Nov 27 2007

Black Superheroes and Writing Fiction About Racism

ABC did a story called Why Black Superheroes Succeed– and Fail. That’s interesting for whites writing black characters (or vice versa) or those wondering why some characters are popular and others aren’t.

I think black superheroes tend to fail because they get typecast as persecuted heroes. Even the article confuses two very separate ideas.

  1. The article’s first sentence: “Would Spider-Man be the box-office juggernaut he is today if he had been created as an African-American character?” All other things being equal, would a successful hero become unsuccessful if he is made black?
  2. The article’s second sentence: “What if Peter Parker had had to deal with the problems of being black in America in addition to adjusting to his powers when he was first introduced in 1962?” Would a successful hero become unsuccessful if white-on-black persecution were inserted into his plotline?

These two questions are very different! The second implicitly assumes that a black hero must face white-on-black persecution, which probably makes less sense now than it did in 1962. And, regardless of whether it is plausible that every black is persecuted by whites, persecution stories are usually depressing (particularly when the persecution is based on real-life events, rather than hating mutants or Muggles). Making the hero the victim of persecution changes the tone of the plot far more than just making him black.

Do black heroes have to be persecuted? I don’t think so. Most young people, especially, haven’t lived with the intense and highly visible racism of the 1960s, but the comics industry doesn’t seem to have caught on to that. Plot elements that were commonplace (or at least plausible) fifty years ago, like racial violence and particularly caustic racist remarks, often seem outlandishly cynical now.

If you do focus on racism, I recommend using elements of racism that are likelier to resonate with your readers circa now. People might step away in hallways and elevators or sit at different tables in cafeterias—I think that most readers would agree that’s how racism manifests right now more than, say, burning crosses and even racial slurs. More provocatively, someone might suggest that a minority has gotten where he is because of affirmative action or that affirmative action hires as a whole are less qualified than other employees. Bank guards might get antsy. Etc. (For some more manifestations of modern racism, please see the footnotes).

The point is that modern racism has become subconscious—I suspect that most racists genuinely believe that they aren’t— and that portraying racism as in-your-face, 1960s slurs will likely feel out of touch and preachy to your readers.

When I watched Crash, I laughed so hard when a car crash caused people to immediately start screaming slurs. Wouldn’t you, uhh, want to get their insurance information first? NO CUZ KKKALIFORNIA IZ RACIST. Crash wants to Make A Point and comes off as totally cartoonish.

Freedom Writers portrays a racially balkanized community much more plausibly.

If you feel the need to include intense racism in your work—something that will significantly affect the tone and marketability of your piece—Freedom Writers offers a pretty good model. It treats racism more seriously.

  1. FW is set in a school district with some really poor areas. Meeting basic, everyday needs is a struggle.
  2. Gangs and ghettos form as an attempt to form communities to meet those needs.
  3. Intense, Hobbesian struggles and racism arise as the communities clash.

FW suggests that racism arises from economics*. That offers FW’s world a sort of grim, perverse logic. FW’s world is deep—you see where the racism came from and why it is so damn hard to overcome. Readers understand economic motives and how much money matters, especially if you have very little. Readers won’t sympathize with race-based gangs, but they will appreciate that tolerance is a harder choice than they thought. That raises the stakes and makes the heroes larger-than-life.

In Crash, racism just sprouted from nowhere and persists despite economic concerns. Insulting someone rather than getting their insurance information is irrational. Furthermore, the story offers no explanation why the characters would think it’s rational. Why are characters intolerant? Because they’re emotional, maybe. That seems flimsy and unsatisfying. It also gives the story an arbitrary feel– the characters couldn’t overcome racism at the story’s start, so how are they able to at the end? It would feel much more logical if we knew why racism was a problem at the start.


*Although some sociologists do agree with Freedom Writers that racism is primarily rooted in economics, they’re in the minority. But that doesn’t matter– Freedom Writers feels coherent and plausible anyway.  99% of your audience has no idea what most sociologists think, so it’s the feeling that matters.

More modern racism

For the purposes of helping you write, I’ll broadly define racism as anything that might create discomfort or division along racial lines.

1) Affirmative action. I actually already mentioned this before, but I think it’s particularly useful because blacks and whites often strongly disagree not only about AA but about which statements/opinions about AA are socially acceptable. For example, in one class a white student discussing AA made the (not extremely controversial?) assertion that race influences faculty hiring decisions. This offended the black professor, who may have thought that the white was insinuating he was less qualified. The professor asked, “do you think I was hired because I’m black?” The white was taken aback by that point-black, personal question about what he probably perceived to be an impersonal, general statement. He said that he thinks that the professor’s being black was a factor.

