Once in a blue moon, you see someone who looks vaguely like you, or shares your sexual orientation. Maybe the character will be both and you will have a twofer token minority. The audience, especially straight/white LGBT/POC allies, fall all over themselves to congratulate the show or the film or the comic for almost getting there. Baby steps, they chant. Baby steps. We’ll be there, soon, but in the meantime this will suffice, what more can you expect, isn’t it good enough that they’re trying.
You know what? Almost isn’t good enough. Not by a long shot.
To be sure, I’m not speaking for anyone else. I’m a non-straight Asian woman, but I realize that for others that the little bit of inclusion is better than total absence, utter silence. And sometimes, I even agree. Sometimes “almost” is–just very, very barely–enough.
For me, though, most of the time it isn’t. I’m talking about tokenism, and a very particular brand of it. TVTropes suggests:
Token Minority is a character designed to get more minority groups into the plot. This serves several purposes:
- Allows the producers of the show to broaden the appeal of the show by giving more viewers protagonists they can identify with.
- Is useful for bringing in discussions of racial issues, gender issues or homophobia into the plot.
- Helps the producers feel a little better about using a Scary Minority Suspect in every other case.
- Allows the producers to make race jokes related to minority without any shame
- Allows the producers to avoid criticism from minority groups.
- Fulfills the executives’ desire for the show to be more ethnically respectful.
For the purpose of this discussion, I’m addressing 2, 3, 4 and to a lesser extent 5 (depending on whether “ethnically respectful” is a sincere motive or just there for good PR). It’s what I like to call the “ally brownie points” syndrome, also known as “Fear not, ladies! I am Joss Whedon, Minority Warrior!” It’s exactly what it sounds like: this is what happens when the author/developer/filmmaker (or the executives), usually cis and white and male, throws in a member of a minority in a self-congratulatory circle-jerk. The token minority is not likely to be a protagonist; no meaningful narrative or engagement with oppression and prejudice will be told. Or it’s a result of a curse or magic, as has been pointed out by Raz regarding a trans character in Maria Snyder’s Poison Study.
Harry Potter deserves an entire anthology of essays dedicated to calling it out for all kinds of terrible shit. The series is a cesspit rife with all the problems you’d expect an exceptionally ignorant cis white woman to introduce, banging away at the keyboard in oblivious bliss.
There’s a grand total of one (1) character in HP who looks anything remotely like me: Cho Chang.1 She is, in fact, the single character of color who has more than five lines of dialogue to her name. What do we know about her? She is Cedric’s love interest and the object of Harry’s desire. Harry then sort of inherits her from Cedric, much like you’d inherit a tea set from dear old grandmother. Cho has no agency, no personality, no purpose except to be the boys’ love interest: the oriental woman defined solely through the white male gaze. She, and characters like her, are testament to why the Bechdel Test needs to exist.
 And… “Cho”? Care to write that in Chinese for us, Ms Rowling? Bet you can’t. Here’s a tip, Ms Lazy Hack, that’s not a real name.
HARRY: Look, let’s not talk about Cedric right now…let’s talk about something else.
CHO: I thought, I thought you’d u-u-understand! I need to talk about it! Surely you n-need to talk about it too! I mean, you saw it happen, d-didn’t you?
HARRY: Well – I have talked about it, to Ron and Hermione, but -
CHO: Oh, you’ll talk to Hermione Granger! But you won’t talk to me! P-perhaps it would be best if we just…just p-paid and you went and met up with Hermione G-Granger, like you obviously want to!
She’s a wreck, a stereotype of the vacillating, emotionally codependent woman who can’t let go of her deceased love nor properly “appreciate” her current one. Does anyone point out that Harry is being unreasonable and a dick for not wanting to talk about Cedric with, you know, Cedric’s girlfriend? No. It’s all Cho’s fault for being such a clingy little girl, and look, isn’t she hysterical and obnoxiously jealous to boot? The relationship disintegrates, and Harry happily discards her in great relief, the better to free himself for his true love Ginny Weasley.2
 On which note, you know how both Ginny and Harry dated POC before finally settling down with their destined, white true loves? Yeah. Don’t forget the brief episode with the Patil twins. Did I mention “Padma” and “Pavarti” are also very stereotypical names? But hey, unlike Cho’s, at least theirs aren’t gibberish.
