*Here's a post a made over at girl wonder.org about minority characters in american comics, much thanks to the zine and to the editor Jenn for making all make sense.*
A Gambit for Minority Characters
As a second generation nerd, I had comics and sci-fi and various other forms of geekdom thrust upon me. Being both black and a nerd, I developed a unique outlook on a culture and fandom that is stereotyped as being only home to "pale-face" males. So let share some of my funny observations through a different, (dare I say, darker), lens.
Race relations in comics are a complex but hilarious game of public relations chess with certain pieces being more valuable or played differently depending on their race. You can't go into a complex chess game without some sort of winning strategy, right? Most of these pieces are black, but other minorities are also pawns. After some intense study of the game, I have discovered some of the strategies.
Rule 1: White on White, Black on White, but hardly ever White on Black
With the exception of the early Tarzan comics, comic book brawls were restrained to white males pounding on other white males in the good old days. With the flood of black characters in the 70's, black heroes also joined in on fighting the white villains. One would think this gave the white heroes a chance to fight black villains but that is hardly the case. They might be able to get away with it in special team ups "There is no way Spidey is getting away with slugging a bunch of black crooks without Luke Cage making an appearance to validate it." The sad thing is that this sort of thing is contrary to treating people according to the value of their character and not the color of their skin.
Rule 2: Give the hero a black friend
This follows the real world logic that a single minority friend qualifies the person (in this case the writer and character) as non-racist. Sometimes they are dopey Jim Crow sidekicks like Ebony White in the classic Spirit comics or a more honorable teammate like Captain America's buddy Falcon. The recurring theme with these black buddies is that they are almost as good as their white counterpart but not quite. This strategy has thankfully been phased out for the most part with Falcon coming into his own and most of Marvel and DC's black buddy characters moving into solo roles.
Rule 3: Keep it in the family
This is probably one of the weirder rules in the comics game but it piques my interest. Many minority characters are interconnected by blood as if they are part of the lineage of the "good ones". Recently the nephew of the deceased Bill Foster (Goliath), Tom Foster, was chosen to take up the mantle of Goliath. Would it have been too outrageous for an unrelated black person to take the mantle seeing as Bill wasn't related to Pym? One of the more outrageous examples were the hints that Bishop was somehow a descendant of Storm, when it was already confirmed that he was a descendent of the aborigine mutant Gateway (throwing Bishop's identity as an "African American" for a loop). It's as if the writers forget that there are many different types of people with darker skin and that they don't all come from the same village.
Rule 4: Have them deal with minority (re: urban) issues
This rule was very prevalent in older comics, but it is thankfully being pushed by the way-side today. Nonetheless, it was popular enough to merit mention here: many minority characters only appeared to deal with minority issues, which for writers seemed to mean the experiences of inner-city, urban (a.k.a. "ghetto", a.k.a. "hood") living. There are some exceptions, like Black Panther's original run, where he dealt with issues threatening his entire fictional country. But consider Misty Knight, who was ghettoized and relegated to a small pocket of the Bronx a literary ethnic enclave for her to reside in. Why can't we have minority heroes who are assimilated into American culture and live in the suburbs, instead of the mean streets of Chicago?
Rule 5: One's alter ego and powers is forever tied with one's racial identity
This one goes deeper than the wealth of black superheroes with "black" in their names (although it is funny to note that Black Manta, a character that has hardly ever been seen without a mask, was made black because, I guess, we just can't have enough stupid puns involving the African-American skin tone). I'm also thinking of the various jungle-themed black characters like Vixen and the billions of cookie-cutter "strong black men" superheroes who play off the Mandingo stereotype. One of the more shameful ones would be the Middle-Eastern Dust, whose power is to turn into sand. She's a mutant, not someone who gained their powers through an accident involving her environment (like Sandman), so we're supposed to accept her mutation and her background as a funny coincidence.
The only way we can stop this sort of clichéd writing and one-dimensional depiction of minority characters in this all-encompassing chess game is to stop playing. Look at these characters as three-dimensional human beings, not as racial playing pieces used to win or lose an epic battle of identity politics Writers should stop thinking of racial quotas and diversity for diversity's sake, and get back to writing characters to showcase the breadth of human experience.
Listening to: World Wide Renewal
Reading: Sophie's world
Playing: Rock Band 2
Drinking: Root Beer