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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ack, My Privilege Is Showing...

I was reading the Civil War YA and Runaway tie-in when I had a rather strange realization. The skrull character, Xavin, is a character I've been liking a lot in the few issues of Runaways I'd sat down and read. But I only today noticed today that he's remarkable in a different way.

He's (She's?) naturally a skrull of course, but his default human form is that of a black man. And I'd never really thought of it before, but when it comes shapeshifting alien type beings in sci-fi/fantasy/comics who take human form, I think 95% of those characters tend to take the form of caucasian people.

It's a little weird to stop and consider, but (except for Xavin) off the top of my head I can't really think of any shapeshifting character who's preferred/default form is that of a black or asian character. I'm sure there are a few and I'm just drawing a blank, but off the top of my head, I'm having trouble thinking of them.

It has some unpleasant implications though. I mean, when I stop and think about it I can't think of any reason that a shapeshifting alien couldn't be any race. Usually the story is specific about whether the character should be male or female, but race usually doesn't enter into the picture. However, the vast majority of shape-shifting characters become white people. Is it because of an unconscious sort of racism in which many writers/artists/casting agents automatically consider white to be the "default"?

(I suppose one slightly insulting explanation is that they want to blend in with the rest of the cast. Who tend to be white as a majority. Which is irritating because in most of the cities where these stories are supposed to take place, there usually are fairly substantial non-white populations...even if we don't see them on screen)

I definitely don't think it's a conscious racism, I think that there is another reason that we tend to see the shapeshifters-as-white-people most often. That is, we white people are chickenshit.

Okay, that's a little harsh. But I think white writers/directors/casting agents tend to be very wary in general about how they cast non-white characters. In some cases, this has a lot of merit. Especially considering, say, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers in which we ended up with an Asian "Yellow Ranger" and a black "Black Ranger".

I personally tend not to notice always when things are questionable like that. I can ignore it because I'm white, I think. I remember reading David's critique of Young Avengers and actually bristling a little. I love Young Avengers and Eli's one of my absolute favorite younger hero characters. (I've always liked strong leadership characters.) I thought that David was reading too much into Eli's use of the drugs. Eli wasn't doing it out of an addiction or desire to become high, he was doing it so that he could be a hero and save people. He was proactively pursuing that ability, in a way, that really didn't seem much different to me than Steve Rogers using the super serum in the first place. Except that his wasn't permanent. And by the end, he did end up infused with the serum properly. I thought it was a shame to dismiss such a great character because of one part.

But then...I'm white. And as bleeding heart, guilty liberal as I tend to be, I really don't know what it's like to be a black man. I've heard stories, of course, of the offensive assumptions people make. But I don't have to live them and thus, I can afford to be somewhat oblivious to them. Eli's drug-storyline doesn't hit the same nerves for me that it might for a lot of other people. In a similar sort of thing, I'm not sure how many people (male or female) can really understand why characters like Kitty Pryde, female characters that seem designed more as a compilation of traits that certain male writers find really attractive/cool than as a functioning individual, irk me. We all have our trigger issues after all.

My reaction to David's entry was pretty telling though. I was defensive and shocked. I hadn't even considered that one of my favorite characters could be taken that way and for a minute or two, I was even offended by the implications. (I'm not proud of myself for that.) The motivations, I'm 95% certain though I've never met or spoken with Allan Heinburg, were not racist! I'm certainly not a racist for liking Eli...am I? These were all thoughts jumbled up together in my mind.

Coming face to face with one's own privilege is never a very comfortable experience.

I think as a result, when white creators do end up thinking about race they go overboard. "If I cast soandso as a non-white person and he dies, will I be giving off a racist message?" "If this-guy has some of the negative stereotypes of his race, am I being racist?" Something like that. In the case of shapeshifters, I can't help but think of specific critiques of that stupid black/white show in which it's pointed out how stupid it is to expect a white person to get the idea of what it's like to be black through wearing make-up. At the end of the day, they can wash it off, and be white again. (Jenn over at Reappropriate has done some great reviews of the show that addresses this in depth).

