Nov 27 2007
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.
- 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?
- 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.
- FW is set in a school district with some really poor areas. Meeting basic, everyday needs is a struggle.
- Gangs and ghettos form as an attempt to form communities to meet those needs.
- 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.