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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

People or Rosetta Stones?

My friends and I used to watch television with the sole intention of finding tokens. The token black friend. The token female character. Etc. Tokenism is an issue in Hollywood that has real implications for our societies because it gives people false sense of diversity. Before we move any further, I want to give my definition of tokenism.

Tokenism is taking a person from a minority or oppressed community, and making them the sole voice of their entire minority group. 

If you still watch Disney, you might be familiar with the show Jessie. It is about a young woman (Jessie played by Debby Ryan) who becomes the nanny to a multicultural family living in an affluent neighborhood in New York. While this sounds like a wonderful step forward for diversity, I think it is a huge step backwards. Just look at two of the children in this family - Zuri (who was adopted from Uganda, Africa) and Ravi (who was adopted from West Bengal, India). Zuri exhibits urban black stereotypes despite never having been a part of "black" society. Her two older siblings (the biological children) and Zuri have distinct differences in their mannerisms and sayings. Zuri's only role is to provide the "hilarious" opinion of a sassy black woman in the making. Ravi on the other hand is as "Indian" as you can get. He's always talking about samosas, says "great Ganesh," and has a lizard named Mr. Kipling (after the author of the Jungle Book). Disney serves Ravi as an entire platter of everything Indian. He is the only exposure to South Asia currently on Disney (which pathetic representation of a community that has a large presence in America). This is the television that the children of our next generation are watching. Disney had a marvelous opportunity to talk about identification and diversity, but settled for stereotypes and tokenism. 

Tokenism vs Affirmative Action
Critics of tokenism argue that affirmative action is the same thing. I think they are opposing forces. Affirmative action takes minorities or people of oppressed groups and places them in positions that they are qualified for. Affirmative Action exists because there are serious socio-econmoic and gender biases barriers in our nation that many people have yet to acknowledge and fix. Tokenism takes minorities or people of oppressed groups and places them in positions solely because they are minorities or oppressed. I'll admit, this is a tricky line to walk on. It focuses our attention to the intent of writers, school admission officers, HR mangers, which is incredibly hard to judge. But, it is worth thinking about. 

Encountering Tokenism
Freedom Writers is one of my favorite movies. Midway through the film, there is a brilliant young woman who is a new student entering the predominately white honors classroom. After watching the Color Purple, the teacher asks of her black opinion. Her response? Something I have thought of a million times when asked similar questions:"How the hell should I know the black perspective on the Color Purple? Teachers treat me like I'm some kind of Rosetta stone for African-Americans. What? Black people learn how to read, and we all miraculously come to the same conclusion?"

I am not the Rosetta stone for black people. There is a beautiful thriving black culture in the United States, and there was never a time the the black people of America elected me to be their representative and spokesperson. I'd rather you ask for my opinion, not my "black" opinion or my "female" opinion. Though, there is something to be said for perspective. Again, I know-I'm splitting hairs. I can't tell you how all black women felt while watching Dark Girls. I can tell you my perspective on being a darker black woman living in America. I'm sure that there are correlations between my perspective and the perspectives of other black women, but I will never claim to be the expert on another person's thought process. If there is something happening in Pakistan, I ask my Pakistani friend. Not for the opinion of the whole country, but her view. Why? Because she has a unique view of a community that I don't have. As a woman living in a male privileged world, I can offer you my perspective and story. But it doesn't take an investigative journalist to know that not every woman is a feminist.

I can offer you my perspective on issues. I can't offer you an opinion for an entire group without some level of a democratic election. 

Fighting Tokenism
In addition to being false proponents of diversity, token characters are often boring and bland. They have no depth, the lack interesting story lines, and the story can often do well without them. As much as I blame Hollywood for tokenism, I also see people in Hollywood making real progress. I spent the last three months of my life finishing all nine seasons of Grey's Anatomy and Shonda Rhimes proves that a diverse cast can be engaging. I don't watch the show with a checklist. She has a multicultural and multigenerational cast that works well together. These characters struggle with their identities at times, and they speak to that, but they are much more than those struggles. 

I don't know how to stop tokenism in Hollywood or in society other than telling people to share their perspectives. There is much more to my life than being a black woman, and hopefully my blog touches on that. Diversity is about adding stories to the bigger picture, when will we see yours?

From a person, not a stone, 


  1. Hi KC!
    I just wanted to say that I love your blog and think that it is incredibly well written and insightful. I think my favorite thing is that it is so unapologetically you and just radiates with your enthusiasm for everything that you do and who you are.
    Hope you're having a great summer,

    1. Thanks Emily! Those are wonderful comments and I'm blown away by your kind words. Enjoy the last days of summer!


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