So then, there's the question, "Well, since the character could be any race he/she wants, is it then more like wearing blackface/yellowface?" Does the character really count as our black/hispanic/asian/or-other-race character if he/she doesn't have to be? Is it cheating, in a sense, to include them?

Of course, all this liberal guilt whining does ignore a very simple solution. Which is: if you're worried about racist messages in your non-white character, why not make more than one non-white character? (This goes for women, homosexual characters and others as well...for example, as Steven pointed out Freedom's Ring's storyline would have probably been fine in Wildstorm.)

Anyway, I'm not sure I have a point to all this really. I think I'm just taking this opportunity to muse about a topic that I usually don't talk about.

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21 Comments:

  • At November 09, 2006 10:44 AM, Anonymous Jer said…

    For a take on this type of story, you should really track down the Milestone series ICON from the 90s (if you haven't already read them). The title character was an alien from another planet with Superman-level powers who took the form of a black man when he came to Earth. I remember an issue where there was an argument between him and his sidekick about whether he was "really" black or not because he could choose not to be at any time.

    Plus, on top of everything else, the book was written by Dwayne McDuffie and it was a great read (most of the initial Milestone books were good reads). I just wish it had run longer.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 11:08 AM, Blogger Matthew E said…

    In the cartoon Justice League Unlimited, the Martian Manhunter spent a lot of time living as a middle-aged Chinese man. We only found out about this in the final episode, so it's a little unclear about whether this was his 'default' human form, but there you are.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 11:33 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    This was an interesting subject. I guess it is a whole lot harder to be a writer than we all think.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    As a sci-fi fan, I always rationalized that the reason most shape shifting aliens choose to be white was because their most likely introduction to our world was through broadcast TV which was pretty much full of white people for a long, long time. If that's the image of our world that aliens get, that's what they'll try to look like.

    I always tried to avoid how the writer/artist/producer came up with the character being Caucasian because I don't want to assume a mass unconscious racism in the realm of science fiction and fantasy.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 12:18 PM, Anonymous Mark Engblom said…

    Ahh....one more thing to feel guilty about.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 12:37 PM, Blogger Eudaimo said…

    As for "Defaulting," is it really racist for a writer to default to his or her own race?

    Oh and: "In the cartoon Justice League Unlimited, the Martian Manhunter spent a lot of time living as a middle-aged Chinese man. We only found out about this in the final episode, so it's a little unclear about whether this was his 'default' human form, but there you are."

    Are you sure? I'm familiar with the episodes in question, but I took him to be a White-American tourist who was romantically involved with a Chinese woman.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 12:51 PM, Anonymous Willow said…

    Yup, your priviledge is showing. But at least you've found yourself thinking about it.

    I've not read Xavin's entry yet. When I do, I can let you kjnow what I think.

    I have read feedback about the Avengers and what it said to have a young black man, shooting drugs for a seeminly 'good cause'. Not having read the issues myself, I don't have muchto say about it. But when I read the respective articles about it, my thoughts were - someone wasn't thinking.

    As for shapeshifters who can become anything they want. I think it should send a message if they choose their default to be a minority. However, from what you've described with Xavin, it seems a lot like Xavin's the ultimate outsider, neither really male or female, an alien and now he chooses to be 'other' when he's hiding his alien identity. I'm not sure I like the message of that.

    But again, I'll wait and read for myself.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 12:56 PM, Anonymous Willow said…

    Eudaimo:

    In JLU, The Martian Manhunter was a Chinese man in a relationship with a Chinese woman. And I further loved the touch that he so thought of himself as chinese that his first non-human form was a Chinese style dragon.

    Also, yes, it is racist to a certain degree if a white writer or artist has a character that defaults to their race. Because it says a lot about the writer's or artist's inability to think outside their box.

    There is unintentional racism, quiet racism that comes from not thinking outside one's experience. And for people who're trying to be creative, it's a block. It's priviledge. It's defaulting to white because they don't have to think about what it means to have non-white characters out there or show experiences through the eyes of non-white characters.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 3:13 PM, Anonymous david brothers said…

    I'll hit you with a longer response later on since I'm short on time (I need my comics fix this week oh man), but I do want to say something about this:

    Usually the story is specific about whether the character should be male or female, but race usually doesn't enter into the picture. However, the vast majority of shape-shifting characters become white people. Is it because of an unconscious sort of racism in which many writers/artists/casting agents automatically consider white to be the "default"?

