An Uncomfortable Discussion Of Race

By | Thursday, September 09, 2010 6 comments
Let's start with the obvious. I am a white male in America's mid-west. I have not had to struggle in any capacity against any preconceived notions because of my gender or ethnic background. Do I know what it's like to be discriminated against? No. I can sympathize with those who have, but I will never be able to truly empathize with them.

This past weekend, my girlfriend and I went out of town and attended a wedding of one of her cousins. Not surprisingly, a good many of those in attendance were her relatives, most of which I had met at her father's funeral a year and half earlier. This wedding was, also not surprisingly, a decidedly more happy occasion and everyone seemed to have a great time. The two of us stayed with another cousin of hers who wasn't attending the wedding (other side of the S.O.'s family and no real relationship to the groom) and we spent much of our free time hanging out with that cousin's family.

One of the things that has impressed the heck out of me with my girlfriend's family is that they have ALL bent over backwards to make me feel welcome. Not just a couple of family members we see a lot, but everybody. All sorts of long-lost aunts and uncles and cousins and whatnot, some of whom I frankly didn't really even remember because they were introduced to me along with a string of other family members that I only talked to for a minute or two.

On our loooooong drive back home the other day, I told the S.O. how awesome her family was and how really gracious and welcoming they've been, and how I just thought that was incredibly cool of all of them. She thanked me, and responded that many of her family members have commented on how great I was. Which caught me a little off-guard. Not because I'm not great (because I am) but because I didn't think I really showcased very well in those large family settings. I get an introduction, maybe a little small talk, and then I usually stay quiet since there's all sorts of family dynamics going on that I am totally clueless about. My girlfriend's response was that, "Well, you're a white guy in a room full of black folk and you didn't collapse into jelly. That counts for a lot."

"That's a pretty low bar," I responded.

"Sadly, not really."

My girlfriend, if you haven't figured it out, is black. Her family is Jamaican, actually. Both of her parents were born there, and many of her relatives still live on the island. Those that don't tend to be concentrated near large urban areas like Chicago, D.C. and Miami.

One of the great things about my relationship with my girlfriend is that, having birthdays less than a month apart, we share many of the same cultural touchstones. We can reference the Challenger explosion or the dismantling of the Berlin Wall or the first Gulf War from essentially the same frame of reference. But we also have a lot of new experiences to share with each other. Thanks to me, she's actually gone out and started buying some of her own comic books -- despite having totally written off the medium years ago -- and she's introduced me to more blaxploitation movies than I even knew existed.

But those are the most obvious things. We also introduce each other to different ways of looking at situations or different interpretations of events. Generally, not too different from one another (otherwise, we wouldn't get along!) but different enough to give us a second to pause and reconsider our own position. Comics are a prime example.

It's easy to say, "Yeah, it's an industry largely built by and for white men, so it's not surprising there's maybe not as much diversity as there should be." But, geez, start looking for comics and graphic novels to show your black girlfriend that there's SOMEthing she might relate to? You'll find REALLY quickly just how slim the pickings are!

It's hardly any wonder comics have difficulty selling female- and minority-lead comics. The are so few instances where the people who might respond to those books are catered to, that they never bother setting foot in a comic shop in the first place! It's that extremely low bar of white guys being so uncomfortable even TRYING to speak towards someone other than another white guy that turns a lot of potential readers away.

Now I'm not saying that being able to stand in a room full of black people and not turn to jelly is going to guarantee that you can create a comic book they'd buy. I am saying that completely surrounding them with nothing but stories about white men, though, isn't going to make them feel welcome. And, being the skeptic that I am, I don't know that the direct market CAN change enough at this point to make a welcoming overture towards blacks. Or Latinos. Or Asians. Or everybody else that isn't white. I think that's one of the reasons webcomics do as well as they do -- they can reflect a different ethnography than what the direct market seems capable of. Whether those webcomic creators can (or even want!) to push their audience into a comic shop for additional purchases is going to help determine, I think, the future of the direct market.

