My wife was chatting with a co-worker the other day, and mentioned in passing the town I grew up in. The co-worker stopped her to verify she heard the name right. It turns out that her son had visited the town on a couple occasions as a member of the high school band. Kind of a "battle of the bands" thing, I gather.
Besides the serendipity of my growing up there and being a member of the band myself once upon a time, what stood out in the conversation was that the co-worker recalled the name vividly mostly because the locker room her son's band was given to use had been graffitied with a number of racial epithets in preparation for the mostly Black band. This was not decades ago, mind you; her boy just turned nineteen. Furthermore, when the issue was brought to the attention of school officials, the response was essentially, "Get over it."
This is the town I grew up in.
Obviously, I still know people who live there. And I know people who used to live there, and still live nearby. I've tried talking to some of them about racial issues, largely to see how far away from the local norm I was in my attitudes. Most of them said racism and bigotry were bad things, but had little to no first-hand experience with it personally. (The area is still predominantly white, not surprisingly.) One women did relay the story of another friend of hers who was in a mixed-race marriage, and his parents cut ties with him entirely. Slammed the door on his face, and years later still refuse to talk to him. Another person expressed what struck me as pretty bigoted comments, and when I confronted him about it, he literally said that he wasn't bigoted, he was just relying on negative stereotypes because he didn't really know the individual in question.
I was fortunate that I was able to leave behind this town of closed-minded people when I turned 18.
I didn't choose to leave the town because of racism or bigotry. At the time, it was largely a non-issue because the town's population was 99.9% white. But I did leave because of the overall mindset that tends to go along with bigotry. That anything different than the majority is to be reviled and ridiculed. That there's no place for anything beyond what's most common.
I credit comics for allowing me to appreciate diversity. I've written before about how New Mutants #45 contained a powerful message of inclusion for me, but it was more than that single issue. The Fantastic Four would regularly encounter alien races that they treated with respect, and racial minorities like Black Panther and Wyatt Wingfoot regularly wove their way through the stories as well. Even just the basic set-up of a non-traditional family unit showed me that "family" didn't have to be Mom, Dad and 2.5 kids.
There were undoubtedly other comics that influenced this line of thinking as well. I had the Green Lantern issues that introduced John Stewart, and I caught bits of the story where Tony Stark was replaced by Jim Rhodes as Iron Man. Certainly, all of that contributed. Especially with having read them as far back as I can remember, probably well before I could actually read the words on the page.
I suspect comics had more to do with opening the door to the possibility of new ideas. It opened enough for me to see how truly small and petty the town was, and helped convince me to look towards broader intellectual and emotional horizons. The school I went to was considerably more cosmopolitan, boasting a student body roughly four times what the entire population of my hometown was. And that's where I found a need to be more receptive to new cultures and ideas, where I regularly encountered people of different races and sexual orientations.
I don't know that comics writ large taught me to be discard the bigotry that surrounded me growing up, but the specific comics I read taught me about understanding, and by leaving to go to a larger, more diverse community, I was able to find direct and immediate applications of that understanding. I'm sure that not everyone who read the comics I did took that same path, and I'm sure that not everyone who has a similar understanding followed the same path. But I think it does speak to the power of comics (or, for that matter, any media about which someone is deeply invested) to help create a more progressive and accepting society.
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