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Representing Diversity: Avoiding Tokenism

Tokenism is the practice of inclusivity through exclusivity. It is the half-hearted attempt at ethnic or gender diversity by adding in one character of the missing type (South Park riffs on this practice by outright naming one character -- the only black child -- Token).

What's wrong with tokenism is that it's not real inclusion. It charges one character with representing the entirety of their gender or race, usually by stereotyping them. And when you see it in action, it feels wrong to the eye and the brain. I don't think there's a single member of my generation who never wondered as a kid why Smurfette was the only female smurf. They later added Nanny and Sassette, so there was a girl smurf for each age group, but the message was nonetheless clear -- boys had jobs and personalities; girls weren't boys, and that was all that mattered about them.

When dealing with any visual medium, from television to posters to comics, true representation and inclusion means painting a whole tapestry of inhabitants in your world, and making it clear to the viewer visually. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to write main characters that you aren't comfortable writing, gender or race-wise. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't exist in your world.

You see, it's not just about the main characters. It's about the people you see in the background passing through or talking on their cell phone or operating a bus. It's the police officer walking the beat behind the characters, the crossing guard and the school kids on the corner. It's the band on the poster and the firefighters whizzing by on their truck.

Turning the character into a plot device rather than a person is another form of tokenism. If the only time you have a secondary character who isn't white or male is because the plot calls for it, it stands out. It also puts you in danger of the "Next, on a Very Special Episode" trap, where the plot is telegraphed from miles away and trite before it's was even written. The viewers spend more time predicting the plot than appreciating it, and usually walk away shaking their heads.

One of the most notable examples of good, albeit non-comic-oriented, inclusion was on the Degrassi television shows. One of the cast was a girl in a wheelchair who attended the school; in many episodes, she simply showed up in the background, passing through in the hallway with all the other kids. When she did have a larger role in an episode, it seemed natural, and it didn't cue the viewer into wondering how the plot would related to her handicap. That's visible inclusivity, done right.

Whether a comic needs to be inclusive depends on the type of comic and how insular the setting is.

  • If you're writing Family Circus or Ziggy, the answer is no – it's about one family unit, with generally no interaction with non-family members.
  • If your characters are all completely non-human (Walt Kelly's Pogo, for instance), race is not generally an issue, although gender representation is still something to keep in mind.
  • However, big coastal cities or fictionalized settings altogether usually are and should be richly diverse. Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan, Alan Moore's Top Ten and Kurt Busiek's Astro City are fantastic examples of this; in any city scene, you will find people of all races, genders, even species. The main characters in Transmetropolitan are by and large white; the cast in Top Ten spans a pretty big range of race, gender and species. But both feel very inclusive in the scope of the overall setting; all the little details add up to a rich mosaic.

Do you have to be inclusive? No; there are no political-correctness police that will arrest you for not doing so, and frankly, not every setting needs it. But a little bit of forethought can make a big difference into the depth and believability of the world you are creating.

cr0wgrrl wrote:If you're

Gordon McAlpin's picture

[quote=cr0wgrrl]If you're writing Family Circus or Ziggy, the answer is no – it's about one family unit, with generally no interaction with non-family members.[/quote]

People in the same family can't be different races? I should show you my family photo sometime, you racist.

Just kidding.

When I create new characters for Multiplex, I first decide if the character is a complete idiot. If the answer is yes, then they're white. Gotta keep things realistic!

Multiplex is a twice weekly humor comic about the staff of the Multiplex 10 Cinemas and the movies that play there.

Dangit, now the fact that I

Linda Howard Valentine's picture

Dangit, now the fact that I was citing Multiplex in the follow-up to this is going to look like sucking up. ;> Ah well, such is life.

One thing I like to do is

Scarybug's picture

One thing I like to do is give all of my characters sightly different skin-colors, unless they are siblings or something. This is more realistic than having all of the white people one exact color and all of the black people another exact color.

Of course, my comic also includes fantasy races, so I have to make sure I avoid token tolkienism.


Nerdcore: The Core Wars

___ Nerdcore: The Core Wars

ahhh! bad pun! bad pun!

Linda Howard Valentine's picture

ahhh! bad pun! bad pun!

People are people

I tend to believe that tokenism and stereotyping go hand-in-hand. If you're a white creator writing a black character, write him or her as a person first and worry later about any modifications that might be necessary. You may even find there aren't any. If you try to write them as a black person first, the chances are you'll end up with a stereotype who just seems ... token.

The same holds true for black creators writing white characters, men writing female characters and female creators writing male characters. If the character is a real person, he or she shouldn't seem token even if they are the only representative of their sex and/or race.

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

woot! you totally beat me to

Linda Howard Valentine's picture

woot! you totally beat me to one of the points I was going to make today in a follow-up. I totally agree with this.

Well, being in the UK, I had

Well, being in the UK, I had a six-hour head-start on you!

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Tokenism, in my humble

Wiz Rollins's picture

Tokenism, in my humble opinion, is exactly what it sounds like... dumb.

If your script needs a person from a different race/religion/ethnicity/planet/whatever... use them.

If your script doesn't need them... don't.

Perhaps that sounds too simple. I don't know. But simple works for me.


writer @ yirmumah



writer @ yirmumah

I think that depends on the

Linda Howard Valentine's picture

I think that depends on the medium. Your formula works really well for Yirmumah. There's not a lot of character development required, nor does there need to be. The llama is awesome just the way he is.

In contrast, take your co-collaborator's Hero By Night Diaries. DJ Coffman is creating an entire world in that comic, and the focus for that isn't just about whether the script calls for a specific gender or ethnicity for a plot point, but whether the reader can look at the comic and feel welcome in it, that they're part of that world. Settings like that are where tokenism really stands out, and sadly where it's easiest to creep in. But I think Coffman's doing a great job in bringing Steel City to life and avoiding that pitfall.

I think it's more of a

I think it's more of a matter of how they're used when the script doesn't specifically call for them. And if the answer is "never" then it does look weird when they're pulled out for story purposes. After all, most roles in stories don't actually call for specific races, religions etc.

<a xhref="" target=blank>Kiwis by beat!</a>

Great post!

Michael Moss's picture

What you wrote is so true. Although, I would say it is a large challenge, to say the least, to write for different ethnicities and not make huge mistakes. Research
is good, but ultimately a creator is taking a risk.
There was a comic called 'Brother Man' put out by
a small indie press, drawn exclusively for and by African-Americans. There were no caucasians in it at any
point. I'd like for my comics to be inclusive, but to
be truthful they aren't really. It's not that I don't
care about it, I do, but it is very difficult to do right.

It is difficult; however, it is also worth it and I should be taking more chances; I've heard
that this is the year of taking risks :-)


I reject your reality and substitute my own!

Erg gingerly steps into the minefield

Erg's picture

I think another reason for tokenism is fear. A token character is safe. Few comics have room for several minorities of a group that is relatively small. It wouldn't make sense. So, naturally, that character come to represent that entire race in the eyes of the public at large minority or not. Look at Ashok (I think that is how he spells it, I haven't read Dilbert in a few years and I usually see it spelled Asook) in Dilbert. Ashok regularly stirs up controversy because Ashok sterotypes Indians as naive. This isn't Adams intention. Everone in Dilbert is severely disfunctional. Its how the strip works. But Ashok is the only Indian character, so for him to be a normal Dilbert character is offensive stereotyping to others. But if he wasn't like that, he'd be a token character. Its a difficult line to walk, especially for gender/race sensitive or commercial creators.