Welcome to The Black Experience, a month long blog series through February, in honour of Black History Month, which features Black bloggers, booktubers and authors. This project aims at highlighting Black stories and experiences both in real life and in publishing, as well as showing our individual and collective struggles.
Today’s post is by Faridah Àbíké Íyímídé, author of Ace Of Spades. Faridah talks about tokenism of black characters in literature and the use of Black bodies as props in the name of diversity.
The tokenism of Black characters is something that I have picked up on over the years and deeply irritates me whenever I see it. This is everything from Black characters being used as love interests for the white MC, to the best friend/ sidekick of the white MC being Black to the magical negro trope which sometimes overlaps with the sidekick/best friend and love interest. For the purpose of professionalism, I won’t be mentioning any books or authors but will be referencing storylines without being too specific – again to prevent being unprofessional and essentially bad mouthing the work of my colleagues. But as a Black person and Black author it is my responsibility I feel to still discuss this publicly, so that people will see and realise how problematic certain things are and maybe stop doing it in the future (we can only hope).
Black bodies used as love interests is not intrinsically a bad thing or even a problematic thing. It is the way it is done that is problematic. I don’t think I have EVER read a book by a white author whose Black love interest did not offend me in some way. White authors have historically made their stories extremely white and so with critiques of stories with fully white casts, one way they’ve seemed to attempt to combat this is by adding a Black or brown love interest. But instead of making realistic Black characters and doing the work and research to ensure that their Black character reads like a Black character, they essentially have them be a white character in literary Blackface. I’m not saying there is a personality trait or a way a Black person must be or act, but you can tell when a character just doesn’t carry themselves at all like a person who has lived in this world as a Black person. This is also apparent in stories where they are the only prominent Black character. Which leaves me thinking… okay, so if they are a Black character in a white space, there will be some level of discomfort or more nuance in that character because of the need to code switch as well as other things. Another issue I find with a lot of Black love interests is that they are used to show how progressive and not-racist the white main character is. White authors never know they are doing this it seems, but it is so obvious to Black people reading that that is exactly what they are doing. There is this weird idea people have that interracial marriages will save us and end racism, and that is what it seems white authors are trying to do with their pairing. Interracial relationships won’t save us. Not even in the slightest. What will save us, especially in literature, is the open discussion of racism and what it actually means. Not using Black people as tokens to show how “progressive” one is.
I read a book recently where the white mc had a Black boyfriend and that boy dies tragically and the whole plot is how the white mc must find out why and the reason was so disturbing and violent. Then there was the mc’s parents who were so blatantly racist and the mc mostly ignored it saying his parents were a bit traditional but still liberal. Even when their racism became even more overt and violent, he briefly leaves the house, has a little cry then comes back and forgives them since they are in the end his “family”. The Black boyfriend, his feelings and his life all disregarded. The white mc made to seem like a generous hero, wanting to honour his Black boyfriends memory and doing the below bare minimum to stick up for him when his parents make racist comments.
I think if white writers can’t or aren’t willing to properly write about Black people, especially as love interests, they should just stop doing it all together.
The sidekick/Black best friend is also a problematic thing I see in literature. Recently read a book where the mc had a Black best friend and the best friend was there as emotional support, an advice line and was described as “sassy” and loud. This felt very much like a walking talking caricature. It’s sad because the other parts of the book I really enjoyed but felt really grossed out by how this Black side character was literally there as an object to help the white mc grow. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this in literature, and probably – sadly – won’t be the last.
When your Black characters only role is to literally help the white character on their journey, that implies that Black people are objects to use and that’s what they are good for. Not real humans with real, varied emotions.
There is so much more to get into on the tokenism of Black characters, but that would be an entire book long rant, so I’ll end with a final thought.
Writers, when you pick up a pen or start typing and planning to create a Black character, remind yourself that you do not write in a vacuum. There will be real Black teenagers as well as adults reading your story. As someone who grew up with stories that had Black bodies as tokens, it messed me up quite badly. As people who write for kids, you should care about them and properly representing them. What I’ve seen in so many books is that white writers need to think a bit more before they write. Get sensitivity readers, read more books by Black people, listen to podcasts on race, try and understand your position in this world… and then write and remember a Black kid’s happiness is literally in your hands.