Why Race Matters

I love Tarzan.  He might just be my favorite literary character, and I love his stories.  But Tarzan comes with baggage.

The most obvious flaw in the character is that he’s a white European who lands in the middle of the jungle and becomes its greatest warrior.  It’s hard not to see that as contributing to the myth of the “superior white man”, even unintentionally.  And those who are only familiar with the cinematic versions of the character will certainly have a point.  Tarzan movies are filled with ignorant natives and civilized Europeans.  Even Disney’s animated Tarzan movie sidestepped the whole issue by not having any natives in it at all.  The jungle is teeming with talking animals and adventure, but there’s not a single dark-skinned individual to make us feel uncomfortable at the notion.

In the books, Tarzan is certainly a superman.  He is the embodiment of the “Noble Savage”, a term loaded with all kinds of troublesome notions.  On the other hand, Tarzan is clearly a superior being who is better than everyone.  Even Europeans are no match for his physical prowess, and while the natives don’t come across as Tarzan’s equal, neither do any of the supporting white characters.  Tarzan is tougher than everyone, and the books make no bones about this.  There also plenty of white villains in the books and black heroes.

Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars books have the same problem.  John Carter is a white man from a faraway land who comes to a strange world and conquers it with his sheer badass nature.  The Martians might be green, red, black, and, yes, even white, but nobody matches John Carter, the Caucasian transplant from Earth.

There is certainly racial baggage that comes with these characters, and it’s all right to admit that.  They are characters of their time, and while I think Edgar Rice Burroughs was fairly enlightened on the subject of race for his time, it doesn’t change the fact that he did live in his time.  And even if Burroughs had been a complete racial progressive, even if he had thought Tarzan would be more logical as a ethnic character, there was no way someone would’ve published the adventures of a physically superior African man who fought lions and defeated evil Europeans.  It just wouldn’t have happened.

It’s funny to remember that, at this particular moment, Caucasians were assumed to be better than ethnic folks at EVERYTHING.  So the notion of a powerful African man who could best all comers in battle would’ve been more ridiculous than the notion of a European doing so.

Of course, even if there had been a market for an African Tarzan, it would carry with it unfortunate implications.  A black man raised by apes who is lord of the jungle is fraught with cultural peril.  If Tarzan were black, not only would he never have existed in the first place, he would never have been popular.  And if he’d managed to make it to the modern world, he would only be relegated to a dustbin of curiosity, a relic of a less racially progressive time.

That’s how race works.  It makes everything more complicated.  And you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  You can’t just ignore it because it does matter.  But you can’t focus on it too much because then it often gets in the way.  Whether Tarzan was white, black, Asian, or you-name-it, he is a character that comes with baggage.  And it’s unavoidable and something we just have to deal with as best we can.

And we don’t usually deal with it well.

In Thor, two supporting characters were given an ethnic makeover to add diversity and some fans (and some people with nothing better to do) cried foul.  Putting aside the racists and the misdirected fanboys, without these changes Thor would have been a 100 percent Caucasian movie because, like Tarzan, he was created in a time when ethnic characters were a novelty and just didn’t show up very often.

(And people who say the Norse gods were all white in the myths are just being silly.  The gods of the Marvel universe are, and have always been, magical aliens.  They only resemble their original counterparts as long as it serves the story.  To say that they need to be white because the originals were white just sounds dumb.  I’m pretty sure Odin didn’t have a magic robot in the original stories.)

Spider-Man is a white guy.  As is Batman, Superman, the original Teen Titans, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Captain America, Ant-Man, Wonder Man, the Wasp, The Hulk, the Flash, the original original Green Lantern, the second “original” Green Lantern, Thor, Loise Lane, J.J. Jameson, Gwen Stacy, Iron Fist, Hawkeye, etc., etc., etc.

These characters, many of them created decades ago, are white because that was the default setting for characters at the time.  And as they continue to carry forward, they bring this tradition with them.  Comic books are a medium where characters less than twenty years old are still considered unestablished, so of course, comic books are struggling with this more than just about any medium.

But it doesn’t stop at comic books.  Even movies in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s suffer from this.

James Bond comes from the 60’s.  Star Wars is filled with white guys, aliens, two black guys, and maybe three women.  Indiana Jones has minority characters who mostly just serve as obstacles.  (Although I’ve always liked Short Round as a callback to the “scrappy kid” archetype, but even that comes with baggage.)  But all these established characters and universes, if not hostile toward ethnicity, certainly are not particularly welcoming to it.

Again, to be clear, I’m not calling anyone racist.  It’s not about us as individuals.  It’s about a society that is larger than us, that functions on a level most of us never even think about.  Society is like any system, and any large system  has a life of its own, bigger than any of its parts.

This is why swapping race is NOT equal and that context matters.  If a white supporting character in a predominately white universe is made ethnic it is NOT the same as when an ethnic character is made white.  Heimdall and Hogun are two ethnic guys in a world of white guys, and their world is better off for the change.  Changing nearly all the ethnic good guys from The Last Airbender to make it more “mainstream” is a change for the worse because we already have more than enough white heroic protagonists.  We don’t need to add more, even if it’s done in some misguided attempt to reach a wider audience.

