Half-Baked Ideas: On Race, Tokenism, and Representation

There was a fine article in Ye Olde New York Times about the dearth of kids books with latino main characters, particularly ones that aren't about either migrant workers or Cinco de Mayo.

And within this article Julia Alvarez is quoted as saying, “My skin crawls a little when this literature is introduced because
people are being righteous." A sort of: don't do this just to make them Latino. But I think: maybe actually do do it just to make them Latino.

Note: I know she's more talking about Literature. Which: OK. Fine. But a lot of what we're talking about? Cam Jansen? I don't think so.

There are so many, many crappy books, with completely unrealistic, cardboard (white) characters. And kids love them. Think the hideous Mary-Kate and Ashley detective stories of my girls' feckless youth, or the Dear Dumb Diary books, or the Candy Apple books. Do we really think that these characters were white in some deep-seated, psychologically astute, inevitable literary truth way? I think not. I think they're more white in some reflexive, ruling class, generally blind to the rest of the world, hegemonic (is that the word?) way. Books that seem more produced by committee than written. And for these? I say go ahead, just force the issue and make characters non-white—just freaking do it.

It makes a difference to see your face out there in the world. My friend's son, who is black, saw this comic book, last year, when she brought it home for him.


He opened the cover, and inside is Spiderman, his mask off, his face black. And he got quiet, and his eyes got big and amazed and he said, "Mom…is that me?"

Do you think that Spiderman is black because it made some kind of internal literary sense? Or do you think they thought, "Holy crap, we've been making everyone, everywhere white, we should think about making at least someone black, what are our marketing numbers on Spiderman?" I don't think it matters which they said, actually. I think what matters is that kids get to look in a comic book, and see themselves sometimes. I think there should be so many different faces it doesn't have to be a conscious effort anymore. And when someone is adjusting the settings on the automatic story creation machines that churn out soothing mindless crap for kids? I think they should change the settings to "represent everyone."

This, at any rate, is my current half-baked idea.

8 thoughts on “Half-Baked Ideas: On Race, Tokenism, and Representation

  1. I think it’s a fine one and agree in every way. Given that in our public schools out here in Los Angeles, white kids are a minority, when my boys were young, the worksheets at school nearly always had very difficult to pronounce names of children from a dizzying array of countries and nationalities who appeared to all be living on some suburban street.


  2. I’d like to see a cheat sheet for writers, kind of like this but with more characteristics like disabilities, jobs, and I don’t know what else, something that forms a “random character generator”. Every writer for series books, screenplays, TV shows would just go through and plug in the appropriate qualities. As it is, writers are all much too conditioned to only use qualities that inform the character and/or the plot. You hardly ever run across a kid with asthma or autism or diabetes unless it is significant.
    At first it would seem weird, but I think everyone would get used to it quickly, the same way people got used to the shift from hypothetical he to hypothetical he alternating with hypothetical she. And I’d make casting directors use the same sort of random generator, too. I’m tired of the current cliche of “one boy, one girl, one boy of Asian or African ancestry”. I’d love to see a blind Hmong character in a story set in Atlanta, without it having to mean anything.


  3. Interesting fact- There is about 1 character you run into in your average manga or American comic who has dark skin. And in fantasy books in alternaworlds, the people are usually fair-skinned. So, viva Spiderman.


  4. Representation of people of color in media is amazingly, incredibly important! It’s definitely not a half baked idea, but a great and important realization that more people should reach and embrace! 😀


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