Diversity or Tokenism

The delicate balance between egalitarianism and shame-avoidance

I have great sympathy for casting and art directors. I do. Making sure they don’t appear to be favoring one social identifier over another is tough. The Power Rangers and Benetton are notorious examples of trying too hard:


The careful calculation is sometimes painful to behold: Two white actors (one male, one female) to quiet the fears of the dwindling white population that they are becoming a minority, one Asian actor, one black actor with non-kinky hair (because that would be too radical and might not fit in the helmet), and one Latino actor.


For a clothing line that prides itself on its wide color palette, it seems to make sense that they would want their models to also be colorful and diverse. But going this far to show diversity screams of stagy artificiality.

Diversity versus clumping

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. But when you look at groups of people in some of the more diverse settings like a community college classroom or waiting in line for a movie, there is naturally more clumping of types. One group may be all women and 70% black, 20% Latina, and 10% mixed race. Another group may be an Indian man, a Japanese man, an Irish man, a Chinese woman, and an Italian woman. We tend to clump by age, by body type, by gender, by religion, by sexuality, by level of ability (e.g., deaf people and people in wheelchairs), by race, by economic status, and a number of other descriptors.

We clump into more homogeneity because it is in our DNA to seek similar people. My favorite proof of this is a Lesley Stahl segment on the 60 Minutes TV show a few years ago on Yale’s Baby Lab.

Carefully putting together a group for maximum diversity all in one shot is what I call tokenism. It is more blatant when a cast of characters in a movie or novel is all hetero white men except for one woman, or except for one black man, or maybe except for a gay white man and an Asian woman. It is less obvious when there are only two characters, and one is black and hetero and one is white and gay. It is harder to infer tokenism when you have such a small sample.

Diversity with two

The problem with diversity in small casts is in our desire to identify with elements of characters. It is what we naturally do when we consume entertainments. In a cast of two, like the example above, the black character takes on the mantle of potentially representing all black men, and all heterosexual men.

So we try (as in the Benetton ad above) to include a couple of each demographic, so no single person is responsible for representing an entire class. It becomes almost algorithmic: Add one gay character and she’s a token. Add two gay characters and you are being diverse.

But the process of making one piece of art diverse in itself is exhausting. The better strategy is to say to yourself:

What type of character has the world (or at least my audience) seen less recently?

Serial diversity

I think of this as serial diversity. (I’ll try to come up with a better term eventually.) A sense of a diverse world doesn’t come from any one snapshot of it. It comes from multiple experiences of it.

So in my own writing, I started out with a space opera that was flirting with tokenism. The main characters were: het Euro man, het Euro woman, het Latina woman, het Korean woman, het Chinese woman, gay Euro man, het Euro woman, bi Euro man, het black man, het Native American man, het Euro man, etc. Since then I have focused mostly on making my principal characters more diverse.

My short stories have featured a het white teen boy, a disabled white man, an old white woman with dementia, a female Russian astronaut, a homeless Brazilian girl, a black albino and his transsexual starship captain, a teen boy from Bhutan, and a young Egyptian-American Muslim woman recently. My novels have featured a young asexual Latino man, a bi white man and a black lesbian, and my current work in progress has a bi, blind, and disabled man as the main character.

It is the main character or characters, I believe, that make the most difference in exposing readers to different life histories, abilities, and limitations. And in entering into the lives of protagonists different in some significant way from ourselves as an audience, we face our fears of the other and run away, or we become more aware of the commonality of all human experience.


If you enjoyed this particular essay, I have others on the intersection between social issues and creativity: Subtle Oppression, Subversive Fiction, Portraying the Other Gender, No More Happily Ever After, and Why do straight parents keep having gay kids? New blog posts arrive weekly, so check back again soon!




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