Positive racial representation is so, so important in our popular media. This is not news—it’s something we talk about at least weekly on this site. But what about situations where a character’s race is never stated? Some media, by their nature, don’t include physical descriptors of their characters: what, if anything, can these raceless characters do for racial representation?
Theoretically, leaving a character’s racial identity open to fan interpretation should allow fans to invent a diverse variety of different designs for that character. It should be a goldmine of racial representation, because leaving a character raceless should allow people of any race to identify with that character. The truth of it is, though, that characters with no assigned race often end up white in the majority of fan renderings. Much like the heterosexist idea that everyone is straight until proven otherwise, when a character’s race is not explicitly stated, the bulk of a fandom will fall back on the idea that white is the default, “normal” race and assign whiteness to the character or characters in question.
White privilege is present in every part of our lives, and part of that privilege is seeing oneself in media without ever having to look. In fact, people are so socialized into believing that all main characters are white people that we often visualize characters as white even when they’re not described as such. For example, did you know that Harry Potter is never assigned a race in the books? He’s got messy black hair and great skin, but the actual color of his skin is never brought up. And yet it’s only recently that I’ve seen people making an active effort to introduce biracial Harry headcanons into the fandom. We do this because we’ve been taught over and over again that white is the norm. While it’s not wrong to imagine a character as white, it is something to be aware of, and to challenge in ourselves as critical consumers of media. What subconciously led us to whiteness, and why did we choose that over a PoC design?
It is my sincere belief that none of you live beneath rocks, and so it seems safe to assume that all of you are aware of the happenings in Ferguson, MO. Just in case you don’t, the civil unrest (not riots) currently going in this St. Louis suburb is receiving nationwide attention. Said civil unrest began in response to the killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. Brown was an unarmed Black teenager with no criminal record, and while the exact circumstances of his death are in dispute, much of the Ferguson community (a community which is now almost seventy percent African American) views it as unjust homicide of a young Black man by a police officer. I’m tempted to agree.
So, my current Web Crush is the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown, which attempts to confront this respectability politics head-on. Perhaps you remember one of the two pictures of Trayvon Martin that circulated after his February 2012 death. However, the second image is not the Trayvon Martin who was the victim of the 2012 shooting—it’s another boy entirely. Nevertheless, the whole idea of popularizing the second image was to indict Trayvon Martin by making him appear to be someone chasing the thug or gangsta lifestyles. The notion that this makes him guilty or makes his life worth less is obscene, and probably racist.
For the millionth time, representation matters! But unfortunately, we don’t always get to see ourselves quite so directly in human characters for various negative reasons. Maybe diverse characters were taboo at the time, maybe the author didn’t think a varied cast was necessary, or maybe the characters don’t necessarily have a racial or gender identity. But in this case, many tropes are still used to create characters that people of color can identify with.
This is sort of a personal issue for me: growing up, there weren’t a lot of Black characters outside of family sitcoms and token Black teammates. So to have a Black character who was uniquely their own person would have been a monumental thing. However, even though there weren’t very many Black characters I could identify with, there were still several racially ambiguous characters that I often thought of as Black.
So if you haven’t heard, Thor is now a woman and Captain America is Black! In the comics, at least, so these developments are not in the cinematic universe. While bringing these changes to the big screen would be great, seeing these new representations in comic form is very nice. But besides being really cool, these changes are also important and carry some significant weight.
Representation of minority groups is important both from a societal standpoint and a financial one. As the popularity of geeky media grows, more people want to see themselves represented in the preferred media. As evidencedby the outrage at Ubisoft for not including female assassins in their latest game, or the ongoing “facepalming” at DC Comics, it is apparent that representation is important to a vocal part of the audience. Many fans, especially fans who don’t see themselves represented in today’s media, want to see other stories told as well. From either perspective, these are opportunities for more products sold for the companies. It’s a win for everyone involved. This can’t be stressed enough.
Last week, our own Tsunderin gave a nice recap of E3. I don’t need to retread the points she made, but I do want to talk about some of the things Nintendo did right during the week, and why it matters. Also because Splatoon has been one of the first games to bring me a real sense of excitement and I need an excuse to talk about it! Nintendo celebrated colorfulness and fun during their week at E3 and, from what I’ve noticed, the internet hype has risen to a much higher level because of this.
Some time ago, a friend asked me a question: how do you define masculinity? I paused, as this wasn’t something I ever put much thought into, and then responded that I didn’t actually know. The friend then commented that it was dangerous for men of color to try to fit into a white stereotype of what it means to be a man. Essentially, the way media perpetuates these aspects is harmful to the way both men and women view themselves and is especially harmful for men of color. As someone who believes that fiction especially reflects and shapes our society, this obviously gave me a lot to think about. Media is, for better or for worse, often a soapbox or sorts for what authors think our world is or should be. In this way, I feel like the stereotypical idea of masculinity is hurting us all.
So when I looked back on my previous Web Crushes I noticed something that bothered me: with very few exceptions, they were all white people. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, which kind of bothered me even more because I didn’t even realize that I was being exclusive in my promotion of online personalities. Since realizing this problem I have made more of an effort to follow content creators of color, one of whom is the brilliant Franchesca Ramsey.