    I write reviews/non-fiction/guides for a living, but I also dabble in fiction for fun. Another writer friend and I were talking about something similar to this.

    We came to the conclusion that, if I were pressed about the issue, most of my characters would probably be black and/or some variety of hispanic unless I'm specifically going for a certain archetype/stereotype (russian mobster, irish cop, what-have-you). For him, it was the opposite. They were white unless he needed them to be something else. I'm willing to bet that if you polled a lot of people who deal in prose, you'd find a similar phenomenon. You could probably extrapolate it to gender preference as well as race, too. Probably even class.

    Actually, definitely class, though that probably correlates in different ways.

    I'm not so sure that I would term it racism (or classism) per se, though it may well fit the dictionary definition. It's just a matter of how our worldview as a black/white/asian/male/female/rich/poor/hobo affects what we see and how we think. There's the old adage "write what you know," but one that's never pointed out is that you tend to "know what you write." It's unconscious and something you only realize when you actually put some thought to it.

    I don't know why I'm so hesitant to peg this as a completely bad thing. It's no different from the whitewashed New York of Friends or how the black population of the Marvel New York in the 60s or 70s were pretty much all background-lurking, switchblade-bearing muggers. I definitely don't believe that like should write like exclusively, either.

    Food for thought, I figure, and also food for further self-examination.

    This kind of thing is where the idea of a tortured artist comes from :)

    Well, that and wondering who would win in a fight: Big Barda or She-Hulk.
    (the only right answer is Big Barda, btw, and I've got the comics panels to prove it from when she beat up Future Wonder Woman)

     
  • At November 09, 2006 4:16 PM, Anonymous Lyle said…

    There's also a Milestone team book you might want to look for --- can anyone tell me which one? Milestone came during a time I wasn't picking up comics -- one of the characters was a shapeshifter. I'm not sure what color her skin was, but they played upon gender perceptions with the character (IIRC she identified as a transgendered lesbian who had the power to choose her gender without anyone's help).

    At the least, that probably touches on those kinds of issues.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 4:48 PM, Anonymous Dan Coyle said…

    Lyle- you're thinking of Blood Syndicate's Masquerade, whose default form was apparently a woman but psychologically she felt much more comfortable as a man.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 5:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    As for "Defaulting," is it really racist for a writer to default to his or her own race?

    Yeah, that's kind of the definition of racism there, a belief that the writer's own race is neutral but the other races become defining characteristics.

    Big Barda or She-Hulk?

    Is that a serious question? It's Big Friggin Barda! If the question was Barda vs. Thor, Thanos or Galactus (or ALL THREE) the answers still Barda.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 5:32 PM, Blogger Elliot said…

    I wonder how long it would take an impartial alien observer to realize there is white male privilege in the English speaking nations?

    If you wanted to infiltrate, blend in, avoid detection and hassle, what race and sex should an alien shape shifter choose?

    It seems like an obvious choice, and it would almost be hard to justify another ethnic or gender choice, unless the alien was on a Wonder Woman style mission of bringing enlightenment.

    I may just be rationalizing what has already been written, but at the same time, most writers put some thought into their creations, and a white male disguise really is a smart, logical choice for a writer of a shape shifting alien to make.

    To put it another way, Xavin is hurting his ability to blend in, because sad as it is, the simple fact is he will always be subjected to more scrutiny just for the colour of his skin.

     
  • At November 09, 2006 6:05 PM, Anonymous Lyle said…

    Thanks, Dan.

     
  • At November 10, 2006 2:57 AM, Blogger heath said…

    just throwing this in...
    could xavin be forming as a black man/woman because of karolina? it hasn't been mentioned here, but karolina's preference is for the ladies, and xavin spends more time as a woman in 'runaways' than as a man (cw-ya&runaways)... not having read marvel comics long enough to know whether skrulls have mental powers, its something i've been wondering... karolina's preference could be for the black ladies, thus xavin's choice of form...
    just throwing it in there. no offence intended...

