Consider the following thought process:
1. People who look different are easier to tell apart than people who look the same.
2. Audiences are better able to distinguish between characters who are described or shown to be physically dissimilar to one another.
3. Physical dissimilarity in such instances is often established through differences in hair, skin and eye colour.
4. People of Caucasian descent have a wider range of natural hair and eye colours than people of other races.
5. Narrative tokenism is a natural consequence of physical dissimilarity being used to create visually distinct characters.
6. Creating a visually diverse cast of characters is not the same thing as creating a racially diverse cast of characters.
All stories exist within a tradition of storytelling. Unavoidably, that tradition is both connected to and influenced by external culture. We live now – and have done for some time – in a multicultural society, a fact which is in absolutely no danger of changing. I don’t know what first sparked the notion that diversity was best expressed by the image of one male and one female of every ethnicity all standing together like the denizens of a transnational Noah’s Ark, unless it’s Walt Disney’s fault, but for whatever reason, and while I acknowledge that there’s an undeniable egalitarianism to this approach, the symmetry of it seems to have become an unquestioned narrative trope.
This is not a good thing, for two main reasons. Firstly, as described above, it leads to tokenism. An important clarification, before we go any further: this is neither the only cause of tokenism, nor is it the most common. But particularly in visual media, it is easy to conflate visual dissimilarity among characters with racial diversity, and in a context of Caucasian dominance, this cannot help but lead to instances of the human hair colour quartet – blonde, brunette, red and black – being used to represent diversity, with non-white characters frequently fulfilling the black-haired quotient. Secondly, and as a direct result of this, it leads to a situation where casts are considered to be diverse if they contain one or two non-white characters, and where an equal distribution of different ethnicities therefore becomes seen as the moral ideal.
On the surface, this latter consequence might not seem particularly problematic – certainly, there are worse ideals to have – and yet it is still polluted by the dual contaminants of aesthetic balance and white privilege. After all, ensuring that a range of ethnicities be represented in roughly the same ratios is not the same thing as ensuring that the main characters are drawn randomly from that pool, and despite the best intentions of such diversity, there’s still an underlying assumption in our society that at least two such characters must always be white. This creates an extremely problematic working model of racial diversity within narrative: one where the only constant is the presence of white characters who, despite an equal opportunities orbit of POC colleagues, are still more likely to be the protagonists than not.
What got me thinking on all of this is the extent to which visual diversity as a means of distinguishing characters is a particularly common ploy in book serials and TV shows aimed at preadolescents. Back when I was nine or so – a burgeoning tween, at any rate – it seemed that everywhere I turned, characters in books and on TV were being set apart from each other on the basis of colour association. Some of these were more genuine attempts at diversity than others. The five main characters of Capitan Planet, for instance, were all from different parts of the world, belonging to entirely different cultures and ethnicities; additionally, each character was given command over a particular element, which was in turn associated with a specific colour. Thus, Kwame was African with earth magic (green); Wheeler was North American with fire magic (red); Linka was Eastern European with wind magic (purple); Gi was Asian with water magic (blue) and Ma-Ti was South American with heart magic (yellow). A much less tactful example is the Power Rangers franchise, where each Ranger was literally described in terms of colour. In the original series, this meant that the white male characters were the Red, Blue and Green Rangers, respectively; the white female character was Pink Ranger; the black male ranger was Black Ranger; and the Asian female character was Yellow Ranger, none of which is particularly encouraging.
Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc series sat somewhere between these two examples, diversity-wise. Of the six main characters, four were white – mousy blonde Tom, light blonde Richelle, brunette Liz, and redhead Elmo – with two non-white characters then fulfilling the black-haired quotient: Nick was Greek and Sunny was Chinese. Insofar as every character narrated an equal number of books, it was an egalitarian system, but in terms of creating a visually diverse cast, it still felt as though the ratios were chosen on the basis of differing hair colour. Other series, such as the W.I.T.C.H comics and just about any fairy– or princess-based serial aimed at ten-year-old girls, will follow a similar pattern, though the latter examples are much more obsessed with Caucasian visual diversity than the former. Take a flip through the character sketches for just about any cartoon or anime, and you’ll witness a similar phenomenon: regardless of the racial diversity of the casts, many shows will deliberately create a unique colour scheme for each character, the better to set them apart – and if the fantasy aspects of a given story can be subtly expressed with the help of such visual cues, then so much the better.
And speaking of SFF, take a moment to consider the racial makeup of successive Star Trek crews, or the desired character balance of a typical Dungeons & Dragons party. Perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor too far, but it nonetheless strikes me as a relevant that in both these instances, imaginary humanoid races – be they Vulcans, Cardassians and Klingons or orcs, gnomes and elves – are usually deployed on something of a ‘one of each’ basis. The starship Enterprise might well be a shining beacon of diversity, particularly given the era in which it was created, but in each successive franchise, the pattern was always for more human crew-members than alien, with the latter characters made special and distinctive by the fact that nobody else in the main cast shared their heritage. Similarly, the foundation of any successful D&D campaign is a balanced party, in terms of race as well as skill. You don’t want everyone to play an orc anymore than you want everyone to play a halfling,and as those sentiments extend to novels, too, the typical makeup of myriad Tolkien-derivative quest fantasies, such as Terry Brooks’s Shanara novels or the massive Dragonlance series, therefore depends on an even mix of character backgrounds: the archetypal motley crew.
So here, ultimately, is my question: why is the single most common expression of diversity in narrative contingent upon creating casts of characters whose individuality is defined by their collective difference? Why, unless those characters are white – or, in fantastic instances, human – is there an unspoken law against writing a cast where multiple characters share the same racial, ethnic or religious background? Why is it necessary that POC characters go constantly two by two, one male and one female, in narratives where the majority of characters are white? Does it have something to do with the fact that our childhood stories are saturated with the logic of colour association, or are those narratives a subconscious simplex of tokenism in the adult world? I am not saying that colour association in children’s stories is an inherently vicious idea, nor am I arguing that ‘one of each’ narratives fail at genuine diversity. But it strikes me that if notions of visual dissimilarity, cultural symmetry and aesthetic balance are continuing to fuel the logic used to create casts of characters, then we might not be approaching the issue with as open a mind as we should be. Sadly, the real world is neither perfectly symmetrical nor innately egalitarian, and if our best efforts to display it as such still persist in conflating white privilege with realistic diversity, then the problem is more pervasive than we think.