(As a small aside, it is unfortunate that the villains in Airbender are allowed to keep their ethnicity.)

In Cowboys and Aliens, an otherwise entertaining film, the one important ethnic character in the film dies.  And at the end of the film, we have the three Caucasians surviving.  It’s true that a lot of Caucasians die at alien hands, but it doesn’t change the fact that if you have one important ethnic character, it’d be nice to not have him have to die for extra drama.

X-Men: First Class had two ethnic characters.  One joins the bad guys.  The other dies to show how bad the bad guys are.  And once again, at the end of the film, we are left with a team of white guys (even if one of those guys is covered in blue fur) when the dust clears.

Ultimate Spider-Man is killed and replaced by an ethnic kid, and some people can’t stand it.  And, yes, it’s a shame that an original ethnic character couldn’t have been created instead, but there would have been no publicity, on interest, in that.  It’s only by attaching his ethnicity to a mainstream white character (even an alternate universe version) that anyone cares.

Even in our “enlightened” world, we still think of Caucasian as mainstream and ethnic as other, as strange, as odd.  We’re still carrying our baggage, and we have to be mature enough to admit and deal with that.  Race is still a problem in America.  It’s a problem everywhere.  And it’d be nice to have an adult discussion about it rather than everyone wasting all their time defending themselves.

Race matters.  It matters because we are still carrying all the hang ups and problems our ancestors did, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted August 11, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Very insightful post. I know someone who was up in arms about the race changes in Thor, citing it as another example of “just being PC”. Which makes me wonder, “So what? And the alternative is to keep a needlessly all-white cast when you have someone badass like Idris Elba available? Maybe let someone else see themselves in the mythology for a change?”

    I haven’t read a Spider Man comic in years but thought the change would be interesting, open up some avenues to some new stories. Give the character a different set of challenges to deal with.

    I used to think that being “color blind” was a virtue…but I’ve gotten over that. You have to acknowledge race. You can’t ignore it…to do so would be to disregard part of what makes us who we are are. It’s not the definition of us but it is part of the whole. Like you say, an adult discussion about it, without people getting defensive or paranoid or dragging various “culture war” BS into it is the only way to effectively deal with the baggage.

  2. Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    This is something that is often ignored because people don’t want to deal with it. There is a lot of looking the other way simply because its often times easier not to open up this can of worms, but without some serious real discussions we’re going to keep seeing more of The Last Air Bender debacles. Something that’s so baffling messed up that i was shocked that the outrage was as small as it was.

    I’ve constantly thought about how this translates into Fantasy and Video games where the only dark skinned characters are the sidekicks (with no sleeves) or the create your own with the skin-shade slider.

  3. Paul Rossi
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Ahhh yes, but Tarzan was thought of as a savage to the European Imperialists. Isn’t that what the Tarzan books are all about imperialism–and more so, British imperialism? I think the real issue, at least with Tarzan, is culture.

  4. Paul Rossi
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    And also, no. We do not “carry all the hang ups and problems our ancestors did.” There is racism for sure, but not in your examples. The “ethnic” characters dying first in these movies does not hold a water–it’s a horrible argument. I mean, were these characters killed because they are ethnic. Does one white character say to another, “Boy, I’m glad our nemesis killed him. He was to [ethnic slur].” Because, I’ve watched older films with bigoted lines. I’m sure the evil elderly loved the those movies back in their day. But guess what, those movies don’t exist.

    So your argument is, “Well, Mr. Rossi, the racism is less blatant now than then.” Paw, I say. Give me any issue–any disturbing wrong that has ever come up in our world’s history–and then give me any film I don’t care if it is rated G. I don’t care if it’s Baby Einstein tapes. I will make a case that Baby Einstein, or random film x, invokes whatever disturbing issue (ethical infraction) you can give me. And if you don’t see it, I’ll say well it’s less blatant now than then.

    The truth is there is more fiction in our heads than reality. You want to make the assumption of intent–as if you could read minds or the subconscious psyche–but it’s fiction. White people create white characters because they are fantasies of white people. That’s All! That’s it! Robbin Harris concocted Bebe Kids. John Hughs concocted Sixteen Candles. There is no racism in these concoctions only fantasies.

  5. midas68
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    Yes Lee your right and I’m sure everyone knows its only a very very small part of a large picture.(with a whole lot of ugly in it)

    But there are many ways to look at it and still be truthful, If I was Rich(we whites have it easy like that) I could give you say 50 million bucks to make a movie. But with so much riding on it, you might say Screw the KumbaYa, Im going with the most popular white actors i can find so the Money will Flow. Why, because people look at the things they are doing as individual of the big picture and therefore lacking in context.

    Most people would resort to this, The Leading Black Preacher in Harlem certainly did when Hilary Clinton gave his organization thousands of our tax payers money/ And he paid her back by trying to get his Church goers to vote her(WHITE) instead of Obama.

    Now that seems some serious EVIL to me, but its also just the way people are(90%/Sturgeons law) And since we are related to each other, its not like we don’t already know how Pathetic we humans can be.