The shit-cherry on this enormous turdcake, though, is Dumbledore.
I had always seen Dumbledore as gay, but in a sense that’s not a big deal… He’s an innately good man, what would make him do that. I didn’t even think it through that way, it just seemed to come to me, I thought ‘I know why he did it, he fell in love.’ And whether they physically consummated this infatuation or not is not the issue. The issue is love. It’s not about sex. So that’s what I knew about Dumbledore. And it’s relevant only in so much as he fell in love and was made an utter fool of by love. He lost his moral compass completely when he fell in love and I think subsequently became very mistrusting of his own judgment in those matters so became quite asexual. He led a celibate and bookish life.
It’s a Minority Warrior at her most self-congratulatory and smug, tongue lolling out and paw extended for her ally brownie points. Of course a character’s homosexuality isn’t a big deal to a woman with straight privilege; she’s never been subjected to homophobia, so it’s simple to brush gayness off as “no big deal.” What Rowling desperately, desperately would like you to believe here is that she’s the best LGBT ally, ever. She’s sexuality-blind, do you see? Her characters’ sexualities are just incidental, it’s more important that they are good people. She’s so enlightened rainbows spill out her ears. It’s about the love, not the sex. Isn’t it? Don’t gay people just hold hands and kiss? Isn’t that what homosexual love is supposed to be like? Have I used the word “love” enough for it to lose all meaning yet?
Rowling is deathly scared of the buttsex. This isn’t a nod toward romantic asexuals,3 because Rowling insists so loudly that Dumbledore is gay, gay, do you hear? She doesn’t disclose whether Dumbledore and Grindelwald ever fucked–sorry, “physically consummated this infatuation,” in true Victorian style–because she doesn’t want to consider the idea that her one gay character might have a libido. We are talking about a man who, after his one romance went wrong at the age of eighteen, spends the rest of his two centuries celibate. Rowling is definite on this, as she refuses to be definite on whether Dumbledore has ever had intercourse with another man. Dumbledore’s sexuality, then, isn’t a sign of her progressiveness. It’s thinly veiled homophobia coming from an intellectually cowardly straight woman. Naturally, Dumbledore’s sexuality never enters into the actual text of the series. There’s not the faintest suggestion, the most indirect hint. Not even Rita Skeeter brings it up in her scandalous tell-all “biography,” which is exactly where you’d expect it to come up. Even if the wizarding culture isn’t homophobic, does anyone honestly believe Rita’d have missed out on the chance to expose Dumbledore’s infatuation with the Dark Lord of his time?
 Also? The idea that you “turn” asexual because your one puppy love went wrong? Yeah about that.
The Exotic Other
Oree Shoth, protagonist of NK Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, is blind. Except… she’s not. Oree lives in Shadow, a city so full of magic that everything–to her inner eye–glows. She can read without braille, she can see her own paintings perfectly, and she barely needs a stick to feel her way about. So amazing is her special sight that she can sense people’s emotions and perceive their hair and eye colors. In essence, while she is in Shadow–where the entire book takes place barring the last chapter and flashbacks–she is sighted.
You must understand. I have always been able to see magic, but Nimaro had been mostly dark to me until then. It was a placid land of sleepy little towns and villages, of which mine was no exception. Magic was a thing of the cities. I got to see it only every once in a while, and then always in secret.