As the author, you could paint this a few ways. Maybe the student is wrong to treat the issue impersonally, maybe the professor was being oversensitive, or that there’s just a gap in understanding between the white and the black that doesn’t suggest anything negative about either.

2) Whites saying “sup” to black peers. In terms of awkward hilarity, this is one of my favorites. Whites often feel pressured to act differently with blacks. You might chalk this up to insensitivity and/or oversensitivity. Saying “sup” probably isn’t sinister, but it may create tension because the black knows that the white is acting differently because he’s talking to a black. In a related example (one I can hopefully offer without making a political point), Hillary Clinton once adopted a painfully bad drawl when speaking before a black audience.

3) Subways, trains and buses. I’ve noticed that people (including nonwhites) strongly prefer to sit by people of the same race. Visual media, like comic books, have some fantastic opportunities for some grim humor by showing a black (or white?) sitting alone in a crowded bus like he has leprosy or something. However, I’ve never seen anyone change seats to specifically move away from someone of a different race.

4) The assumption that whites and blacks have substantially different skills, traits or tastes.

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Black Superheroes and Writing Fiction About Racism”

  1. […] aspects of reality you need to tell a story and then fabricate the rest?  And, although I have some ideas about how to write stories about race and (modern) racism, most stories aren’t about race, either explicitly or otherwise.  I don’t think that it’s […]

  2. Beccaon 09 Dec 2008 at 4:30 am

    i’m profiling Black Female Superheroes on my blog. I’ve got 70+ so far.

    Check it out:

  3. B. Macon 09 Dec 2008 at 5:13 am

    Very impressive. I think I would have only come up with Storm, Amanda Waller, Vixen and the anti-heroish Catwoman. Then again, I’m not sure that Amanda Waller is supposed to be a hero. She certainly isn’t in the Justice League cartoons.

  4. Chevalieron 19 Oct 2009 at 6:23 am

    Catwoman isn’t black. I also disagree with that comment about Amanda Waller, she was a hard-nosed patriot, but she had legitimate concerns about the League.

  5. Lighting Manon 19 Oct 2009 at 11:44 am

    She was when Halle Berry played her in the terrible adaptation, and the DC animated universe Amanda Waller was vastly different in most aspects, the real one was a monster, she was responsible for numerous massacres, countless deaths and personally participated in a few. In the shows, she was much softer and actually had a bottom line in her actions.

    Good job including Shard, I was expecting her to have been missed.

  6. Jackon 20 Oct 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Well that is expected Lighting man.

    The whole Amanda Waller being a somewhat anti hero in the JLU cartoons, anyway I for one want to do black superhero stories.

    And as for racism, I’m african american and have dealt with tons of caucasions doing bad things such as racial insults, physical bullying ect.

  7. Ragged Boyon 20 Oct 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I can easily say that about 90% of the main protaganists I’ve made are african-american. As one myself, I really want to get more, non-persecuated, black superheroes in the market. I also want stories that don’t center around racism and the like.

    I’m black and am easily able to say that most racism directed towards me has been for other blacks. “You act/talk/sound white!” is something I get on a regular basis or the much more ignorant “You are white!” It’s unfortunate that a majority of blacks in my city think that speaking correctly is indicative of racial confusion. And trying to explain it only prompts more ignorance. Tis a damn shame.

  8. Miss Mynaon 07 Feb 2010 at 6:47 pm

    I live in the South, and though I’m white, I’ve seen a lot of racism towards blacks that is a lot more subtle than slurs and burned crosses. It’s not that obvious anymore, of course, and anyone who tries to write a serious story proclaiming that it is- at least in this country- is going to sound out of touch.

    The most obvious example I can get is my dad. He’s white, he’s from South Africa. Do the math. DX But you’re right- other than that, it’s very subtle.

    “Whites saying “sup” to black peers.”