     
  • At November 10, 2006 3:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Kalnara,

    Please allow me to focus my response on one topic: I ... really don't know what to say about white people talking about their "guilt" and "privilege." I've always felt that white guilt is just useless ... and a lot of times, self-centered. It's not really about exposing and fighting injustice because it's wrong. It's about the salvation of one's own soul, not defending the rights of the victims of racism. "Oh deliver us from our sins! Please tell us that we are not racist!"

    I don’t mean to be mocking you. I really wish smart and brilliant white people stoped doing it. It’s just frustrating that your eye-opening observation about Xavin and your persuasive point about the critique of YA (I originally thought it was “did they have to make the major black character an addict?”) is so soon turned into the discussion of “well I am white … so I could be insensitive.” What about the possibility that your points are right? Damn right? I would defend you if someone calls you racist.

    And what is this “white privilege”? It is to me a very misleading, confounding, and over-generalizing idea. Only the overstretching of the definition of the word privilege treats a white student at a poorly-financed state university flipping burgers for a part-time job the same as Donald Trump. It’s a mirror image to “all darkies look alike.” And I don’t know if becoming aware of “white privilege” somehow magically leads every white person to anti-racism. That’s why there are a lot of BS stock-in-trade catchphrase like “sure, whites get headstart, but blacks don’t work as hard.” It’s just naïve.

    [Finally...] You know what kind of white women I admire? They from Texas with good progressive politics. They rock, they just do, and they don’t apologize for being white this and white that.

    Love,

     
  • At November 10, 2006 9:29 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    jer: I haven't read much Milestone. I'll check it out!

    matthew: That's a good point. I tend to think of J'onn as the white guy he's been in the comics though for his default identity. (As cool as it was when he was a Japanese woman or other alternate forms). I tend to forget JLU.

    sally: :-)

    ticknart: I try to avoid it too. But honestly, I don't know if it's a good idea to. The whole point to unconscious racism is that it's unconscious. That there are almost no black people in high fantasy that aren't evil, underground dwelling elves is definitely a sign of something.

    (It doesn't even make sense. If anything they'd be albino!)

    I think there's nothing wrong with liking drow, for example. But by acknowledging an unconscious racism in their creation, it makes it less likely that it'll be perpetuated as much later...ideally anyway.

    mark: It's life though.

    eudaimo: I think defaulting is pretty racist personally. It's an assumption that white is the norm. When population wise, in the world, it really isn't. It's assuming that white is the standard and everything else is other.

    I'd think it racist no matter who did it. Not *intentionally* so. But still. Racism is involved there, I think.

    willow: Xavin's a strange character, but I think I disagree with your summation of him as an ultimate outsider. At least that wasn't the motivation in taking his human form.

    The thing is, he seems to have a very distinct (male) identity. He's sublimating the male role into a female one for Karolina's state but it's very clearly not how he sees himself. (Which makes for interesting drama, as the relationship will not last)

    That's my take anyway.

    david: I don't necessarily think it's bad that most of the characters someone writes are their own race. There's a difference between having a cast that's primarily one race and say Friends, which has next to no diversity in the middle of freakin' NYC.

    I do it too, honestly. Unless I've designed a character specifically to be another race, they're all white in my head initially.

    (Often what I end up doing in a lame attempt to add diversity is making lists. There are certain characters I can't imagine being any race but white. They go into their own column. My characters that are other races go into their columns. Then I have a column for characters whose race doesn't play a huge part of my conception of them at all, and see if I can't imagine them as a different race.

    It's an imperfect method, definitely, but it does at least ensure they're not completely white-washed. And I get less worried about going too far in any one direction in terms of stereotypes, so I think that may be a plus. Not sure really.)

    And I'm looking forward to your longer response. :-)

    Oh yeah, and Big Barda would win. Though I think that instead of fighting, they'd go out drinking and partying together. Wreaking havoc. :-)

    lyle: Thanks for the recommendation!

    dan: Thanks!

    steven: Big Barda is indeed Big Barda. :-P

    elliot: It's a good point and in some cases, I definitely agree. Except most shapeshifting characters aren't long term observers of earth culture.

