that are not flamboyant targets of abuse and black characters who do not like hip hop and women characters who not either unsexed or oversexed. If I can guess all the character's main story arcs based on how non-straight-white-male s/he is; I'm going to go ahead and say that you are doing it wrong. I know that's unfair because some writers are pointing out things, but man, just give me one or two real human characters; not just stereotypes in your "very special episode".

Si Vales, Valeo


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