Black History Month of 2016 was a hell of a ride. I can’t think of a good way to possibly wrap it up, because honestly, I don’t want to. So, I figure a transition of sorts is in order. In that respect, I’d like to talk about PoC solidarity and the general benefit of diverse casts.
This concept is very important to me as we all have to struggle with privilege, and lack thereof, in various avenues. Unfortunately, people are inclined to look out for themselves and people who look like them. I cannot be upset by that, or even discourage it. However, it is ultimately destructive when groups choose to tear each other down in the interest of self-propulsion. It’s quite painful that when discussing #BlackLivesMatter, some of the opposition will come from other people of color who face similar levels of discrimination. Speaking from experience, I know that there is anti-Black racism coming from more than just white people. But it doesn’t have to be this way! As always, I feel that our favorite forms of media are a good case study on this and the actual act of solidarity.
We used to have multicultural groups in media all the time! The Power Rangers, Captain Planet’s Planeteers, the Magic School Bus kids, and the kids from Recess all had main casts that were representative of the American melting pot idea: that multiple groups of color could work together, as well as with white people, in a harmonious and productive way. But unfortunately, this seems to have gone slightly by the wayside for some reasons. First, there is a growing backlash to political correctness in relation to diversity. The argument goes that diversity in media is simply included for diversity’s sake; there are only women and people of color in a favorite show just so the writers can check a diversity checkbox. Besides this being a cynical mindset, it also ignores the very real fact that women and people of color exist, and we aren’t always a token minority in a given group. In a similar vein, creators do want to be careful to avoid tokenism—including a character to fit a quota so they they don’t receive negative feedback later on. Most sincerely observant people can tell the difference between inclusion and tokenism.
Two of my current go-tos for a similar level of diversity are Steven Universe and Hamilton. These are refreshing outliers in a sea of white dudes, and these two properties do a great job of having people of color in both lead and supporting roles. More importantly, neither really use one racial group as the predominant group, which helps to reduce the myth that one group’s success is counterproductive to another’s.
Steven Universe accomplishes its inclusion in two specific ways. First, they simply have characters from many different backgrounds. There are Indian, African, white, and more ambiguous families all over Beach City. Further than that, they use a diverse group of voice actors for the Gems. As the Gems don’t have any specific race (other than some incidental coding), they could have been voiced by anyone, really. While it isn’t positive to stereotype groups and force them into certain speaking styles, accents and dialects are definitely a thing, and can be associated with certain nationalities or ethnicities. So, by featuring more than one group of color within the Gems, they feel like individual characters rather than a “carbon-copy” group of aliens. By being open to many groups, the cast is more varied and brings more flavor than a monolithic, single-race cast would have. Again, this helps a larger set of viewers relate to them.
Hamilton also plays with diversity. The Founding Fathers were pretty white, but most of the Hamilton cast is not. While this casting is intentional, this does open the opportunity for fresh portrayals of historic people that we are already at least a bit familiar with. Additionally, the new casting makes some of the characters more relatable, because they are people of color that face discrimination, rather than white Founding Fathers who were already privileged. Similarly, the metaphor for a struggling, hard-working, new nation fleeing from oppression is amplified by being portrayed by people of color who face similar struggles to this day.
Why is this important, though? Sure, it’s all fine and good to have aliens be more than “just White people, but from space”. And it’s nice that the Schuyler sisters are portrayed by as a multiracial family, but why does this matter? Well, to put it simply, these are great stories that don’t always get told with or for people of color. It’s a rough feeling to be left out of space operas, or underdog stories, or tales about our nation’s inception. Adding insult to injury is the idea that only one group can succeed, mostly at the expense of the other groups. Again, we need to work together.
Overall, solidarity has to come into play when creating various media. Whether it is a cartoon, movie, or super-awesome hip-hop Broadway musical, it is useful to maintain diversity. While stories about specific groups are useful (and trust me, I love a Black story about Black people, and I know not every interaction people have in real life is a racial melting pot) the need for solidarity among various groups of color is important and helps our media grow and feel richer.