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Life Arts    H2'ed 3/6/11

When it comes to non-white characters in fiction, is it better to be stereotyped, tokenized, or erased?

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Friend and fellow blogger Tami Harris (@whattamisaid) asked an interesting question on her blog a few days ago:

In your consumption of media, which is better--to be triggered, tokenized or erased?

Harris, who is a fan of the urban fantasy genre, which includes True Blood, Vampire Diaries, and a variety of book series such as Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake novels, laments that the entire genre is "notoriously bad at characterizations that are not of the white, straight, male variety. (Making it much like, y'know, every other genre.)"

I said as much when I wrote my own piece about racial dynamics in a variety of vampire novels last year, but Harris takes it a step further.  Sure, we all want non-white and non-straight characters that are as complex and realistic as those that are white and straight, but what if writing such characters is simply not part of that particular writer's repertoire? Do we still want those writers to take their best shot (knowing they won't come up to snuff), or would we rather they just leave those "minority" groups out altogether?

Harris sets it up thus:

For me, this frustration is usually borne of being othered and disrespected, when I simply aimed to be entertained by a trashy novel or TV show. I dipped into Charlaine Harris' Aurora Teagarden series, hoping to enjoy the books as I enjoy the TV series based on Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series. Instead, I got a bunch of thinly-written, triggering stories where all women (but the protagonist) are routinely judged harshly and women like me (black women) are alternately sassy or angry or dead or running from the law, and blackness or Jewishness or gayness or any other "ness" that is not small-town and conservative and Southern and Anglo and Christian is to be frowned at or remarked upon or, best, hidden. And so, instead of enjoying a cozy mystery in my downtime, I wound up feeling uncomfortable and marginalized.

Harris then goes on to say that it is at times like these that she finds herself "thinking that it would have been better if black women were absent from the narrative altogether." 

"Sometimes," she continues, "there is comfort in erasure. I mean, even a blandly-drawn token black character, like Bonnie on Vampire Diaries, can be intrusive to my experience. Because I look at her presence in a show that genuflects to the antebellum South and plantation-owning families, while at the same time not mentioning the black community that must still exist in the town, and suspect she is a black-culture-free cypher added simply to be inclusive."

Copyrighted Image? DMCA

Harris invited several other race bloggers to chime in and part of the blog post's charm is the many varied perspectives.  For example, Racialicious blogger Latoya Peterson hated all three options but ultimately took a stand against erasure.

"I think there are more than enough all white worlds already," she wrote, "losing the tokens just contributes to our overall erasure. Remember, out of sight, out of mind. And we all know how that goes down, season after season."

As someone who often writes about racial dynamics in the media, Peterson's words resonate loudly.  From this particular perspective (as a race scholar/activist), there is nothing worse than erasure, because it doesn't allow any kind of meaningful analysis or discussion beyond "Can you believe there were no people of color in the show/book/film?"

Tokens aren't much better. I strongly believe that in order to heal from our traumatic racist history/reality, part of what we need to do as a society is have honest conversation about race and racism, conversation where we really strive to understand each other in all of our complexities. Racial content that doesn't play it safe (i.e., that triggers) provides the best grist for the mill. It provokes and irritates and, in so doing, allows me to think and learn and, at times, to try to contribute to the learning of others.

But I have another answer too, one that's less intellectual and much more personal. Though I'm white, male, and straight, I'm also Jewish and was not born in the United States.  If I sink into one of those identities and consider the same question, I go to a very different place. As part of groups that are sometimes marginalized, there is nothing worse than an uninformed, inadequate, or stereotypical portrayal of my group. When I see/read such a portrayal, Like Tami, I often feel annoyed, hurt, and emotionally exhausted. Sometimes I feel unable to continue watching/reading. Other times, I continue, but without the same pleasure. The "triggering" portrayal is a distraction. My mind wanders...I think of clever retorts...I fantasize about vengeful actions. But more than anything I find myself wishing that they would just leave my group out of it. Entirely.

Which is better?

I suppose it depends on who you are in relation to the depiction...and on whether or not you're curling up under a blanket or wearing your activist/writer hat.


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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and courses on restorative justice.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the outcomes associated with restorative responses via Conflict 180.

In addition to conflict and restorative (more...)

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