Inability To See

By | Thursday, January 05, 2012 2 comments
I sent the S.O. a link to an article this morning. Just a "Hey, this is interesting" thing. And I added, "Bonus points for using a mixed race couple in the photo, too!" To which she responded that it didn't really count because it was a black guy and a white woman. "Tired" is the word she used because it's the default for showing a mixed race couple. It's easy for me to point to examples where that doesn't happen -- there's another white guy here in the office who's married to a black woman, and there's the perennial geek fictional favorite of Zoe and Wash -- but the examples are ones that rather prominent in my field of vision. The co-worker is someone I have to work with almost daily and Firefly is one of the great sci-fi shows of television, so of course I see those. But in terms of the stuff that acts as something closer to white noise -- the flyers in my mailbox, ads running in the background while I'm waiting for a Hulu video to play, catalogs that usually get thrown in the trash with an at most casual glance, etc. -- that stuff rarely shows mixed race couples and, when they do, it's a black guy and a white woman.

But I'm a white guy who grew up in a white suburb and went into a field that's predominantly populated with white men. Which means that "white male" is what I think of by default. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Archie, Malcolm Reynolds, Han Solo, Harry Potter, Aragorn, Captain Kirk, Flash Gordon, Tarzan, James Bond, Indiana Jones, John McClane... These guys are "normal" in that they represent my default hero. Which is to say me, only handsome, clever and powerful. Anything 'not that' seems different or unusual.

I just started reading Mike Madrid's The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines which looks at superheroines throughout the history of comics. I'm only one chapter in, and it's amazing to see how much I just don't know about many of these characters. Some of it are characters I know but just never thought about in gender-specific terms. For example, the first female superhero, the Red Tornado, was essentially cross-dressing as a male. Or just how many of those old heroes had the dismissive "-girl" suffix instead of "-woman" that would have been more equitable to their male counterparts. Hawkgirl, Bulletgirl, Flame Girl, Doll Girl, Rocketgirl...

The reason, of course, those things never occurred to me is because I've looked at them from my default perspective. "Of course they're called 'girls'! They're weaker than men!" Never really questioning that they didn't have to be. I didn't need to look up to these characters and see them in the shadow of others because I always could look up to the characters casting those very shadows. I could easily look past Supergirl to see Superman. "Of course She-Hulk's name is derivative of the Hulk's! She came after him!" Did the Hulk have to be a male in the first place, though? Did she need to have a name derivative off his?

When I was a kid, I watched Dukes of Hazzard pretty regularly. Again, two guys like me only handsome, clever and powerful. Also they drove a cool car. The General Lee was an icon for the show, and the Confederate Flag on the roof became a shorthand icon for that. Except I heard it called the "rebel flag." And rebelling against corrupt government officials like Boss Hogg was the theme of the show. Freedom and justice were mete out by the Duke boys, not the inept and ineffectual law of Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane. I took it that this "rebel" flag represented personal freedom and justice against oppressive governments. (Well, I was seven -- it was probably more like: "Rebelling against big ol' meanies.") The point is that this iconic flag was one with an excessively positive connotation for me. It wouldn't be until years later, probably sometime in college, that I began to realize that that image didn't hold the same meaning for everyone. That, for a lot of people, it meant slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow and exactly the opposite of what I had been told. Needless to say, I lowered the flag from my mental flagpole.

But while I know that flag's meaning intellectually, and while I've even removed my old emotional attachments to the image, I can only empathize with those who lived under it. I can only empathize with those who maybe didn't live through it themselves, but had relatives who did. I can only empathize with those people whose choices have been limited because their parents or grandparents were artificially prevented from moving forward. I can't sympathize with any of them, though, because I can't have had those experiences myself.

Try as I might, I can never fully appreciate what anyone's experiences are outside my own. Whether they're as huge as slavery or as insignificant as a hangover.


I try. I make an active choice to try not judge people or their situation on my terms. I make an active choice to try to look outside my bubble and see what other people are seeing. Sometimes, that's seeking out comics whose lead characters are a mixed race couple like in Cafe con Leche. Maybe that's buying indie graphic novels with a strong, empowered female lead from a female creator like Alex Heberling. Maybe that's staying away from creators produce culturally insensitive work. (I'll let you fill in your own examples on that one!) Maybe that's all of the above.

I'll admit that it's often difficult to see outside my own biases. It often takes someone else to actively point out that, "You know, you're not really thinking about that from the perspective of someone who might actually have to deal with those issues." But even if you actively try to look at those issues, like praising that a mixed race couple is used at all, and find yourself hearing a "Yeah, but..." take it as a learning opportunity. Maybe the person you're hearing the "Yeah, but" from has a valid point because they've lived with it. Maybe the new Starfire is too trampy. Maybe Power Girl should grow up to become Power Woman. Maybe the name Black Lightning is pretty condescending.

Maybe... just maybe... your opinion only reflects your own personal preferences, and aren't indicative of anybody else's. Maybe... just maybe... they have a point, if you'd just look beyond your own bubble.
Newer Post Older Post Home


Rob said...

Ooh another good couple - Bernard and Rose from Lost. My favorite. Good post, Sean.

HMI said...

Won't need to see. We'll all be super heroes with gesture based human machine interfaces based on 3D sensor technology that's available now.