    Most shapeshifting characters we see crash land or something on Earth and then take a form similar to the first people they see. It seems awfully questionable that every shapeshifter would instinctively understand white people to be the privileged upper class.

    heath: I don't recall race coming up in any discussion when Xavin took his form. He seems to default in human form to that of a black male (and subsequently afterwards always shifting to female) so I think it's probably not for Karolina's tastes.

    anon: Thank you for your words, I'm glad you thought my argument was persuasive.

    As for the talk about privilege. I can understand why this would irritate some people. It is without a doubt an introspective and self-centered topic.

    But this is my blog. :-) Blogs are intrinsically self-centered. I like this, I don't like this. This is why.

    In the case of the Young Avengers argument, honestly, it wasn't the point of my post. I was using it as a tool to examine my own perspective of racial issues in comics. And my perspective is that of a white woman, which does involve a privilege that should be acknowledged.

    As I see it, privilege isn't about equating a poor college student with Trump. Privilege is about the fact that 80% or so of students in state universities tend to be white in a country who's population of minorities is considerably greater indicates that there is definitely an imbalance here. It's about how I've never been pulled over in my car, watched closely by store security people or had people *cross the street* away from me at night because I am white. That's what I see as privilege.

    (Similarly to the fact that in some states cervical and breast cancer research funding is threatened because the diseases impact women only but no one EVER threatens the funding of prostate cancer research. But I digress.)

    Anyway, I never intended my own interpretation of YA to be a counter-argument to David's. Because honestly, reading his argument and putting myself in his shoes, I agree completely. Someone wasn't thinking. Do I think Heinburg did it on purpose? No. Does that mean I'm going to stop liking Eli or reading one of my favorite comics? Definitely not.

    But it does impact the way I percieve racial issues in comics, which is the point of my post. :-)

     
  • At November 10, 2006 10:12 AM, Anonymous green with wheelpower said…

    Jer: amen on Milestone!

    Everyone of you guys talking about drug use to get powers should check the latest episode of Smallville and Issac from Heroes. Bottom line drugs are bad and everyones guilty if they use them no matter race.

    Willow: It is not a crime to write what you know. I for one would have to consult certain of my friends before even attempting a black or female character:) It is wrong to close your creativity off though.

    Annd a final note pertaining to media and my own minority. It wasn't until the Americans w/ Disablities Act that the media was force BY LAW to show a true cross section and as bad as they are at it I can think of only 2 examples where they handled it well Season 1 ER, and Heroes (which actually just introduced a major supporting character who is paralized. YAY!)

    Oh and nobody in like situations that I know of(including myself) is as messed up as xavier. Though Oracle, DD and the first season of M.A.N.T.I.S. are all good

     
  • At November 10, 2006 10:12 AM, Anonymous green with wheelpower said…

    Jer: amen on Milestone!

    Everyone of you guys talking about drug use to get powers should check the latest episode of Smallville and Issac from Heroes. Bottom line drugs are bad and everyones guilty if they use them no matter race.

    Willow: It is not a crime to write what you know. I for one would have to consult certain of my friends before even attempting a black or female character:) It is wrong to close your creativity off though.

    Annd a final note pertaining to media and my own minority. It wasn't until the Americans w/ Disablities Act that the media was force BY LAW to show a true cross section and as bad as they are at it I can think of only 2 examples where they handled it well Season 1 ER, and Heroes (which actually just introduced a major supporting character who is paralized. YAY!)

    Oh and nobody in like situations that I know of(including myself) is as messed up as xavier. Though Oracle, DD and the first season of M.A.N.T.I.S. are all good

     
  • At November 10, 2006 10:14 AM, Anonymous greenwith wheelpower said…

    DP sorry Stupid word verifcation argh!

     
  • At November 11, 2006 2:58 AM, Anonymous Ununnilium said…

    I think it's basically because most of the writers are white. Thus, on some unconcious level, they probably do default to that.

     

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