What we talk about when we talk about ‘tokenism’

Here’s something I’ve been ruminating on for a while, forcibly brought to the forefront of my mind given recent events, so apologies if it’s not terribly coherent.

A quick perusal of comments sections across the breadth of the internet throws up the ‘but do you want tokenism?’ defence. I mean, practically every comment section has its version of this question; well-meaning people asking – with baffled internet-expressions – if what we as POCs want is ‘tokenism’ in pop culture. I’ve seen it so often that I feel compelled to ask: why are the options ‘tokenism’ or total, yawning absence? Why do we have to be so ‘cake or death‘ about this?

There are addendums sometimes, add-ons like “I’m happy to see POC characters if the plot calls for it” or “why put in a black dude in the cast just because?” Understand what is being said there: the story that is universal is white. The default is always white. The POC character only makes it in there “when the role calls for it”. Let that sink in for a moment. Our presence in popular culture (and in non-stereotypical roles) must always be justified, but whiteness exists as the basic template. Our place at the table has to be earned. And ain’t that a kick in the teeth?

When show runners say they were hesitant to include POC POVs in their shows because they were worried about issues of authenticity, I nod and understand for about five seconds. Then I want to call up their offices to set up a meeting to discuss exactly what they imagine POC in the West (usually the city, town or village the writer is him/herself from) do so damn differently. Then I want to offer my services (for a substantial fee) to help them bridge the gap. We breathe air, drink water and fart noxious gases like other people. Our hopes and dreams are similar, and alongside the various hardships we may suffer because of the way we look or where we come from, we largely do the same things: and that includes all the frivolous things too. Things like eating cupcakes, wanting the chance to write a self-involved collection of essays, having sex with unsuitable boys and being monstrously self-obsessed. NOW, WHERE’S MY CHEQUE?

As an enthusiastic fan of popular culture – and a human being with the full complement of human desires, narcissism among them – I like to see myself in the surrounding culture. And as things stand, I simply do not. This state of affairs means I thrilled quietly when I saw Storm in the X-Men movies (even though she has a frankly insulting ‘African’ accent in the first one), and I squealed happily and called my sister (no, seriously) when I saw Nicole Behari in the trailer for Shame. It means I get excited when I hear that Shonda Rhimes used 67 percent female or minority directors in the making of her latest show Scandal.

I’m a big telly fan. It’s one of my favourite things in the world – I can quote most of Friends from memory, just give me the prompt – but I am not involved directly in making it. I don’t wish to downplay the importance and necessity of having a diverse writers’ room studio system. But it seems obvious to me, a naïve layman, that there are three steps to writing a good POC character: 1. Write a stonkingly good, well-rounded character. 2. Make the ‘effort’ to cast a POC. 3. That’s it! I’ve seen real life applications of this in The Good Wife, New Girl, Parenthood, and Community, among others. But, you know, my only telly experience comes from working briefly in Factual and Documentary, so maybe I’m wrong. If you’re reading this and do make entertainment telly, please correct me if I’ve somehow misunderstood the complexities.

But anyway, back to ‘tokenism’. It doesn’t have to be this way. Consider these words from Mindy Kaling back in September:

“When you are the only Indian-American female lead in a television show, you seem to be making sweeping statements about that person simply because you are that person and the only one, whereas, for instance, Steve Carell — he’s not making sweeping generalizations about white American men on his show because there’s so many different white American men on different shows. So I get worried by doing this character that people think that I’m saying that about all those people. And I just have the weight of that on my shoulders, which is something that I do envy other performers for not having.”

*waves church fan*

Just the everyday shit of being a pop culture fan in brown skin.
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5 Comments

  1. Sade
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Well said – Please keep this discussion live. Thank You.

  2. Sade
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    PS – hope you ignored the comments from the simpletons on your piece in the Guardian!

  3. Abby
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I realized I was doing this in my books: always writing from my own POV/ white girl experience, and populating the stories with more diverse supporting characters. Diverse casts are great, but when the narrative is first person, the ‘I’ getting to tell their story is even more significant, since the book is essentially told through their frame.

    I wrote a Latina character as one of the POV narrators in The AntiProm (and, hilariously, ran into comments asking me to make her white, because they didn’t think someone from her ‘background’ would be the rich, popular girl (!)), but when I was working on JANE AUSTEN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, my teen Sense & Sensibility retelling, I hit my wall. I was writing the introduction of the quirky best friend character, who I’d planned to be black, when I just thought, ‘No effing way can I bring myself to contribute to the ‘quirky black friend’ canon’.

    So I rewrote the whole thing with the lead character narrators being black/mixed-race, and it made the book so much better, I think. In the post-Shonda world, the question shouldn’t be, ‘why is this lead character a POC?’ but ‘why not?’. In YA there’s the trend of race books always being ‘issue’ books, but I hope we’ll move past that.

    So, coming April 2013: Sense & Sensibility, in modern-day LA, told from the POV of an aspiring actress drama queen, and her sensible science geek sister, who happen to be black. Fingers x-ed people like it!

  4. Sheree
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Howwwww can i get more people to see and comment on this post?! Splendidly written and coherent if you were worried about that.

  5. Posted November 23, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    I read your twitter spat article and I was honestly shocked by the comments of some people who responded, I am white Irish decent and instantly on hearing *that* twitter response I was filled with shock and disappointment. I come from a very similar economical back ground to Caitlin and I was offended by her response. I completely agree with you, please keep speaking about this, I am going to make sure I don’t stop either!

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