Monday, September 2, 2013

When Does Diversity Become Token?

I was reading some research the other day and came across this article written in 2011: Why Wuthering Heights Gives Me Hope. I haven't seen the last adaptation of Wuthering Heights and I haven't read the novel in more than ten years, but the article's point intrigued me because it's related to my novel--

Why aren't there black people in British costume dramas?

The article, by the way, was written by a black British actor. Apparently, in the version of Wuthering Heights that he mentions, Heathcliff was played by a black actor named James Howson. This isn't a case of color blind casting, since Heathcliff is described as "dark" and "a little Lascar" and "gypsy-like" within the novel, so the casting could very well be a legitimate reading. Didn't the father pick him up in Liverpool or something?



It made me think about a BBC TV show I was watching earlier this year called Garrow's Law. The show was set in the Georgian era, the era in which my story takes places, with real Old Bailey cases providing the storylines. Stuff like the suppression of political societies, corrupt Bow Street Runners, sodomy and the bad treatment of sailors after they fought for Britain during the Napoleonic Wars were among the cases. Garrow's Law also included stories about blacks during the time period--the Zong case and the story of Luisa Calderon, a free mulatto girl from Trinidad who was tortured under General Thomas Picton. Then, of course, there are the lives of famous people like Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho,  and the historical figure who helped inspire my fictional family, Dido Belle, Lord Mansfield's mulatto niece.

From my research, I've learned that blacks in Georgian era England were largely servants (slaves and free), but also many were sailors. It seems that there were more black men than black women in Britain and that these black men sometimes married poor white girls. Due to the British East India Company connection, Indian men and half-Indian children of British officials also began to filter into Britain in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, they were poor and poor people are not, generally, the subject of costume dramas.

In the upcoming fourth season of Downton Abbey, there was a big hoopla because a black character is being introduced. Gary Carr is the actor and he is playing an American jazz singer. It's about 1922. I'm not sure what his exact storyline is, but the writer Julian Fellowes had said that he wanted to introduce a black or Asian character on the show if it was "historically believable." Which is as it should be, I think.

I once read a romance novel taking place in the late 1820s where the heroine was half Chinese. Her hero was a British lord. Naturally, I was thrilled at the idea--finally, something close to me (I'm half Japanese, but in terms of historical romance novels, I'll take Chinese). And then the girl turns out to be a translator, who knows feng-shui and martial arts, does tai chi, quotes Confucius, and explains tantric sex to her lover. But she's a good Christian girl, too.

Um.

To me, the Garrow's Law episodes felt like they struck the right note in diversifying a cast--not only because they are based on actual historical figures of color--whereas the above book felt token to me.

I wonder about contemporary stories. When is a cast in a TV show or a book diverse versus token? Is it when there is that black character who dies in, like, the second episode? Or when the Asian character in the show (or the novel) is really, really good at math? ('Cause my math is simply awful.)

Take USA's Graceland, for instance. The leads are: a man of African-American ancestry (the actor is half black and half white), a white man, two white women, a black man and a Mexican-American portray FBI, DEA and Customs agents. In the course of their undercover work, we've met Nigerian drug dealers, Korean gangsters, Russian mafia and a Mexican assassin. In other words, they have everybody on the show.

I'm not militant about demanding more ethnic and racial diversity in movies or TV. 'Cause, you know, more Asians, Hispanics and blacks on TV are great, but I still don't see me on TV. I'm looking at you, Sullivan and Son. Awesome that there's a sitcom based around a half-Irish, half-Korean comedian. Boo on the fact that the protagonist's sister is obviously fully Korean. Dominant genes are not that dominant.

On the rare occasions that I write contemporary pieces (i.e., pretty much everything before this WIP took over my life), my characters have all kinds of backgrounds--white, black, Hispanic, Jewish, half Asian. It might seem token, but I'm reflecting my own reality. I honestly get confused by writers who say they don't know how to write characters of other races in modern times. I realize that my experience is not typical. Maybe we don't naturally write characters different from us. Maybe we're worried we won't portray them "correctly" or we worry that they come out "stereotypical." I wonder where that diversity vs. token ethnic character line is.

8 comments:

  1. I always find this topic interesting.

    I think nowadays shows (and books) should just let people be people. But maybe that's just me reflecting my own background because when I have a non-white character, there's no difference between them and the white people around them because I grew up in the suburbs and until I got to high school, that is what I saw. Unfortunately, I still watch Degrassi, but they have ethnic people on there that aren't defined by their ethnicity or treated any differently because of it and I think there needs to be a whole lot more of that. And not just in shows targeted to children. That's my normal. Maybe that's why I like The Office so much. The Indian girl isn't integral to the cast, but she's shallow and ditsy and street smart and I love that.

