What is tokenism?

Tokenism is defined as when the person includes a minority character just for the sake of including a minority character. It’s a weak attempt to show ‘diversity’ and ‘progressiveness’. Just because you include a few token diverse characters in your book does not mean that it’s progressive. Instead you will incur the ire of critics, members of the community that you are attempting to tokenise, and it’s best that you don’t do this at all. Here are some tips to steer clear of tokenism in your novel:

#1 Include several minority characters

In a cast that comprises majorly while people, if you’ve included 1 or 2 african-americans, or in a cast full of straight people, there is only one character that’s lgbtq+, it’s a sure sign of tokenism. While trying to figure out how many characters to include from which ethnic backgrounds, do a quick study of the demographics of the place that your novel is set in.

#2 Make sure that your minority characters have important roles in the story

Don’t limit the characters to playing the best friend, the sympathetic store owner, or the landlady. Have them play key roles in the story instead of being just a plot device. If it is important to your story, give them complete plot arcs and a major goal that they can achieve.

#3 Don’t revolve their characteristics around their minority-ness

The minority status should be a part of their identity, not their entire identity. They should have hobbies, life goals, and an entire arc that doesn’t talk about their minority-ness.

#4 Avoid objectification

In a lot of seemingly ‘progressive’ and ‘inclusive’ novels, you must’ve seen that the female character is killed off just to provide a backstory for the brooding hero in his thirst for revenge. Or characters of color who exist only to provide that ‘aha!’ moment to the main character (usually a white heterosexual male). Don’t write diverse characters if you’re only going to show them as an object.

#5 Use sensitivity readers to avoid tokenism

While writing characters of a minority group, use readers from those minority groups in order to understand whether you need to change something in the way that you are portraying them. Sensitivity readers are members of the marginalized groups who criticize and give you feedback about the characters who identify with that marginalization.

#6 Do your research

It’s very important to do thorough research before you embark on writing about a character from a marginalized group that you don’t identify with. If you are a privileged person, the writing that you will do about other characters will come from a place of second-hand experiences. Though it might seem strange to do this kind of research for your fiction novel, you’ll thank us later for empathetic portrayals of characters from minority communities.

#7 Respect #OwnVoices stories

The #OwnVoices movement seeks to give a space to authors from marginalized communities to write about their hardships. For example, if you are a straight, cisgender male, then you should definitely avoid centering your story on a gay character. This does not mean that you should avoid writing about the marginalization that people face, but if you center your book on them when you yourself aren’t from that community, you may reinforce discrimination instead of doing away with it.

Writing inclusively and without resorting to tokenism isn’t easy, but it’s not all that difficult too. Remember that as a privileged author, you have the moral responsibility to do your research and represent people from marginalized communities with empathy rather than a savior complex. No character you write should be defined just by their marginalization. For more article on fiction writing, check out the PaperTrue Resource Center!