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Problematic Trope: Tokenism
Tokenism in kidlit
Quick Things You Need To Know:
- This started out as an introduction to a book category in the racism book collection series, and it got kind of long and in-depth, so I’ll leave these here until I can create a separate collection for them.
- Tokenism is when an illustrator tosses in a Brown or Black character so the marketing department can claim the book is ‘diverse’ – but the story and characters are are culturally White, and the character of color could easily be swapped with a White character and no one could tell the difference.
- Tokenism reinforces the duality that people of color fit into a 2D stereotype, or conversely that ‘good’ people of color politely assimilate to whiteness. I’ve seen makers go either way with it.
- **Keepin’ it on the up & up: Zetta Elliott, the author of ‘Milo’s Museum,’ is one of our lovely BFL patreon supporters. I’ve been recommending her books since way before she joined our patreon community and have had plans to analyze how it differs from ‘Grandma in Blue with a Red Hat’ since way before we connected.
Quick & Messy Example:
Let’s look, for a moment at Grandma in Blue With A Red Hat, created by White makers, featuring a tokenized Black protagonist. Compare that with Milo’s Museum** – written by a makers of color, featuring a Black girl with a similar initial storyline with a kid visiting a museum.
In Grandma in Blue with a Red Hat (typing this is tedious, let’s call it GBRH), all the artists the Black protagonist studies are White, with the rare exceptions of one African sculpture and one Asian painting (which comes from “far, far away“). All other featured artwork, particularly that of modern and local artists, are White American & European.
When we teach kids that the only artists of color from far, far away, and long, long ago, this perpetuates a terminal narrative. The idea that civilizations created by people of color existing outside the Eurocentric Anglosphere (shorthand: Whiteness) are dead societies that can contribute nothing other than historical artifacts. The lack of reflection for modern artists of color suggests that modern people of color are simply remnants of past civilizations. Terminal narratives suggest that only White artists have had anything valuable to contribute over the last few thousand years, and civilization is defined by proximity to Whiteness.
Contrast that with the cultural markers in Milo’s Museum – rich with visual easter eggs of African American/Canadian culture, the emotional tension of seeing only White artists reflected in local museums, and the social wealth available to Milo while she seeks to rectify missing representation.
Without a wealth of lived experience, the makers of GBRH simply couldn’t have known the ways in which it’s problematic to take a White boy’s story and paint a Black boy in his place. Elliott & Wong tap into knowledge they’ve amassed through a lifetime of living to create a memorable book that teaches readers about responsible representation.
There is a really easy solution for the whitewashing inherent in books where White authors appropriate the identity of a character of color – read more #OwnVoices books by makers of color. White makers can be accomplices in this work – for example, check out the fantabuouslness way Rick Riordan uses his fame to boost #OwnVoices authors with the Rick Riordan Presents series for older kids.