But now there was light and color. It burst across the ground and the street, traced up every leaf and blade of grass and paving stone and wooden slat around the front yard. So much! I had never realized there was so much to the world, right there around me. The magic washed the walls with texture and lines so that for the first time in my life, I could see the house where I’d been born. It outlined the trees around me and the old horse cart around the side of the house—I couldn’t figure out what that was at first—and the people who stood in the street with mouths hanging open. I saw it all—truly saw, as others did. Maybe more than they did, I don’t know.
“Truly saw, as others did,” indeed. What is she supposed to be, or do? To convey that Exoticization is Bad, Jemisin insists. Except that point falls flat on its face–admittedly Jemisin was focusing on race rather than disability, but even so: what is Oree’s blindness if not a cosmetic trait that exists to merely exoticize her? The story would have lost nothing if she’d been sighted, and in any case everything seen through her perspective contains little to differentiate it from that of a sighted character. In her article on Storm, RVCBard linked Trinity: The Black Fantasy, where it’s pointed out that Storm as handled by Marvel is a meaningless fantasy, a black woman who’s not truly black, with the bluest eyes, the straightest white hair: too perfect, too special, to provide comfort because she’s everything real black women can never be. Oree, then, suggests a similar picture. She is not consolatory, for real-life disability isn’t going to go away with a snap of the finger (or magic coming back to the world), and currently seeing aids are expensive and imperfect. It’s not even enough that she’s blind–her deformed cornea (“many narrow, delicate fingers of grayish tissue, layered tight over one another like the petals of a daisy yet to bloom”) are a mark of her part-divine heritage. They unfurl when she realizes her magic, like… a blooming daisy, I guess.
Oree’s blindness is, incidentally, allegorical to growing up a geeky black girl:
It’s just that there tends to be a lot of obvious similarity when you compare the struggles of any oppressed groups, IMO. I wrote Oree from my own experience of being a geeky black girl**, who often herself felt constrained and threatened by destructive cultural pressures that have a complex genesis.
“Oree’s a fighter,” Jemisin goes on blithely. That’s nice. I do understand what she’s getting at, but the juxtaposition with Oree’s specialness is troublesome. It’s such a shame that real blind people will never have magic sight however hard they fight, isn’t it? I’d also like to go on a limb and suggest that being black and geeky isn’t quite the same as being blind, and comparing the two strikes me as very off. Especially geeky. Can we not go there?
Then there is Southern Vampire Mystery, the ugly progenitor of the TV show True Blood. Others may describe the books as something to do with redneck vampires and a telepath. I describe it as a long series of Charlaine Harris dropping her pants and showing her white racist ass to the world, over and over.
Eric Northman, a Germanic vampire, owns a vampire bar called Fangtasia. Throughout the series, he hires “exotic” vampires to tend his bar to draw in customers. For many of the books, that’s—yep—vampires of color: a Native American called Long Shadow, who dies in the same book he’s introduced after Eric finds out he embezzles, and a Japanese called Chow.4
 Again, what the everloving fuck? “Chow”? Is it that hard to find a weeaboo to consult or even google up male Japanese names, Charlaine Harris? Yeah it’s implied to be his nickname, but it doesn’t even sound vaguely Japanese.
Eric came in, along with a vampire I knew must be Chow. Right away I could see why Chow would bring in customers. He was the first Asian vampire I’d seen, and he was extremely handsome. He was also covered—at least the parts I could see—with that intricate tattooing that I’d heard members of the Yakuza favored. Whether Chow had been a gangster when he was human or not, he was certainly sinister now.
He’s also noted as being “tall for an Asian.” Which is funny, since there are Japanese men who are over 180 cm, and even at home I see girls who are approaching or over 170 cm. Sorry, white people, you haven’t towered over us for at least a generation.
“It was truly my pleasure,” said Chow, with an unmistakable leer in his voice. He had a trace of an accent, but I don’t have enough experience with the different characteristics of the many strains of Asians to tell you where he came from originally. I am sure “Chow” was not his complete name, either, but it was all the other vampires called him. “It would have been perfect, without the poison.”
