Open Discussion: Token or Not?

Happy Saturday, Reader Friends!

I know it’s been awhile since we had an open discussion topic. Today’s topic came to me as I recalled a conversation I had with a writer friend. We were talking of diversity and the need to add more people of color to books, not because it’s a trend, but because we live in a diverse world. My friend added a secondary character that is a poc. Not for the sake of just adding a poc but that’s how the character was in her mind’s eye. So it begs the question, if you have a secondary character who is a poc and the main character is Caucasian, is the secondary character a token or not?

Personal opinions are fine but please explain why you feel this way. What makes a character a token? Is it simply their isolated state of being the only person of color or is there more to it?

Let’s talk!

*Please keep the discussion respectful.


14 thoughts on “Open Discussion: Token or Not?

  1. Love this question, and I would like to know the answer! I would hope not, as long as they were a well-developed character and not full of stereotypes, but I’m going to step aside and let POC answer, because I wouldn’t want to create token characters and would love to hear some wisdom!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a tough question because we don’t know what’s in the heart of the writer. Is he/she creating the character to meet an inclusive criteria? Or did the character develop as a person of colour organically — the same way an author develops her hero and heroine? My gut reaction is that it’s token. Like Hallmark movies that are suddenly casting African American or Asian sidekicks for the heroine and calling that diverse. Well, it is, in a way but since it’s the only way they cast people of colour than it’s not diversity to me — it’s a cop out. If they had a more equally matched stash of movies where some had poc heroes and heroines and some had white. — than that would be a different story. So I guess if an author had a reputation for including people of all colours in their stories — with a mix of who played leading and secondary roles — then I wouldn’t say it was token.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Love what you have to say, Kav! We don’t know the heart of the writer, but if they are producing Hallmark type books with only poc as a secondary character, then chances are they’re using poc as sterotypes to “fill a quota.”

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Another ditto to what Kav said! We don’t always know the heart or intent of an author.

    I think, whether by life experience, societal engagement and awareness, or other factors, some authors automatically think in more diverse terms than others. Even in my case, it’s only been within the past few years that I’ve been tipped off to how many Christian Fiction readers don’t or may not even think about seeing diversity in ChristFic, that a number of them don’t or barely realize that diverse ChristFic books and authors even exist. They only know about who and what their few favorite or known Christian publishers publish.

    Then a lot of aspiring authors naturally write more of what they’ve been most used to seeing in the genre. Or, when they’re following well-known practices in the publishing business and want the best chance of being traditionally published by a company they’re familiar with, they send queries or submit manuscripts similar to the kinds of books those publishers have already published. If a new author hasn’t already seen diversity from a publisher, that author might not even consider or think too long about trying to write and submit a story that’s diverse.

    So, when the issue of diversity simply hasn’t been on a lot of ChristFic readers’ and authors’ minds for years, they may not know what to do when they first become aware of the “lack of diversity” problem. Again, one author may naturally create diverse characters because that’s how they see them, while another author may intentionally include a character of color because it’s their best attempt at doing something about the diversity issue they weren’t previously even aware of. 😀 Heeheehee, that black or brown minor character might be a token, or they might reflect an author’s new and earnest effort to start being more inclusive. ❤

    Whatever the case, I think patterns over time speak louder than one book, especially for publishers. And, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. I think it was this past Hallmark Christmas movie season when I saw a fellow author, I believe, mention how they sent a tweet to Hallmark about the ongoing lack of diverse casts in the movies, and Hallmark tweeted back about how they care about diversity and are looking to address the issue. The author was kind of excited about Hallmark's response, until someone else chimed in to say they'd gotten the same message from Hallmark years ago, and the movies still haven't changed much. The occasional sidekicks and extras of color just aren't cutting it for folks.

    As for me, I don't particularly care to hear how important racial diversity is to you if what you do, what you produce, doesn't change.

    Granted, I know things take time, and there are different levels to what needs to change. A publisher may be aware of their lack of diverse books, and they see something should be done about that, but their publishing staff isn't diverse either, so they have more to take care of. An author may become aware of their lack of diverse characters, and they want to do something about that, but then they look around and realize they don't have any diverse relationships in real life, so there's more they have to take care of.

    And really, especially for those who claim Christ and love, there has to be an inward change for an outward change to stick–otherwise diverse characters will always be tokens in an attempt to appease the public and to look like you care. Christians have to be concerned in their hearts, have to honestly believe it's significant that God "has made from *one blood* every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth" and that folks "from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues" are to have a place "before the throne." ChristFic authors and publishers who profess that God is love and that He so loved the whole world have to be convicted at their core about diversity and about how what we do and produce, not just what we say, reflects what's truly in us–and how it reflects on the loving God we profess.

    I've mentioned on this blog before that I got a chance, via another blog, to speak with a rep from one of the major Christian publishers about diversity–within the past year or so, I believe. She assured the blog readers that the publisher is aware of and cares about the problem, so I'm giving it time and staying on the lookout. While I appreciate the kind words, time will tell if the publisher's words were a token declaration or not.

