Diversity is all the rage right now. People are now trying to fit in different types of people everywhere, whether that be in the media, jobs, institutions, and more. When it comes to writing, there is a resurgence of introducing characters that belong in a minority group.
These are all good things. We desperately need representation everywhere. If we want to showcase the world, we should represent the world, and the world contains a multitude of differences that should be celebrated. However, there is also a problem: people are plugging in representation just to have it there, just so they could say it is “diverse.”
Diversity shouldn’t be an item to check off from a list.
There is a widespread of tokenism in writing, where many writers will plug in the one “diverse” character that has no development nor true importance to the story. The character is just there to show: “This story is diverse. See?”
Tokenism is the act of plugging in representation just to have it. It isn’t a conscious effort to represent different groups, it’s an effort to not be pointed out as to have favoritism towards a specific group. It’s like pushing the bigger issue under the rug in hopes that people won’t notice, but the rug has huge lumps.
So how can we avoid tokenism in writing?
Research your character’s background
If you want to write a diverse character and you’re not from that group, extensive research is needed. There’s so much that needs to be unpacked from a character’s culture, religion, sexuality, and more. Simply going in with the overall knowledge you may have is probably not going to cut it. Writing a diverse character without research is the easiest way to fall into tokenism.
Go online and read people’s experiences in that group. Talk to people in those communities. Read text posts, watch videos, and learn more about what it is to live in that group. Chances are your character will spring out from between the lines of your research and beg to be written in your manuscript of any kind.
The best part is that you’ll compile a list of real experiences that you can reference in a graceful way in your writing, which will make your character much more realistic.
Don’t center your character’s entire identity around the fact that they’re a minority.
It’s also easy to fall into writing a character who’s entire identity depends on the struggles their minority group faces. While it is a big part of who they are, centering a character’s identity on only that can lead to tokenism. You should also not ignore the problem. Striking a balance is the best way to go. Remember that a person is not their struggles. The same applies to a character.
Using stereotypes is common for tokenism. Avoid them altogether. Stereotypes are harmful, and they perpetuate a false idea surrounding different groups of people. Instead of creating characters around these stereotypes, go completely against them and create positive role models for different diverse characters.
Give them importance
If your diverse character(s) is flat and does nothing for the story, they are most likely a token. Giving the character importance to the story is a great way to ensure that you are not diving into tokenism. A great way to make sure your character is important to the story is to imagine the story without that character, and if the story has a gaping hole because of their absence, then they’re important. That is a good sign. Try to steer away from flat characters and make them well-developed for readers to enjoy.
Use sensitivity readers
This is a great way to make sure that what you’re writing is okay to put out. Sensitivity readers will read your writing and let you know where you fall short and help you write a character that is not a token and serves as representation for others like them.
This doesn’t even have to be about characters, it can be about the writing in general. If there is a phrase or saying that is wrong, your sensitivity reader will point it out and you will learn from that experience while also making sure that your writing is a fair representation for readers out there.
You can find sensitivity readers online for hire. There are many directories available to find people that will read your piece and let you know if there is anything to fix or address before it goes out into the public.
Writing diversity in your works shouldn’t have to be a hard thing to do. As long as you look at it through the lens of giving stories the depth and celebration they deserve, everything should be fine. If you don’t write a character or a story depicting harmful stereotypes and keeping characters one-dimensional and flat, then your writing will be good to go.
Always remember: if you look at diversity as something to check off a list, then you’re slipping into tokenism. Write diversity because you want to. Writer diversity because you want readers to see themselves in your writing. Write diversity so people in the world can feel seen.
Throw tokenism to the trash, not under the rug.