The Problem with Black Tokenism in Storytelling

Disclaimer: This essay was written and was first published on Wattpad in 2020 from my “A Black Opinion” blog. Therefore, it will not acknowledge the current state of the world. Regardless, this essay has an important message that could be a logical step forward for the world to make the changes needed to address the issue of racism. The same issue that has stained our world for far too long.


Tokenism: The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a few people from under-represented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.

After reading that definition, you may say that is a good thing. For years Blacks struggled to see themselves in particular jobs, because of the lack of opportunities. This is why racial affirmative action exists, to provide that opportunity.

However, when we are talking about tokenism in storytelling (films, TV shows and books), it stops being this great opportunity to allow blacks to see themselves in stories and turns into a trendy cash grab.

Jumping off of my previous post “Racism is not a Trend, it's an Issue,” I would like to criticize writers of narrative mediums to examine their black characters. It is one thing to add a black character and give them their own personalized and developed story, it is another to add a black character for the sake of being black.

When a writer adds a certain feature to a character such as their race, they are expected to represent that race in a positive light or to highlight a certain issue that particular race may experience. An example of this is Fin from the recent Star Wars trilogy. Fin, played by John Boyega, is a black storm trooper at the beginning of the trilogy but joins the rebels and Jedi later on in the story. At first glance it sounds like a great story, but the writers treat him as a side character who does not have a developed character arc. In addition to that, the fact that he is black does not tie into the story. Fin could have been a white guy and the story would be the same.

Another form of tokenism is when film corporations such as Disney decide to replace an existing white character with a black face. This is what they have done with the new Ariel, who is now black. They did not need to make Ariel black, they could have made a brand new character but instead they gave Ariel a brand new face, a black face.

This form of Tokenism is probably the easiest one to spot. Other examples of this would be Ironheart in Marvel Comics. She is basically a young female black Ironman. Another would be Miles Morales, however, Miles unlike Ironheart has a recognizable personality and is not a direct copy of Peter Parker. Having said that, I can see why some may say he is a ripoff of the original.

As you can see, tokenism has severely prevented Black characters from having depth as writers do not care about the black character’s story, only that their black face is a marketing tool. But when it comes to representing Blacks, certain writers tend to stick to a harmful trope or stereotypical image.

One horrible trope is “Black men are the first to die.” It is not true for all, but if you pay attention to certain films like thrillers or horrors, you can see that 70% of them end up dying for no reason. In recent years this trope has improved by giving them a heroic justification, but they are still dying regardless while other characters live.

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

Stereotyping is so one dimensional that it usually results in the creation of flat characters, especially black characters.
Here are some examples:

The dumb, black athlete that has the White sponsor? (Blind Side)

The hard working, unemployed single parent who lost their partner? (Raising Dion & Pursuit of Happyness)…

The successful black person who was bullied as a kid and does not trust anyone, or is just plain mean. (Coach Carter)…

The overweight, black nanny who takes care of a White family? ( Gone with the Wind)…

The ambitious, black woman who is constantly denied opportunity because of the color of her skin? (Hidden Figures)…

The black boy who lived off the street committing crimes and has followers from the hood? ( Fast & Furious & Oceans 11)…

Each of these stereotypes are just a few of the many token images society has of the black community. It does not mean these images are false; they do exist in certain ways. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg that is the Black experience. Not everyone is dumb, poor and prone to violence, some of us are actually smart and successful.

A great example of showcasing the wider Black experience is Marvel’s Black Panther. That movie was a world sensation when it came out in February 2018. Everyone was screaming “Wakanda Forever” even when some of them were not black. The reason for this is that the film showcased the various dimensions of what Black person could be.

The Killmonger image: Blacks that are violent and angry due the discrimination they experience.

The Wakanda people: Blacks who have lived in a successful life not experiencing racism.

The Black Panther: Blacks who live in power.

The poor: Certain Blacks who live a life of poverty.

To conclude, I encourage you writers, stop adding black characters to your story just to show that you are woke (socially aware) if you are not going to commit to treating those characters with the same love and respect that you attribute to White characters. They do not need to be the main character, but at least explore the black experience past the stereotypes. The Black Community does not need another black face in a popular franchise. They need a Black character who can show them there is more to life than fitting in a popular trope.

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