    I would say white is not the mainstream, but the cash cow. Its us gringo’s that the rich really want to exploit. Not that they won’t and aren’t exploiting everyone else. But they Know where the Money is most plentiful.

    You did say something that hit the nail on the ass. To talk about race without being defensive. without. I was checking on this so called flash riot, or whatever(not the euro, but the U.S one. and one thing you do see over and over is the defending.

    the responders on one of Black Planets recommended sites had all whites stating these attackers were animals, and all blacks defending them by bringing up historical abuse.

    Now this type of thinking can and does get a person killed.

    Lee, you have some funny stuff in your Horror, But the real Sick Sh-t is in Real life.

    Good Luck to us All!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Posted August 12, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    @Paul Rossi: Even if writers don’t intend characters to be killed off on the basis of race, killing off the few important ethnic characters in a movie/book has unfortunate implications. It makes me go *headdesk* because it implies that the author doesn’t value that character much. “Whelp! That was your screen time. Now let the real white heroes do the job!” It’s the same thing as the women-fridge-stuffing Green Lantern style. The author may actually like women, but goddamn, that was bad writing.

    Race, good writing, and tone are all important. Emphasis on tone. While I am an ethnic minority in a white predominant country, and I get excited at anything with post-colonial themes, I still enjoy pulpy movies like 300… which is essentially The Spartans vs. The Global Other. What makes it okay for me? The tone. Personally, as a reader/movie-goer, I don’t go looking around for stuff to critique. I just want to enjoy the movie. But in the X-men movie, when the black guy died so quickly (especially when he was supposed to have more promising superpowers), that caused a groan throughout the audience. It’s just bad writing.

    Anybody more interested in my ramblings about unfortunate implications can read more of my thoughts here–> Pulp Adventures in Unfortunate Implications!

  7. Posted August 12, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re slightly wrong about the point about it being impossible to have an African Tarzan. There were plenty of narratives in which the non-white “native” or “racialized monster” is far superior, on an individual basis, to white Europeans. But that figure is almost always killed in the end, because he represents an immediate threat to white male superiority (usually based in sexuality). So an African Tarzan might have existed, but he would have been killed by a group of white Europeans in the end, because the rare super black man must be neutered.

    But I might have misread what you said. I am having a bad day…

  8. Will
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Wasn’t John Carter a super stud on Mars because he was stronger due to being from relatively high gravity Earth?
    The casts of SF/F movies mirrors, good & bad, the casts of non-genre movies.
    I appreciate your points regarding Thor, but the idea of non-white Norse gods strikes me as overly PC. At the same time, I understand the Thor of legend looked little like the romance-novel-cover-worthy blond hunk of Marvel Comics.
    A recent movie casting that really offended me was Lord of the Rings, specifically the Haradrim. The books describe them as having black skin & red eyes. As this obviously pushes the wrong buttons in the USA, they were portrayed in the movies as looking, well, a lot like Arabs. Exchanging, if you will, the convenient savages of the past for the convenient savages of the present. (I don’t believe JRRT was a racist nearly so much as he was ignorant of issues that a more thoughtful writer would have recognized, even in his time)

  9. Ripley
    Posted August 13, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    @Paul Rossi

    Mister Rossi we’ve been friends now for a long time. We have had this argument before. So it should come as no surprise when I tell you, sir, you are WRONG. Your “race-based fantasy is only a fantasy” argument is convincing. Subjective minds are limited subjective fantasies, true; yet, race is not a subjective, singular being. The author is not of a hive mind with other people in his race, acting on behalf of white pop culture and the white condition. The author, whoever he is, is acting on his own accord. So, when he creates an ethnic character with ethnic stereotypes, what is the author saying when he later kills said ethnic character in justice of the white male main character or characters? Let me, lay me this out for you.

    Three white guys and one Asian guy, fighting on the same side, are out on a Star Trek-like field mission. You know, the field mission, where the extra always dies. Well, of the four men there is the captain, and three extras, one of whom is Asian. As always, they get into this huge fight with the alien, and the alien attempts to shoot the captain. But just in time, the Asian character throws himself in front of bullet to save the captain’s life. It makes one wonder, why was the Asian fellow there? They all had an obligation to the captain; yet, the Asian fellow took the bullet. In the author’s mind, were the two white extras some how entitled? This leads us to your next argument, Assumption of Intent.

    Ok, it’s true, any assumption I make on the intent of the author is far fetched. But look at the F*cking dynamic, man. This is the two-knights-and-one-pawn-to-the-save-the-queen scenario. It seems obvious that the Asian fellow was meant to be the pawn. Why else was he part of the dynamic?

    Having read this, I’m sure you are trying to create another argument about the assumption of the dynamic, or some such nonsense. Whatever! If you refuse to see it my way, consider an audience who might see it my way. What impact would such a scenario have on them? Because A. Lee Martinez sees something to what I’ve suggested, and has Shedrick and Frida Fantastic and midas68 to some extent. So now, Mr. Rossi, you will have to bow down to peer pressure. You will have to admit there is an impact on the audience. And you will have to admit that even if you were right about the author, you are wrong. There, three slams to your weak argument. Checkmate!

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