For the past several months I have been researching whitewashing and cultural erasure. There are some conclusions I have reached and observations I have made, but I want to share my solution and the reasoning behind it first. A disclaimer: I am speaking from the perspective of a lifelong American. It’s the only viewpoint I know firsthand.
Per the title, I think that those that want change will have to make a conscious effort towards inclusion on all fronts for some time to come. What amounts to a cultural subconscious here in the United States will take a long time and a lot of work to undo. Technology gives us the allowance to evoke massive changes. It may seem to some that the Internet, or particular groups, have something new to complain about daily. It is my opinion, based on my experiences, that the problems have been long standing. It is just user friendly technology and literacy of the devices lets more people have their views seen.
Having diverse casts, both within one work and across the board of media, will allow for nuanced characters and tangential learning of cultures.
Nuanced characters let us see how minor changes have major impacts in the lives of characters. Netflix’s recent series “Luke Cage” proffers an opportunity to see this play out. You can play them off one another and it says things about the characters and the world they live in. Pop and Cottonmouth were both street toughs in their youth
Pop reformed after a jail stint and took his understanding of the world to try to give kids a place to escape the streets. Kids that came in learned a passion for sports, could play chess, hear conversations on philosophers and figures in their own culture, and most simply see adults who looked like them doing honest work and doing well by it.
Cottonmouth conversely took what he had learned to continue a criminal legacy in his family. We see him as being cunning /and/ intelligent, ruthless, and doing all he can to hold onto his power, resources, and to cement his standing in his world. And you can compare him to his family and see how, while they hold similar motivations, their difference in actions speaks to their characters.
There are, in the present day, many tropes that commonly used. This can be anything from speech, clothing, mannerisms, or archetypal use that quickly explains fragments of who a character is, what they represent, and what their aims are in the world. Having only one Token character does a disservice. Whether they are a person of color, a woman, someone on the wide range of sexual orientation, or even a cis/het white male, it can be damaging if these characters are portrayed only via stereotypes or for laughs.
If the examples from Luke Cage were instead token black characters you could say that Pop was a Magical Black Man offering sage advice. Cottonmouth could be seen as just another gangster, though better off than characters like Turk. I suppose, for the sake of argument, this can still be said. However, due to the proliferation of so many different varieties of people of color in this show the piece of the world they show is substantial rather than just a one-and-done gag.
I remember playing Power Rangers at recess, reenacting scenes with our terrible and untrained attempts at martial arts. During the summers I would bring my collections of the toy line to day care with me. But trying to convince everyone I could be anyone other than the Black Ranger was like pulling teeth. I couldn’t lead the team. I couldn’t control the Dragon or Tiger Zords. Only when I came in with my Tiger Zord could I leverage being put on top, and it came begrudgingly. Even when I shared my toy, which I recall being frequent (it probably wasn’t), I got the sense that the sentiment was ‘You only get to be the White Ranger because you have the toy.’ I was too young to articulate what was at the root of it.
“I can be a leader.”
“…I want to be a hero, too…”
I began to recall all the black and Afro-centric books that I had when I was a child. I had comics, American tall tales, mythologies of those enslaved, and slice of life stories all told from a black perspective. These fostered my love of epics and mythology that I hold today. But when I shared the stories I knew, they were met with empty replies.
“The Numedian Force sounds sort of like the Justice League to me.”
“I’ve never heard of John Henry. Do you know about Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan?”
“Kente cloth represents African royalty? Is that like a coat of arms or a tartan?”
I often wished to share my history, my culture. But because it was foreign to even to my black peers it was just another strange thing I knew. But now, if Inner Child Jasper wants to be a super hero, he’s got choices. If it’s DC, I can talk about Kid Flash, and have my friends know who I mean. Finally, after years, the wide world knows about Luke Cage. And if I want a tech based gear hero I can go Falcon if we’re sticking to Marvel. And in video games, I’ve got Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan. The King and Queen of Zama, Enzo and Erine respectively, are the protagonists. All this is in the past few years.
And it feels good.
I don’t have to compromise. I don’t have to spin “what if” scenarios. I can just say “Dibs on Luke Cage”, and that is that. Of course, it not all about the look and skin color. But I don’t have to suspend reality as much in order to say “They’re a hero… And I can be them when I grow up.” That’s a big deal to me.
For these reasons, let’s have diverse casts! Let’s do it so everyone, regardless of they or their parents’ tastes, wind up seeing a hero they can aspire to. Let’s do it so that children of all backgrounds can debate which heroes, heroines, and oddly aligned protagonists they like best. And let these figures stand tall so everyone can look to them for the content of their characters, not just their skins’ margin of melanin.
