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The Teacher’s Guide to Literary Tokenism

Books are a reflection of our lives and the world around us, even if they’re otherworldly or fantastical. The characters our students read about can be an amazing vehicle for learning about human nature and diverse expressions of cultures and backgrounds. That being said, merely including diversity for diversity’s sake doesn’t give a well-rounded look at how people truly live and think. That’s why teachers and students need to watch out for tokenism in literature and entertainment. 

NOTE: This article on literary tokenism owes a huge debt to Jewel Davis and her thoughts on speculative worlds of color.

Tokenism vs. Representation 

So what is tokenism? Lexico defines it like this: 

The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce. 

In a literary context, tokenism often amounts to including fictional characters from underrepresented groups, not necessarily because doing so is authentic to the story, but as a shallow or poorly thought-out attempt to “appear” diverse. 

That’s not to say that including characters from a variety of backgrounds is a bad thing. Far, far from it! Rather, it’s important to do so in a way that’s authentic and that doesn’t thoughtlessly reinforce stereotypes.  

The appropriate way to incorporate different types of cultures and characters is called representation. Unlike tokenism, representation seeks to portray multidimensional characters who mirror the real-life experiences, thoughts, and values of all different types of people, without pigeonholing anyone based on stereotypes, biases, or ignorance. 

9 Pitfalls of Literary Tokenism 

Over the years, certain fictional tropes and archetypes have emerged that often amount to literary tokenism. As you review literature to share with your students, or critically examine texts together, here are some such tropes to watch out for: 

  • The Exotic “Other”: A person or custom from a nondominant culture is made to seem “interesting” or “exciting” merely because of the differences of the nondominant culture from the dominant one. 
  • “Saviorism”: A person from a dominant group is portrayed as the only option for “rescuing” or “saving” a person or people from a historically marginalized group. 
  • Cultural Appropriation: One group takes an aspect of another group’s culture, religion, ritual, dress, etc. and uses it disrespectfully out of context of its original purpose. 
  • “Mystical” Minority Character: A person from a nondominant culture has special powers based on a stereotype of his or her race, culture, religion, etc. 
  • Race-Based Aggressor: A character’s skin tone is closely associated with his or her role as the aggressor or attacker, or somehow marks him or her as a “savage.” 
  • Monocultures: Nondominant cultures are assumed to be identical (e.g., assuming there’s no difference between a native Korean and a Korean American) or are combined to form a nonexistent monolithic culture (e.g., combining lore from several different Native American tribes as if they’re all the same). 
  • Erasing or Replacing Cultural Identities: The author ignores a group’s actual ethnicity, cultural practices, or historical background and instead inaccurately projects another group’s values and practices onto them. 
  • One-Dimensional, Support-Role Minority Characters: Characters from minority backgrounds are relegated to unimportant roles in the story, and their characterization is not well rounded or is based on stereotypes. 
  • Stereotyping: An author relies on clichés or generalizations about a group or culture (whether positive or negative) for details about a character or elements of the story. 

More Strategies for Bringing Diversity and Authenticity to Your Classroom 

Representative books are just one way to help your students see more of the world and the fascinating people who live in it. For more ideas to encourage diversity and inclusivity in your classroom, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses: 

  • Culturally Sustaining Literature: Learn to critically evaluate and select culturally responsive and representative texts for your classroom library and curriculum. 
  • Social Justice in the Math Classroom: Get concrete strategies and activities for implementing social justice in math class, including how to make your curriculum more culturally responsive and how to provide cultural connections for a more authentic learning experience. 
  • Fostering Cultural Awareness and Inclusivity in the Classroom: How do you apply cultural understanding to your pedagogy and teach your students to embrace other cultures as well? Get concrete strategies for becoming a more culturally responsive teacher and creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and welcome. 
  • Implementing Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies: Create an inclusive, culturally responsive classroom that serves all students. Re-examine familiar concepts like mindfulness and social–emotional learning through the lens of culture, and learn dynamic communication and leadership strategies to support diverse student populations. 

Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs. 

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