On -isms: Future Representation

By | Thursday, March 16, 2017 1 comment
You know, I was going to write a piece today that held up some old comics from the first half of the 20th century, showing blatantly racist caricatures of different types of people. They're sadly easy to find. I was going to show each of the major types of people being caricatured and say, "Look, here's how comic artists used to depict Black people" and "Look, here's how writers used to script Chinese accents" and "Look, here's how gay men were portrayed in comics" and so on. And each one would be so absurdly offensive that you'd have difficulty even understanding that someone would be willing to commit something like that to paper.

After I'd gone through a bunch of those, then I was going to point out that they all look/sound absurd now because we, collectively, have gotten a better understanding of those cultures. We understand where the stereotypes came from, why we white people created them, and how (deliberately) insulting they were. You'd be glad that most people don't think of those groups like that any more anyway, and you might have a little better understanding of the climate grandpa was raised in and why he still thinks it's okay to use offensive slang terms in casual conversation.

And then I was going to say make the comparison to today's comics, showing "Look, here's how comic artists depict Black people now" and "Look, here's how writers script Chinese accents now" and "Look, here's how gay men are portrayed in comics now" and so on. But this time -- since the examples would be more contemporary -- with some color commentary about how they're relying on different stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless. And how do you suppose those stereotypes will look in fifty years' time? Probably just as absurd as the 1940s' caricatures look to us today.

I was going to write all that up to make the point that you don't want to be remembered for some really bad representations of different minorities. Especially since, by many estimates, the United States will see Caucasians become a minority around the middle of the century with what are currently minorities rising to around 56% of the population.

I was going to write all that.

But then I wondered, "For who?"

I mean, if I hear/see something racist/misogynistic/ablest/homophobic/transphobic, I will usually call the person on it. I've called out co-workers, friends, and even relatives (both mine and my wife's). It's as often as not unintentional, and I try to point out how/why something they said is wrong. Sometimes they listen, sometimes not. But that's a response to action, usually done within a very short time of the incident. Basically, it's immediate behavioral modeling based on whatever the current situation is.

But that whole bit I outline above? That's a little different. It's more long-term and requires at the very least an acknowledgment that social demographics are changing and will continue to change. And the reason that's significant here is that the people who need to hear that message are already refusing to acknowledge those changes and, strangely concurrently, are actively fighting against them. That's partly what's fueling the rise of all these hate groups -- people who think things are better with less diversity and more homogeneity. As they see it, they are going to be viewed as martyrs for trying to revert the country to a status quo from before anyone besides cishetero white men had rights. And they're so committed to that belief that they will never see themselves as being on the wrong side of history; rather, they think they are right and if they're not acknowledged thusly, then it's history who is wrong.

And frankly, I do not have the energy for that discussion this week.

Suffice it to say that all those socially ugly comics from the 1940s that make you cringe when you realize it was a favorite artist or writer who caricatured some group so badly? Fifty years from now, readers are going to cringe at the socially ugly comics you're making today. So step up to the plate now, and make your work more progressive in terms of representation. Not only is it the right thing to do for today, but it's the right thing to do in the future.
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Phil said...

It think it would be very interesting to do an article of representation of people on your own life time. It's mighty interesting to me that one the one hand we had Egg-fu at D.C. But Jimmy Woo at Marvel. In a matter of a few years a character like Ebony White went from being perfectly acceptable to completely unacceptable not just on a lifetime but in a few years. I base this upon blackface in movies which were still prevalent in the early forties. It but 1950 were completely gone.