    It's really sad though. The odds of me turning to a show with a non-stereo-typically diverse cast (if it's diverse at all) or picking a book up with a MC that isn't white is horribly low. I'd almost have to seek it out. And honestly, I don't think I should have to do that.

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    1. I think it's one of the reasons why I like Graceland, actually--the agents and the criminals are just who they are and what they are. The only point that's made about some of the characters' race or ethnicity is that the criminals tend to belong to an ethnically-based criminal organization.

      I once wrote a short story in college that had, I think, an Asian character in there. I didn't make a point of it--why should I? I mean, I'm Asian, after all. The workshop wanted to know why that character was Asian when the rest of the cast was white (they weren't, I just didn't bother to mention their races). I didn't like that very much.

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  2. Krystal pretty much said a lot of what I was thinking, but I'll elaborate a bit anyway - I feel like in contemporary stories, there's a fine line to straddle: like Krystal said, sometimes it's refreshing to see non-white characters just be PEOPLE and not a stereotype, and no attention is called to their differences just because they look different. The flip side, though, is that writers can be accused of being culturally insensitive/ignorant if they don't make any note of the character's background. I guess the argument is if a white character could easily be slipped into the non-white character's place, why did you bother making them non-white in the first place, other than to possibly feel good about your attempts at diversity? I can see how it's tricky to navigate.

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    1. It is a tricky line when you think about it? I've read books, like the one I mentioned, and put it down and thought there's a right way and a wrong way to do that kind of story of the meeting of the cultures.

      That might be one of the arguments against people of other ethnicities and races in historicals. People seem to have this weird belief that in olden times in Europe, there were only white people. Which isn't necessarily true. And I guess that in a historical setting, you'd have to make a point of the differences and the reactions.

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    2. "I guess the argument is if a white character could easily be slipped into the non-white character's place, why did you bother making them non-white in the first place, other than to possibly feel good about your attempts at diversity?"

      I don't think you were necessarily making this argument yourself, Thea, so much as pointing it out, but when people say this it really makes me want to scream. White is a choice just as much as any other ethnicity is a choice! To me, the answer to "but why include POC?" is -- WHY NOT? I feel, very strongly, that authors need a *reason* for an all-white cast, that it's the diverse cast that can pass without question.

      Michelle, as for your post, as usual I really enjoy reading your thoughts. :) What you said about reflecting your own reality is so, so true for me -- the people in my life are so diverse that any cast starring US would be deemed "unrealistic" or "tokenizing" (or SOMETHING), and yet here we are, real people. ;)

      You asked about the line between tokenizing and diversity . . . in general, I think making characters real people, always, no matter what their ethnicities, goes a long way in mitigating any assumption of tokenism. And I think another answer is even *more* diversity. No one person can be representative of his/her race anyway. Umm, someone on Twitter put it better than I could this morning on the #DiversityInSFF tag -- I just looked it up and retweeted but I'll quote it here too:

      "#DiversityInSFF If you're worried your gay or POC character is a token, here's a crazy idea--add a second one.— Eleven-ThirtyEight (@eleventhirtyate) September 4, 2013"

      Anyway, thanks for this post; I always find it useful to see what other people are thinking about this stuff . . . helps me chew through all this stuff myself. :)

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    3. It's a topic that, like for you, is of enduring interest to me...and likely at the root of why I can't seem to just write frothy historical romances lol. Love reading them, can't edit myself down to just two viewpoint characters with relatively simple issues.

      I saw a couple of posts on AW about diversifying a cast in books. My answer is always "go out and meet people" and "write them as people first. Ethnicity is incidental."

      I saw that #DiversityInSFF tag but I didn't get to explore it. It's good that it's being discussed, even in 140 characters. There's so much to say on the topic of race and diversity, after all.

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  3. I never think about the ethnicity of my characters until I want to contrast a feature or relate something like hair color to typical behavioral characteristics, for example, red-heads being temperamental. Maybe a visual is something I want to point out to the reader such as milky-white skin against a red, velvet chiffon dress.

    There are a number of ways that I like to play on visuals, but they have nothing to do with the character ethnicity. If I want to include a n Asian character, I will point out her cat-like, slanted eyes and straight dark hair, ONLY if I want to create that visual for the reader.

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    1. In this WIP, I've made a point of mentioning the MC's blue eyes compared to his daughters' dark brown eyes--because one is half black, the other is white with a little bit of Native American blood.

      In the past--I may just wrote it. Or given a last name or a first name that made the ethnicity obvious or not.

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Thank you so much for your comments and thoughts. Check back soon. I reply to all comments. Happy reading!