    How is that ‘trying to act black’? I say sup to white people too. :/

    Another interesting point, though, I’ve seen racism towards white people too. XD It’s less subtle than racism towards black people, though, and though a lot of my white friends have complained about it- and I’m not just talking about AA here- if you’re white, you can’t exactly go up and be all ‘RASCIST!’ (or worse, ‘WHITE POWER!’ XD LOL.) You’d be surprised. It goes both ways. That’s probably very difficult to portray in lit besides AA, though…

    Atmos, am I rambling again? DX

  9. HiddenTigeron 22 Feb 2011 at 1:47 am

    One of my favorite black heroes would be Paragon from the Quantum Proohecy. He was an engineering genius who was completely human and still saved the world. XD

  10. Carloson 04 Feb 2015 at 9:35 am

    Ironic, because spiderman is black now (at least the ultimate version)

  11. s0fton 08 Jan 2016 at 4:08 pm

    I wish this article had a bit more thought and nuance to it. I stopped reading after the third eye roll, I have to admit. It’s a shame, because it’s such an almost. But the idea that in the 21st century—with astronomically high rates of police and vigilante violence against brown and especially black people, and the fact that there is not one single brand of racism across the US, much less the world—overt racism with violent words or actions is cartoonish? That’s what’s actually cartoonish.

    And it doesn’t apply to just race, either. I have witnessed plenty of acts of violent racism in various places, and I have been subject to violent acts of homophobia myself, even living in a blue state and “liberal” city. Overt bigotry is not a thing of the past; to assert as much is to help bigotry thrive.

    A more refined point to this article is that bigoted acts of violence have their place, and must be handled carefully by any writer, regardless of their background, considering background does not guarantee skill, nuance, or eloquence. It has to matter to the story, of course, but your article argues that it never could in a modern setting. Another point would be that they are not mandatory to a black character’s story, a gay character’s, a woman’s, which is something that many writers seem not to understand. After all, how will readers/viewers understand that a character is not a straight white man if they haven’t suffered for it?

    I hope this comment doesn’t seem like an attack, should you actually see it, because it isn’t. I understand this article, like many others, is rather old, and perhaps rehashing and discussing it isn’t in your interest. Should you respond, though, I hope you’ll take my thoughts into consideration rather than reject them wholesale.

  12. B. McKenzieon 09 Jan 2016 at 12:57 pm

    “I understand this article, like many others, is rather old, and perhaps rehashing and discussing it isn’t in your interest.” Even if I had written the article a lot more recently than 8 years ago, I feel I probably wouldn’t be much interested in working with a reviewer that stopped reading after 3 eye rolls. Would you be?

  13. redassassinon 22 Mar 2019 at 6:25 am

    I have a question: Is this racism?
    Just a bit of backstory: Mackenzie goes unconcious and she starts seeing “visions” of some sorts.
    Looking down at my hands, I see that they are light brown. This was Ava’s memory!

  14. B. McKenzieon 24 Mar 2019 at 12:27 am

    “I have a question: Is this racism?” What the Bojangles. It doesn’t sound like a tremendously interesting scene (and can probably be rewritten a lot more smoothly when the time comes) but I don’t anticipate editors getting offended. If you’re concerned, you could have her work in some other clue besides skin color to help her figure out that this is Ava. Maybe how she interacts with other characters or the items she has with her or where she is or what she’s doing or the tone of Ava’s voice or whatever. If nothing else comes to mind, maybe clothing/accessories — e.g. Mackenzie can do some basic guesswork based on whether she sees a fancy watch vs. an artsy bracelet vs. a distinctive wedding ring vs. a sweatband vs. something distinctive to job/hobby).

    So, for example, if I were writing a Martian Manhunter scene where he’s telepathically drifted into a Green Lantern memory, I’d focus on speech style/demeanor/personality/mannerisms first (e.g. John Stewart is a gruff Marine, and more of a realist than Superman). If I were desperate, I could have the Manhunter figure out who it is by noticing that he’s wearing the Green Lantern ring, which would be an easy giveaway, but hopefully the characterization and/or plotting are strong enough that I don’t need to race there (or to his skin color) right away.

    I don’t have racism concerns here but it’s not as smooth as I’d like. “Looking down at my hands, I see that they are light brown. This was Ava’s memory!” These sentences don’t really develop the scene moving forward much. Compare to something like she’s woken up by someone (maybe with an unusual question), and the POV person reacts in a really distinctive way. That’d probably be a more interesting “that’s Ava” moment than the shade of her skin. Secondarily, if you do want to explicitly tell readers whose memory it is, having a character in the memory address her as Ava probably paces better than “This was Ava’s memory”.

    (PS: If it’s possible to write the scene in a way where you don’t need to tell readers whose memory it is, that would probably speak well to character development and/or voice).

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