How the downtrodden token story traps minority writers
Alex Perez, DCNF
As a minority writer from a working-class background, I had naively assumed that the supposedly progressive writing world would be receptive to my urban stories populated by people of color (POC), but I quickly learned that only a specific brand of POC story was championed by literary elites: the downtrodden token story (DTS).
A DTS is a story from a “marginalized” writer that traffics in the politically correct POC tropes enforced by the Barnard educated, New Yorker tote bag-wearing dolts who’ve taken over the publishing landscape like woke weeds. If he is savvy and shrewd, the token writer understands that if he wants to publish, his characters first and foremost must be downtrodden victims, as victimization is the hallmark of the DTS.
Once a token writer internalizes this mindset, he is now ready to construct—we will not call this writing—paint-by-numbers victimization narratives in the DTS style. The token writer knows that white editors who’ve only interacted with a handful of POC, yet deem themselves experts of their lived experience, disturbingly get off at the sight of brown suffering, so he’ll toss a dash of melanated seasoning into the story—but nothing too spicy. Too much spice, too much fun, and a token character risks losing his sheen of victimization.
Italicized words, the ultimate signifier that a character is a victim, are a must if a token writer is hoping for peak victimization. A top level token writer knows that if his prose is bad, or if his story isn’t much of a story at all, italicization will save him—just type “Papi” or “Mami” over and over again and you will have a perfectly acceptable story. As a practitioner of the DTS, a token writer will spend most of his time defanging and pruning a story of its most interesting—i.e. problematic—elements, until what remains is a tale of downtrodden victimization ready for the consumption of the ravenous woke editors who must continually feed off token suffering.
If a token writer is struggling to figure out if they’ve constructed a proper DTS, all they need to do is ask a simple question: Is this character enough of a sad sack? If the answer is no, simply introduce a brutal white villain into your story. And what if you already have one? No matter! Add another. Hell, why not a battalion of whitey white whites basking in their whiteness? Your story, even if it’s about brown people, should be doused in malevolent whiteness. Never forget, simple token writers: White bad! Brown body good!
It’s disturbing that the literary world demands the DTS, but what’s truly debilitating to the token writer who doesn’t want to write weepy victimization stories for a white audience is that only white characters are granted the agency to act badly—to be a villain. Every reader of classic fiction knows that the great literary characters are often the villains—or the terminally flawed—because problem-starters are the engines of the drama and discord that drive a narrative forward. In any fictional universe, it is typically the villain, and not the victim, who is granted agency, which explains the perpetual passivity of token characters in a DTS. This phenomenon explains those multi-generational ethnic sagas in which not a single soul in a family’s lineage has apparently ever experienced happiness—utter despair and victimization for five hundred pages.
One only needs to peruse this year’s Booker Prize long-list to see that the generational suffering saga is as strong a staple as ever. Take C Pam Zhang’s “How Much of These Hills is Gold,” a debut novel that, according to the Booker Prize’s website, “tells an untold story of the arrival of Chinese-American immigrants to the US during the Gold Rush. It’s a novel about conflict between two siblings, carrying the body of their newly deceased father across a harsh landscape.”
Carrying their dead dad’s body across the frozen tundra—how downtrodden! Woke orthodoxy, in which whites are not only the victimizers, but the only allowable villains, dictates that token characters, forever the victims of white supremacy, patriarchy, etc., can never take control of a narrative and fully exert their agency.
What’s insulting and borderline racist about this mindset is that woke editors are treating POC characters, and, in turn, POC writers, like noble savages. If POC are constant victims of forces outside their control, their behavior is never their fault, and agency, once again, is stolen from the token character. In their twisted way, by demanding adherence to the DTS model, editors are not shining the spotlight on token writers, but granting dreaded “whiteness” protagonist status no matter what a token story is about. If all stories are centered around the specter of whiteness, a POC character can never claim center-stage status, and only whites are allowed the full dimensionality of character, while tokens are relegated to doddering idiocy and the unrealistic all-encompassing goodness of the noble savage.
As a Cuban-American writer from Miami, I got into the writing game because I wanted to write stories about the messed-up kids I grew up with who acted in messed-up ways, not because they were oppressed or “othered,” but because they were messed-up kids, who, in the classic American sense, enjoyed messing stuff up. These friends of mine I wanted to fictionalize were anything but victims, but the downtrodden token story model demanded that their behavior and agency be neutered in service of the woke narrative. They were the main characters in their lives, but as whiteness—a concept they didn’t even know existed—rules the dying and decaying world of contemporary literary fiction, I had to transform them from brilliantly nuanced and hilarious human savages into palatable noble savages.
For this reason, it is crucial that POC writers from non-elite backgrounds understand that when Brooklyn-dwelling editors say that they are looking for writers of color, what they are really saying is that they desire yet another good, little token-victim who knows their place and propagates woke tropes and intersectional orthodoxy. The sick truth is that these editors publish marginalized writers and demand adherence to the DTS model, not because they care about unrepresented voices, but because they are trying to assuage their white guilt—in a sense, then, they are correct that whiteness is what marginalizes token writers; it just so happens to be their own whiteness.
The insidiousness of this DTS mentality is such that most token writers unquestionably accept its validity and expect their work to be judged by petty superficialities such as race or immigrant status instead of the sole metric that should matter to a writer: whether they have a singular artistic vision. If a token writer refuses to preach progressive pieties to an incredibly insular and hyper-politicized publishing machinery, his work will be swept aside. The message is simple: debase yourself and dance the downtrodden token jig of performative suffering and victimization, or else. This is the end state of woke ideology, in which activism, not artistry, is demanded of writers.
Alex Perez is a Cuban-American writer from Miami, whose work has appeared in Tablet Magazine and Arc Digital, among others. Find him on Twitter @Perez_Writes
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.