Many strains of Asians, dear me. It’s like we aren’t even people. The above quote is said after a group of vampires have sucked out Sookie’s poisoned blood. So, we have got a leering, “sinister” Asian man with just enough handsome to invoke yellow fever (but not really—Sookie only lusts after white men). He’s scary and a sexual threat, because we all know men of color want to rape white women. Descriptions are vague, because Harris is just as ignorant as Sookie about Asia; somehow, despite noticing that he sports yakuza tattoos, neither author nor character makes the vast leap of logic to conclude that he is Japanese. Maybe they think “yakuza” is Asian for gangsters or something.
It won’t surprise you, I am sure, that Chow bites the dust within a few books. As does the cook at Sookie’s workplace, a flamboyantly, stereotypically gay black man. He was also raped before his murder, if that’s not enough. He’s replaced by Callie, a black woman:
It could be that Callie was so sharp-edged because she was old enough to remember the bad old days when blacks and whites had different schools, different waiting rooms, different water fountains. I didn’t remember any of those things, and I was not willing to take into account Callie’s bundle of baggage every time I talked to her.
Emphasis mine. Privileged shitstain, right here. Had enough yet? There’s more where that came from in All Together Dead:
We were faced with a long counter extending the length of the opposite wall. There was a woman about my age behind the counter, with coppery hair and skin, the product of an interesting racial blend. She’d dyed her eyebrows black, which added a touch of the bizarre to the whole uni-color effect.
This “racial blend” dies a few pages later.
Rasul was deeply brown, quite naturally, and had the large, dark liquid eyes and black hair of someone from the Middle East.
“I knew you were supposed to be here, so it’s nice to run into you,” I said.
“She sent Carla and me ahead of time,” he said lightly in his exotic accent.
Exotic! Brown! Haw haw.
By that time I was ducking into the ladies’ room… There was an attendant, a nicety I’d never seen before though I’d read about it in books. I was supposed to tip her. I still had my little evening purse with my room key in it, and I was relieved to recall I’d slipped a few dollars in there, along with some tissues and breath mints and a tiny brush. I nodded to the attendant, a squatty, dark-skinned woman with an unhappy face.
I took care of business in the nice clean stall and then emerged to wash my hands and to try to smooth out my hair. The attendant, wearing a name tag that read “Lena,” turned on the water for me, which kind of weirded me out. I mean, I can turn a faucet. But I washed my hands and used the towel she extended to me, figuring this was the routine and I shouldn’t act ignorant. I dropped two dollars in the tip bowl, and she tried to smile at me, but she looked too unhappy to manage it. She must be having a bad night.
Again, bolding mine. What is this even. Maybe Lena has just as much “baggage” as Callie, and dear Sookie here isn’t going to have any of it. Gosh, those blacks and their racial baggage. It’s not just that Sookie is a nasty bigot; her attitude is never challenged throughout the text. Her racism is there to stay, and Harris is happy to aid and abet it along.
Through Dumbledore’s homosexuality and Cho Chang’s entire character, Harris’ characters of color and Oree’s blindness, the authors get their cake and eat it too. Inclusion without effort, inclusion without meaning. Again, I’m speaking only for myself so I can’t talk about homosexual or disabled characters, but by “including” Cho Chang, Padma and Parvati Patil, Chow and Callie—numerous characters of color who nevertheless have no significant role in the primary narrative, who exist merely to decorate and accessorize—the author acknowledges that, yes, they’re there. But guess what, they aren’t good enough. They don’t get to do anything, barely have a voice to speak with. In short, they might as well not exist. And we’re back to people of color being erased, silenced, reduced to props for white drama.
White authors, I’m not grateful that you deigned to include people who look remotely like me only to treat them like shit and kill them off. I don’t have to take it and like it. In fact, you’re being racist assholes and you will not get brownie points except from neo-conservatives and other bigots.
Next stop: white people with pointy ears and why it’s not always a super idea to use fantasy/sci-fi races as analogues for real-world minorities.