When the first Star Trek reboot film came out, I remember hearing a lot of Star Trek fans complaining about the lack of diversity in it. Not necessarily in the main cast—that can boast being at least a little racially diverse—but about the side characters. I remember watching the movie, looking at the cadets and numerous Starfleet officers, and thinking, “That’s a lot of white people”. Especially for a society that has supposedly achieved peace and equality. That’s what I was thinking, and that’s what I thought my fellow Trekkies were saying. However, eventually I discovered when they were saying racial diversity, they meant alien races. “Why are there so many humans and so few aliens in Starfleet,” seemed to be the question on everyone’s mind.
While for a Star Trek movie that may be a valid question, I was a little shocked that anyone would equate that with racial diversity in a movie. Sadly, however, that wouldn’t be the last I would hear of people of color being placed in the same category as fictional races.
As in Star Trek, some fans in the Welcome to Night Vale fandom have taken to drawing the narrator, Cecil, with purple skin, and then claiming he is a person of color. This is incredibly harmful because it denies people of color the right to see themselves in pop culture and to define themselves as people of color. Saying that a character who has purple skin is a person of color allows writers and directors to claim that their show has diversity when the only non-white characters are the fictional ones who don’t really exist.
Do you guys remember when James Gunn made a list of the 50 Superheroes You Most Want to Have Sex With and added his own offensive commentary? We certainly haven’t forgotten. And though James Gunn apologized and the post has since then been removed, I will never forget what he said about Storm.
Rising a full 24 places, Storm is once again our highest ranking woman-of-color and considering most of our other women-of-color on this list are green or blue or pink, that’s quite a feat. (source)
I wasn’t aware that fictional aliens or magical beings with blue, green, or pink skin counted as women of color. Who would have thought that She-Hulk and Poison Ivy provided us with some excellent racial diversity in comics? Oh wait, they don’t, because they aren’t women of color!
I cannot tell you how often I have argued with someone about the lack of racial diversity in pop culture only to have some point out the green-skinned alien and say, “See, it is racially diverse.” The problem is this then becomes an easy out for authors or directors to claim the cast is racially diverse, while in truth the cast is almost entirely comprised of white people with a few aliens or magical beings here and there.
Now, that doesn’t mean that non-human characters can’t be used as a metaphor for the struggles of people of color. J.K. Rowling used Remus Lupin, a werewolf, and other magical characters to discuss prejudice. X-Men, though the comics do boast having many characters of color, used genetic mutations instead of skin color to discuss prejudice. Even the Martin Manhunter, the green skinned alien from Mars featured in DC Comics, has experienced prejudice and the feeling of being Othered based on his appearance.
However, there are some problems here. I don’t think having these types of characters really work as a stand in or replacement for actual diversity. Yes, these nonhuman characters can be used as a metaphor for prejudice, but they do not count when it comes to actual diversity. Firstly, a lot of these narratives could be used as a metaphor for any type of prejudice, so nothing is necessarily specific to people of color. Secondly, people of color are often marginalized and erased from storytelling. By never including people of color in our stories, we are essentially saying that people of color can never be the heroes or main characters. People of color are either turned into stereotypes, put into the background, or worse yet, not even featured, thereby erasing their existence. While using nonhuman characters, green-skinned or otherwise, can be useful as a metaphor to talk about prejudice, it is not fair to people of color to claim that having a few green skinned characters but no actual characters of color is diversity. People of color deserve their own stories and their own heroes and to be included in these epic stories about heroes and villains. I think it’s worth noting that Zoe Saldana, who I love, will be playing Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, making her the first woman of color to have a lead role in the MCU (as the X-Men franchise is not technically a part of the MCU)—except that she will be playing a green-skinned character. I applaud Marvel for casting Zoe Saldana—she’ll be the first woman of color to act as a leading character in the MCU—but technically we still won’t have a character of color in a leading role. Gamora is green. She’s an alien. So, sadly, there still aren’t any characters of color in leading roles in the MCU. How sad is that?