P.S. – The trap I have fallen into many times these past few months is wanting to cover EVERYTHING in a single work. Trying to cover Live Action Adaptations, Whitewashing, and everything that goes into it has been maddening. Trying to compress it, but have it be clear, but sussinct enough to read has been utter lunacy. I have been trying to play to controversial topics and click bait subjects. But I am solution oriented, and this article is about a solution, rather than JUST the problem.
Still… there is one thing I wanted to include which didn’t fit in my main article. As I feel that whitewashing limits representation I thought hard about media I had seen growing up. Once I hit my teens most of my media time was with video games, and role playing games sourced from Japan. I spent hundreds of hours in these worlds at least.
Some games had no characters that were not the odd anime “maybe they’re Japanese, but could be European I guess” look. Cat people, sentient mutated onions, dragons and the muscled beings that slay them were all normal in one title I played. There were sometimes no people of color, which I chalked up to data limitations. As I aged I was thankful. Barret from Final Fantasy VII was one of the few black characters in gaming, but I found out he was just a Mr. T rip off. I never read him that way until Advent Children. While having positive, nuanced media to export to the rest of the world is VERY important it is not the purpose of this (rather lengthy, geez…) aside.
This was all about motion media. Television and movies mainly. I had to work hard to come up with a handful of titles from my youth. Their inclusion in this post is important to me so that if you don’t know what it’s like growing up without seeing yourself, you’ll understand more where I am coming from.
I have a rule: “If I can do it in real life, I don’t sit on the couch and take it in.” No sports games, shooters, or the hyper real. No movies to that effect. Often times, no tie ins either. So all my media was mostly fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. The shows that I can remember are below.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers – This children’s show had a multiethnic cast that worked together for trying to eradicate pollution from the world. The team was led by Kwame in the field. And, while African rather than African American, I still felt a kinship to him. Additionally, a friend had given me an Earth Power Ring.
M.A.N.T.I.S. – a short lived series on Fox that centered around an entrepenuer who was handicapped. He made an exoskeleton for himself and used it to fight crime. If memory serves that is. It was rarely repeated on air.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Commander, and later Captain, Sisko meant a lot to me. Star Trek had been a favorite series of mine as long as I could remember. Seeing a black captain and a diverse cast, and a new story in a world I loved was wonderful for me. To this day DS9 is one of my favorite science fiction shows.
These were three instance I could easily, and rather proudly, remember. The next two were more of a stretch, but I was trying to think of everything that had a black protagonist as I grew up.
Steel – Starring Shaquille O’Neal, I was looking forward to this. After “The Death of Superman” a series titled “Reign of the Supermen” spanned the four Superman comics of the time. Each one followed a character trying to take up the mantle of Kal El himself. One of these people was John Henry Irons, who crafted a super suit for himself. While only human he was said to have the heart of Superman above all else. Perhaps it was because he was human.
I am loathe to remember this as this is one of the many 90s superhero movies that was not received well. Admittedly, I only saw it once. I could also bring Shazaam into this but… why…?
Space Jam – Starring another basketball icon, Michael Jordan, this has him saving the Acme-verse(?) with the help of the Looney Toons. And yes, while it is a black protagonist I am wary to count this. As I said I am reaching. Michael Jordan playing basketball is like any movie that has a music start singing. It’s not much of a stretch.
These five examples are the only times up until recent years that I remember there being a black character as the lead. Different types of shows. Different genres. Aimed at different age groups and demographics. No women. Two were successful (Captain Planet and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), but one of them was part of an established series.
I wager that having what would amount to a new protagonist every two years isn’t bad. But all of these shows ended before the turn of the century. That leaves more than a decade without a lead protagonist that could echo my worldview exactly. And in many cases, black male characters are one of the “tokens”. If, in all my varied media, I can only think of five I can only imagine what it must be like for people who feel lower on the visibility hierarchy than I.
*heavy sigh* However, change has come in the past several years. Many shows across many venues are gaining traction based upon the public outcry. This is phenomenal. One show I want to recommend is “Sense8” on Netflix. It focuses on an ensemble cast from not just many backgrounds, but from many world perspectives. It was thoroughly enjoyable and it is the type of media that I want to see. As such I’ll take my own advice and put forth the types of media that I want to see.
That’s it for now. I do hope that the whole of that has been happy reading, but failing that please go and watch something that is a fulfilling view.