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For Indigenous People’s Day: Suggestions for Avoiding Tokenism in Your Fiction

Here in the Bay Area where I live, many places label this holiday Indigenous People’s Day rather than Columbus Day, in an effort to remind the public of the deeply problematic history that goes along with the European settlement of North America. In that spirit, and because indigenous peoples are probably still one of the groups most often stereotyped in contemporary storytelling, I thought I’d put together a short post with some tips and links I’ve found on avoiding tokenism and stereotyping in your own writing.

Even in contemporary fiction, depictions of Native Americans by non-Native authors frequently seem to fall prey to a very small group of stereotypes. Fictional Natives often wear traditionalist dress, even in modern urban settings; non-industrialized people in fantasy stories are often depicted as noble savages, in tune with nature and living a purer, more authentic life than the (usually white)  main characters who encounter them (the Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar are a pretty pure example of this). In more modern settings, Native characters sometimes pop up as ethnic magicians, using “the old ways” or a special connection with nature to help the hero. It’s long been common for non-Native authors to take a hodgepodge of different traditions and throw in what feels cool (TV Tropes uses the example of Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan film, where Tiger Lily’s people have both tipis and totem poles, combining items from Great Plains nations with Pacific Northwest nations and making about as much sense as Vikings wearing Roman togas).

If you’re a non-Native writer who wants to portray Native people in your story — or, for that matter, if you’re anyone who wants your story to include characters from a group you’re not a part of — there are a few places I’d recommend for you to check out.

  • TV Tropes — a place for dissecting the common themes in popular media. It’s a good way to check yourself and become aware of your own cultural context (just as a for-instance, check out how many people besides George RR Martin have marked special races or groups by giving them purple eyes or silver hair).
  • Writing With Color — the best Tumblr I’ve found in a long time. It’s basically a question-and-answer site for writers to pose questions that come up as they’re working with different types of characters. Their archive is fabulous; in addition to advice for writing more sensitively about people from all kinds of backgrounds, it includes things like suggestions for describing skin color. A few posts that particularly struck me with regards to sensitive portrayals of indigenous and Native people:
    • Acceptable labels for indigenous North American people
    • Using Native American folklore. This one struck a particular chord with me because it brought up something I hadn’t thought about before. The moderator makes the point that “the values [Original Poster was] raised with and [takes] for granted are probably not the same as [those of the culture whose folklore OP is interested in]. You need to be conscious of whether the culture behind this folklore actually agrees with the message of your story.” She then goes on to list a number of beliefs which Native cultures might view differently from “American” culture, including whether a stable life is better than an ideal one, whether change and progress are more important than tradition and heritage, and whether it’s insulting to those around you to choose to “move up” in the world, and ends by asking the OP whether they would consider it respectful to use a character from Native folklore to embody beliefs totally at odds with the culture the character comes from.

If you’re someone looking to diversify the stories you tell, these sites should give you a place to start: there are also many other wonderful sites out there that offer tips and advice. After doing a lot of reading on the subject, it seems to me that the fragile consensus on how to sensitively portray characters different from you boils down to a few key points:

  1. Do your research. Don’t assume that reading the Wikipedia page about a group will give you enough information to portray its members accurately. Read as much as you can get your hands on, and especially read things written by people who are members of the group (what sociologists would call insiders). If at all possible, talk with people from the group about your story. Listen to the feedback they give you; if something in the story makes them uncomfortable, find out why. Ask if they would mind being beta readers. If you’re committed to including characters from different backgrounds in your story, you need to make sure that the characters accurately reflect those backgrounds.
  2. Don’t have just one representative of a group. This is probably the easiest way to avoid tokenism. If you’ve only got one character of color in your story, and that character is the villain (or, like Angel’s Charles Gunn, the muscle in a group of intellectuals), you’re likely to get some raised eyebrows. But if your story’s world looks like the real world, with people from a range of backgrounds playing major and minor roles, then you can relax more about having one  character take on a role that might invoke negative stereotypes. Avatar: The Last Airbender does this by default; since its whole cast is people of color, and we see many individuals from each of the three surviving nations, the show actively discourages viewers from thinking of one group as having a single set of circumscribed traits. Instead, viewers think about characters as individuals. Which brings me to probably the most important point…
  3. Make all your characters characters. No matter what a character’s ascribed identities are, they’re also going to be an individual, with idiosyncratic interests, motivations and desires. None of us is only the sum of our collected identities, so while characters’ backgrounds and social identities should certainly affect how they move through the world, characters also need to be more than just The Magician, or The Blind Guy, or The Indian.
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