Stop Disguising Racial Tokenism as Diversity
With movies such as Get Out, Black Panther, and now Crazy Rich Asians (despite certain controversies surrounding the latter) skyrocketing to such immense levels of critically acclaimed success in the film industry, it makes one wonder why visible minorities and our stories have been left behind by the media for so long. Looking back to one’s childhood, and even the majority of TV shows and movies being played currently in the West, it is evident that racial diversity (amongst other forms) is still lacking. A common tactic many shows and movies use is the infamous tokenism trope- one black character amongst a crowd of white characters, the East Asian girl who could be the main character but is stuck as the less-interesting and ultra-stereotypical best friend of the main character. It’s easy to fool the general public into thinking tokenism is the same as taking steps towards diversity, but it is important to note that decades of watching whitewashed shows and movies with people of colour having only one or two characters of their race to relate to, does not and never will equate to diversity.
As a child, the most representation I could hope for was through tokenism disguised as diversity. A light-skinned black girl, a slightly tanned Latina- by the time I was in middle school, I had practically given up dreaming of the day I could see someone like me on the screen. Not someone vaguely like me, someone who falls in the ballpark of a woman of colour, someone who could maybe resemble a woman of colour with a good spray tan- I wanted the real thing. I wanted the brown skin, golden in the sun.
Looking at the demographics of the Western world, it is brimming with diversity. Western society belongs to a plethora of races and ethnicities, yet the media conveniently ignores this; scraping the bare minimum in terms of racial representation and expecting applause for it.
What does tokenism say about the way the Western media views racial minorities? We are merely background characters to the stories of endless white characters, we are the afterthoughts, the characters coloured darker to avoid criticism. But this is a dehumanizing view. To whitewash movies time and time again, it seeks only to perpetuate the concept that white is the default race. When people of colour are added in as a handful, painted by stereotypes, and scattered conveniently but not generously throughout the story, the media is still ignorant of our existence.
In real life, I am the main character in my own story. I deserve to see stories like mine represented on big screens. Growing up in a western country, I developed a habit of ostracizing myself, of shaming myself for not being white enough. I defined westerners in terms of their race and could not find a way to belong. I watched movies and TV shows like the white kids in my class doing everything they did, but it was not enough for representation.
I watched To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and despite being Bengali and Canadian, I felt immense pride at the existence of Lara Jean and the popularity the movie was garnerning amongst youth online. Although I am one for a good political discussion at practically any time of the day, I appreciated Lara Jean’s representation as half-Korean refraining from being politicized. The importance of this lies in undoing what the media tends to do with minority representation; view and use minorities as vehicles of political agendas. Many brands become involved in social movements to elevate their reputation amongst the public. Lara Jean’s character was simply Lara Jean. Yes, she is Korean, yes, she is American, but more importantly, she is going through the same feelings many teenagers experience. Youth of colour are still human, and the movie (and book) did wonderfully in terms of illustrating the normalcy of those within marginalized groups.
Diversity is beginning to see more light in Western media, although it is not there completely. Movies that are beginning to shed light on minorities and normalize us are essential to diminishing tokenism in favour of true diversity. These are the pieces of content that value the humanity within us all. It is important to prioritize minority representation because for too long too many of us have had to deal with self-inflicted insecurities and alienations due to not seeing ourselves in the media we consume on a daily basis. If the media aims to have some basis of reality for its contents, how is it not demeaning when the presence of racial minorities are condensed into one or two people embodying stereotypes and political agendas, essentially defining our existences in ways we never agreed to?