Thursday, February 28, 2008

Subtle Racism Or Playing To Stereotypes?

I was having a conversation with my lady-friend the other night about racism in popular media. It came about because she read a comic in which the character was going down the "wrong" path and, to showcase that visually, the artist represented the character in a decidedly more "urban" manner. Her reaction was that the artist was using the stereotypical image of the contemporary "angry black man" as a way to say that the lead character was doing something he shouldn't. That his poor decisions were indicative of what a black man allegedly might make.

Whether or not that was the creator's intent, I don't know. I personally interpreted the image as simply "urban" without any racial connotations. In my mind, it's more of a commentary on socio-political differences. But, being a black woman, she said that was an uncommon attitude and she's found, through personal experience, that most people will use "urban" and "black" almost interchangeably. If not in actual practice, then at least in thinking.

Now being the incredibly white male that I am, many of the issues of race -- the more practical, substantive issues -- were only theoretical in nature. I've never really experienced racism in any form and I know that, no matter how much I might read about it, there's no way I can really get a first-hand understanding of the issues. That said, though, having that dialogue the other night did raise my awareness of other possible issues.

Take, for example, the latest issue of Abyss. I won't go into the whole story, but one portion features the white hero, Arrow, running into his former sidekick Shaafte, now a hero in his own right. Shaafte, as his name might suggest to those familiar with either the Richard Roundtree or Samuel Jackson movies, is black. His headquarters are located in a dock-side warehouse but seem to be almost as well-outfitted as Arrow's penthouse suite. At first glance, it would appear that both characters are treated with respect by the creators.

But when Arrow tries to leave, he finds his car resting on cinder blocks with the wheels, doors, bumpers, mirrors, seats and lights removed. Further, when they opt to take Shaaft's vehicle, it turns out to be a monster SUV with an obviously oversized sound system and personalized license plates. Shaaft even calls the vehicle "pretty fly."

So the question is: is this racism?

I'm sure the creators would say "no" and I'm optimistic enough to believe that they firmly had no intention of belittling African-Americans. I expect they have friends of different races, and don't see a problem with what they put down because they just wanted to put in a more urban character than the pure-bred white hero they'd already established. After all, the book is, in part, about playing around with existing comic book conventions. They wanted to counter the archtypical white hero with a contemporary urban counterpart.

But here's the thing: Shaaft here is the ONLY black character in the book. Even the generic crowd scenes are filled with Caucasians. The only character representing black culture, while heroic and powerful, is shown still living a fairly stereotypical black life. He lives in the city itself; he likes the hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash; he drives an extravagant SUV... The only representative of black culture in the book is little more than a hollow stereotype. The message: black people are all like the stereotypes you already believe.

I doubt that the creators really intended that as a message. I fully expect they thought they were doing something positive by putting in a black hero. But if nothing else, that conversation I had with my lady-friend brought to the forefront of my mind the importance of NOT relying on stereotypes. Yes, there almost always individuals who define and/or typify those stereotypes and, as a creator, you can get away with using them. But only if that's not all you use. If you put a black character in a story, you better make damn sure that we haven't seen them a thousand times before.

I gave Dennis O'Neil and Mark Waid props a while back for being white guys who introduced unique, positive and "real" black characters: John Stewart in Green Lantern and Jian Feeta in Fantastic Four. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing more folks like Dwayne McDuffie and Christopher Priest doing more good comics (Priest's Black Panther was absolutely stellar) but until the comic industry gets a less homogeneous collection of creators, how about all you white creators re-reading those issues where O'Neil and Waid were able to bring some positive ideas about race to the table? They might have been filtered through the eyes of white men, but it at least was an attempt at something more productive.

2 comments:

Matthew E said...

I came across one idea on... it might have been Ragnell's Written World blog... about female characters. She said that the way to avoid having your female character be a token is to have two of them. That way they can differentiate themselves from each other and become more than stereotypes more easily. This idea can be extended to black characters or characters who share just about any kind of demographic classification. Maybe where all these creators went wrong is that they stopped at one character.

Prof Fury said...

Priest's Black Panther run was so brilliant in part because of the self-conscious meta-commentary about race that was woven through it. He often protested that the book wasn't about race, and it wasn't, certainly not exclusively, but he had the simple good writerly sense to know that race is neither invisible nor is it something that only comes up when people discuss "the race issue" -- it's something that influences and structures daily interaction in a variety of ways.

I will now blogwhore a Priest-loving post I wrote a while back.