    Actions, especially if they're ongoing patterns, can teach us stuff. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is a really good point that I hadn’t considered — “Heeheehee, that black or brown minor character might be a token, or they might reflect an author’s new and earnest effort to start being more inclusive.”

      Liked by 2 people

  4. If our novels have POC because we live in a diverse society, then there should be more than one. So yes, having an isolated POC does feel like a token character to me. Unless there’s a good reason why your main character only knows one POC. My trilogy includes people with different family origins that include Ireland, Africa, Jamaica, Mexico & Norway. Not because I’m trying to be diverse in a politically correct fashion but because I find a variety of backgrounds & perspectives far more interesting — in life & in fiction.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Nadine really hit the nail on the head (several times). I’ll confess that it’s something I struggle with as a white author. My first book only had one POC, and he was only in a couple of scenes. I wrote most of the book about six years ago, before I was awake to a lot of race issues. And I honestly didn’t think about adding diversity intentionally. I wrote mostly white characters because I lived in a mostly white world.

    Now, I’m trying to be intentional about seeking out diversity in life, in the voices I hear and center, in my reading, AND in my writing. But now I have a different struggle. I find it utterly intimidating to try to write in the POV of a POC because that’s not my experience, and I’m terrified I’ll fall into stereotyping or just get something offensively wrong.

    So my current manuscript has a best friend (and his wife) who’s a POC, and he’s a HUGELY important character, but I don’t write in his POV. And I’m still dependent on my sensitivity reader to make sure I get them right.
    I would LOVE to write diverse main characters in the future, but even more than that, I want to see more authors who ARE POC, who are already writing these books, finally get the recognition (and the contracts and readership) they deserve.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yeah, it can be scary to try something new. But please don’t be too terrified, Erynn! 🙂 It sounds like you’re doing things right: being aware, seeking out diversity, having a sensitivity reader… You may not even realize how far ahead you are already just by having your attitude.

      I sometimes hear other white authors say similar things, that they don’t create characters of color because they don’t feel comfortable or qualified to do so, not being people of color themselves. My response is usually something like, “Well, you’re a woman author. Are there never any male characters who show up in your books, because you yourself are not a man?”

      Countless authors write about people who are different from them in some way. I’m a black woman and a bookworm-turned-author. I’ve never been a violist or a serious pianist, have never been a celebrity or a soldier, have never been what people would (wrongly) call an “illegitimate” child, have never been a theater actress or been treated for mental illness, have never been a princess or king or concubine or scientist, have never been male, have never been white–and yet I’ve got main characters who are. If we each could only create characters just like us, who’ve only experienced what we’ve personally experienced, then a good number of us would run out of fresh writing material pretty quick. 😀

      While it’s true that writing from a character’s perspective is deeper than only seeing that character from the outside, it’s completely possible for authors to effectively “get in the head” and to “see through the eyes” of someone different. We do it all the time. I think society just gives us the notion somehow that race is the one line that’s too risky, too weird, *too different* for authors to safely cross–that we should keep our creativity racially segregated. That if we find ourselves wanting to cross that racial line, then maybe we’re strange. That if we dare to do it, every reader of that different race and each of their more culturally competent friends will be waiting there with a club, ready to beat us silly at the first sign of a social slip-up in our fictional story.

      Teeheehee… ❤ ❤ ❤

      We observe our real lives, we seek out relationships, we pay attention to what's happening in our nation and other parts of the world, we use our imaginations, we write from a place of empathy and respect, we listen to feedback from readers–and we gotta have grace with ourselves. *No author* is perfect. We do our best, and even if there's something here or there that we don't get 100% right, the sky won't fall on us. We live, we learn, we get better with time, and there will be readers who love and are touched by our books along the way, flaws and all. 'Cause, hey–readers aren't perfect, either. We're all human, here. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well said, Nadine, and thank you! When I first met my character, Jolene, she was black. At the beginning of writing the first book, I roomed with a woman at a conference. She was beautiful, outgoing & had hair so thick she needed four towels to dry it. Found that out when I went to take a shower & couldn’t find a clean towel! 🙂 And she inspired Jolene.

        Jolene’s racial background was as much a part of her character as her passion to help women, her love for her family & friends, & her extreme dislike for exercise. I love her; she surprised me at every turn & my only concern is that I didn’t do her wonderfulness justice.

        But then, I feel that way about all my main characters. Which is kind of important when you’re spending so much time with them! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I have two main characters in two of my books that are men of color. Actually, I know them personally and asked if each would be okay being a hero in a book. They loved the idea. Because the books they are in are part of a series the first one is featured throughout the rest of the series. Both marry white women, but the hero who is continually featured went through a lot of social suffering, as did his white wife, before they decided to balk against tradition to marry. He’s fun and adorable. Near the end of one of the books he and his wife have twins, very diverse twins – one white, one black. This occurs in one in 5,000 births of mixed race couples, and it’s a very interesting part of the book. Soon I hope to feature a white male falling in love with a black woman. No, they are not minor characters at all.

    Liked by 3 people

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