TOKEN DIVERSITY: the monster of YA

by - 12:44 PM

Hey guys, it's me, Mana! You're probably thinking, "Who?" well it's probably because I've been semi-absent for a good portion of this year. College takes up a lot of my time, but here I am, back, with a post I wrote on tumblr and I thought to share. So in some preface, please if you have anything to add let me know and if i did get something wrong, tell me!! I will correct it 100%.
In a simple world, I could read books that are about me, about my aspirations, has my culture, and I wouldn’t even have to bat an eyelash because it’s well researched and correct and wonderfully done.
Sadly, that is not the case. 
I recently asked myself (and a group of friends who share my frustrations), “idk what’s worst: token diversity or no rep at all”. Verbatim. And I thought about this question because, no really, which is worse?
Is there even a competition because frankly both kind of fucking suck?
I bring this up because in the span of however many months, over and over, there has been these slight microaggressions, racism, and an absolute disregard of the feelings and understanding of a character of color. 
Adding characters of color to fill a quota is not representation. It does not equate to the seemingly flawless well-rounded white characters and apparently, adding random characters to be flat and one dimensional is how we are using our platform to promote more ~diversity~. I use the term diversity lightly, because it is much more than just adding a person of color to a story and being done with it. 
In understanding what exactly I mean by these recent YA novels, I’ll list out common tropes that seem to never leave.
1. Asian being a the common descriptor for any “Asian” character. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, in all your favorite books. Not many are exempt and it’s irritating how authors don’t see the issue on lumping all of Asia together. Saying, “This Asian girl came up to me” gives me nothing. First, it’s lazy and second, still it perpetrates that every single Asian person is the same. We are not, fyi. 
2. We are all exotic! Isn’t that great? Othering is so in right now. No matter what, someone has to say “you are so exotic” thinking it’s a synonym to “sexy” when really, it’s further alienating us and reinforcing that all people of color are these ~strange creatures of the night~. We are not. lmfao. 
3. Stereotypes, stereotypes, stereotypes! There is always going to be stereotypes that many authors will play on because they obviously don’t know how to write their character. Relying on stereotypes to construct your character isn’t “development”, we are supposed to be deconstructing them, actually. We are supposed to take these stereotypes and say, “fuck this, you are so much more than this”. 
4. Poorly done research on a culture outside of your own. I am no expert, but when someone is writing a culture that they are not part of, you immediately start researching extensively. You talk to various people from that culture , you treat the material you are using in an appropriate matter. When you write a story and it’s published, it’s forever. Do not consider writing a story outside your own experiences if you cannot do it appropriately.  (this is not a discouragement on doing it, but please remember you are respectfully writing not appropriating.) But, please, remember that the best way is to read books who are OF that culture: i.e Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed is an example, it’s far more accurate and they need/deserve the support more. 
5. Mocha, caramel, but never white chocolate. It seems that the trend of equating skin color with random foods is only reserved for brown characters. Alternatives: brown, dark skinned. Wow, yeah, it’s that easy. Making it so that our skin color is like a food further implies that we are ~exotic~ and alienates us into “otherism”. Being called a food isn’t quirky or cute.
YA can be wonderful, but when there are constant little things: that is not progression, that’s carelessness. If you truly wanted to dispel all these negative connotations, these microaggressions, you would realize in your writing. You would ask beta readers who are not white or part of that culture you are writing of. You would use your tools, because you care, not because you are filling the token diversity quota.
Maybe no representation means there is no disappointment of having “diversity” issues but I want to say we could all do better, way better than what we have been doing.
Resources:
#Whitewashedout: a place to read about first hand experiences that many people have dealt with in their entire life (this is from people who are from Asia, specifically)
Writing With Color:  Offers help and resources to help research and understand writing characters of color.
Intentionally vague because my experiences come from as a South Asian and I cannot speak for other cultures at all, as it is not my place!<3

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