Diversity in books matters (and no, token characters are not enough)

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Representation in novels (more than “token characters”) is needed. More complex and non-stereotypical characters that are not white should be included. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A little while ago, I was cleaning out my closet and I found a piece of paper with made-up characters, all of whom had White-European names. As someone of Indian descent, with a name deriving from Sanskrit, I thought this was fascinating. I told my friend — who is also of Indian descent — and she sent me a screenshot of a story she created in elementary school with all White protagonists. This similarity between the characters we had created individually was no coincidence. 

It was then that I realized while growing up and creating stories, most of the characters I created for school or for my own creative endeavors were White, with names borrowed mostly from the books I read. 

If the books I had read while growing up had more racially diverse characters, I wonder now — would this have affected the stories I created? Or even the perception I had of myself? 

Last year, I wrote an article emphasizing why diversity — which includes proper representation of characters of different races, ethnicities, genders and social classes as well as characters of the LGBTQIA+ community and characters with disabilities — in TV shows and movies are important. Something equally important is this kind of representation in novels. 

Many authors resort to using “token characters” who, in terms of race, are characters of racial minorities sprinkled in to make the books seem more diverse. Often, they embody stereotypes people often attribute to their races. A prime example of a token character is Cho Chang, in “Harry Potter” — she is an East Asian character who has little character development. Her addition to the book series felt more like it was supposed to fill up a quota, rather than contribute anything substantial. 

Rather than creating token characters, more authors should create complex, non-stereotypical characters apart from White protagonists. People of color are more than the stereotypes bestowed upon us, and it is essential that writing embodies this as well. 

animal figurine on books
Particularly for children of racial minorities, it is extremely important for them to see themselves reflected in novels as complex characters with important roles. Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

These characters and characteristics should be incorporated in books of all reading levels. However, it is especially important that children’s books incorporate racially diverse, non-token characters due to how much children are impacted by not only what they see on TV, but what they read as well. 

For children belonging to racial minorities, it is immensely important for them to see themselves reflected in novels as complex characters with important roles. Personally, I remember thinking of the characters in books as role models — I wanted to be just like Cam JansenErica from Dragon Slayers’ Academy and Ruth Rose from A to Z Mysteries. But none of these characters looked like me. 

Studies show that children form stereotypes at young ages, based not only on what they see on TV, but also on what they read. If children do not get enough exposure to racially diverse characters, it can lead to the “othering” or exclusion of children who are not represented — often people of color. 

The way that characters are portrayed and described in novels also affects perceptions of beauty. In many books, I remember reading about characters with light skin (often described as porcelain) and bright blue or green eyes. For children who do not have such characteristics, it is detrimental to constantly be excluded. 

There were barely any books with characters that looked like me. For the few books that did include characters of color, the authors categorized them as “nerdy” or they were side characters with absolutely no development. I didn’t want to be the side character that people forgot about; I wanted to be the fearless main character that solved mysteries or fought dragons. 

Angela Joy, author of the book “Black is a Rainbow Color” spoke about this recently, pointing out how people of color became conditioned to believe only White people belonged in books. She also said that when her own daughter writes, her daughter pictures White people rather than characters that look like her. It is a sad cycle that is perpetuated by authors that constantly write about White characters and sprinkle in token characters of color, and it is enabled by those who refuse to see this as a problem. 

Although there are many books that are moving away from these standards, there are still numerous authors that have not. This problem is improving, but clearly not in a way that is fast enough or significant enough to make a real difference. 

And it is not just the responsibility of authors of color, or other diverse backgrounds, to fix. All authors must work to include complicated, dynamic, diverse characters of different races, gender identities, sexualities, social classes and abilities so that people of all age groups — and especially children — see themselves represented in a positive way that is not stereotypical. 

Authors need to be willing to do adequate research to properly represent people of all backgrounds, and readers must be willing to diversify their bookshelves. Even school curriculum should change to incorporate and encourage books that represent characters of diverse backgrounds as well. If this happens, children will be able to view themselves and others in a more positive light, and this will carry on into adulthood. Books are extremely influential, and it is high time that we take advantage of their impact. 

1 COMMENT

  1. I’m sorry, but I think you’re completely wrong about Cho Chang, and can’t even think how you came to your conclusion.

    I agree with the school thing, they should seek a broad range of work. Wholly disagree with your prescribing what someone ought to write though.

    Lastly, point of contention, you want representation but don’t want to be the side character, but in life everyone is the side character 🤷‍♂️

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