On Black Characters and the Cost of Diversity

michael-b-jordan-fantastic-four-e1392904953390As you likely already know, Michael B. Jordan will play the Human Torch in the new Fantastic Four film, slated for release on June 19, 2015. This casting decision was met with its fair share of outcry, because Johnny Storm is understood to be a White character, and Michael B. Jordan is clearly African-American. I think it would be easy to write it off as just another instance of fans of a very White and very male industry being a very White and male kind of racist. But there are deeper questions about misunderstanding of the role of diversity in artistic representation. During my tenure at this blog, I’ve written a fair amount about race and representation in the geek world, not just in comics, but also in video games, and theatre. I’ll be honest, I’ve found a dearth of good arguments against increasing the level of racial diversity in geek culture. Once more, with feeling: brown kids deserve more brown superheroes. Most counter-arguments to that notion are vapid, disingenuous, or just plain racist, like “most people won’t be able to relate to that character if his race is changed/is nonwhite”. There’s a comic over at Critical Miss that sums it up perfectly:

People can identify with Fox McCloud and he’s a bipedal fox. But a dude with darker skin is somehow too alien? What is that if not [racism]?

Arguments like this one are easily, and hilariously, dismissed (seriously, go read that comic). But every once in a while, a more seductive argument against diversity of representation pops up. It usually goes something like: “Why is it okay to change the race of [x], who is White, but not okay to change [y], who is a POC, to a White character?” The argument relies on a rather misguided sense of absolute equality, among myriad other problems. It’s probably easier to get traction on such an issue if we phrase it in terms of concrete examples.

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