I'm not advocating the demise of the direct market or that mainstream comic publishers shouldn't even bother addressing non-white ethnicities. I'm just saying that it shouldn't come as a surprise when pamphlet comics that feature non-white leads don't sell well. The industry has spent decades catering to one audience almost to the exclusion of all others, and it would take a MAJOR change in the industry over an extended period (I'm easily talking years here) for that to impact sales to someone other than Caucasian males.

Consider this. It has taken years for anything resembling a kids/young adult/all-ages comics market to re-emerge. It's still a vastly under-tapped market. And it's almost entirely OUTSIDE the confines of the direct market, and thanks in large part to publishers that aren't DC or Marvel.

I don't doubt there's a way to make and market comics to women and minorities. But it ain't going to happen in your local comic shop because the guys creating, distributing and selling those books are just piles of jelly.
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Matt K said...

Yeah, interesting thoughts. There are always a lot of things that can and have been said about this... I immediately think, probably prompted in part by the big interview Alan Moore gave yesterday, of the fact that comics up to the 1960s were a mostly all-white show. And for the most part, even fifty years later the big publishers have had little success in adding any post-1960s characters, white, black, or otherwise, to the ranks of their big leagues.

Which is of course an entire subject in itself, as well, which has also been considered and debated over and over.

I really like your point about the pursuit of a young-reader market, by the way; I think that's definitely a salient observation in this context.

J.A. Fludd said...

Interesting. You know, I've known interracial relationships all my life. I'm African-American. Some years ago, on the day after Thanksgiving, we had in our house my brother and his Italian-American wife, and their daughter, my niece. My other brother came up, as did his daughter--my oldest niece--and her Jewish husband. (They've since become Unitarian.) They brought their daughter; I think they still had just one daughter at the time. Yes, I am a Great Uncle! My brother's best friend, also African-American, came over, bringing his white, French-Canadian wife and their two adopted interracial kids. My sister-in-law's Mom also came, with her other daughter, who brought her two biological, biracial kids. So for that day after Thanksgiving we were a house of blacks, Jews, Canadians, and Italians. It was like a day at the UN.
But anyway, in creating my own characters for comics, I always have issues of race at the back of my mind. You will remember my Environauts, with their Mexican-American leader and their gay, Euro-handsome and masculine, black strongman. I would like my cast of characters to reflect the coexistence of the races (and the sexual orientations) to as great an extent as possible. But I am always keenly aware of what's going on in the popular culture around me and what is being created and sold, not just in comics but in all media. And it seems to me that if you're going to do black characters, your options for how they are going to be portrayed--if they're to be included at all--are a good deal more limited than what you can do with white characters. I wish that were otherwise, but popular culture has done little to reflect the diversity of African-American people and life, and what people have demonstrated that they will watch or buy only supports that. It's an issue I've never been able to reconcile, and it gives me a conflict because I know the world is not lily white (nor exclusively heterosexual), and there is always a friction between wanting to be honest about the world, and wanting to satisfy one's own creative interests, and needing to be commercial.
I have long searched for a way to do a black hero who is not of the Ebonic, inner-city "homeboy" profile, who is of the same calibre as the classic (white) heroes who came before him, and can appeal to a wide enough audience to be commercial. The Black Panther is such a character, and as you know, Marvel always has to try harder with him. (In fact, right now they seem to have replaced him with a woman in the Panther suit, and that's a whole other can of worms.) I don't know what the final answer is going to be.
It's very cool that you have a Jamaican girlfriend, though. I've read a couple of your references to her and didn't realize that. You and my family, as you can tell from the above, would get along fine. The world does evolve.

Unknown said...

JA's like a FF Plaza reunion up in here! :) Anyway, great points by all. I also think that a white writer might be afraid to write a character that is of a different ethnic background, as they may not know how to truly give voice to that person. I think a person is a person, so they shouldn't be afraid...and I don't know if white writers ARE hesitant to do that, I'm just wondering.

Matt K said...

P.S. If there are any gems among these blaxploitation movies you've been getting an education in, do share, one of these days.

Pam Grier's Grillpiece said...

@Matt K: Two words: Truck. Turner. Why? Nichelle Nichols as a pimp. You're welcome.

Truck Turner is probably my favorite so far. Anything with Pam Grier or Jim Kelly is worth seeing. And let's not forget Dolemite! Classic stuff!