I’m going to be talking today about race in mainstream comics. Not all of them, just the handful I’ve picked up and read, and blogged about.
Before anyone protests that I haven’t read enough of the story to know about the level of racism in the comics, I’d like to explain that I’m not looking for personal racism. I’m looking at institutional racism. Institutional racism is very different from personal racism. In personal racism, a creator’s beliefs about another group of people’s inherent inferiority come out in racial slurs, whacko depictions, and so on. There is usually (not always but often) a level of consciousness about the racism. Black people are evil Nazis! (See Noah’s post on Wonder Woman.)
Institutional racism is not like that at all. Oh, there can be instances where small cogs in the wheel add to the overall racist nature of the machine, but it’s mostly about the grinding pattern of racism. That pattern becomes a paradigm, a way things are, a view of the world. Sometimes that view of the world colors things so sharply that it blocks out reality.
That’s what I’d like to look at today.
By and large, our media industry has a white point of view, regardless of the color of the creators or even its recipients (yes, there are exceptions). This includes comics. By point of view, I mean that the main character, through whom we view the story, is presumed white. White is the default point of view, in the same way that the default point of view is male. Yes, there are exceptions, which is why the term ‘chick flick’ came about. People call them chick flicks to designate that they are not normal. There’s no gender labeling of summer blockbusters. We don’t call the latest Exploding City and People With Guns PG movie scheduled for Thanksgiving Day release a ‘guy film’, because that would be pointless. In the same way, we have Blaxploitation movies, because white movies are the default.
Again, I would like to assert that I am not accusing any comic creator, be they artist, writer, colorist, inker, letterer or editor, of personal racism. I don’t know them and have no idea of their own race, political views, or personal actions. I assume, instead, that they are good people doing the craft to the best of their ability.
What I’d like to look at today are the comics that I have read or that I have picked up to read. These are current releases, picked because I thought the covers were pretty or they sounded good. They were not chosen on the basis of writing a column about racism in mainstream comics. They are, in short, my normal reading material. This is important, because what I want to look at is not whether these comics are racist in the sense that Noah’s beloved Wonder Woman was, but whether they are institutionally racist.
Does the white point of view (regardless of its origin) color over the reality, the accuracy, of the worlds that these comics inhabit?
I don’t know, although I have my guesses.
So let’s start with Supergirl (#44 October 2009). This takes place in Metropolis, and thus the analog is Chicago (I grew up near Clark’s stomping grounds, and the big city is Chicago.) Chicago’s demographics are roughly: 42% White, 37% Black, 4% Asian, 14% other races, 3% two or more races. 26% are Hispanic, of any race. This is from the 2000 census. The nature of the census makes counting Hispanics difficult in some ways, but I am assuming that some of the percentages of Whites and Other races make up the some of the Hispanic numbers. It would be unusual in my experience for Hispanics to count themselves as Black unless they were of mixed parentage that includes Black.
The demographics of Supergirl are as follows:
Whites: 10 (83%)
Blacks: 1 (8%)
Hispanic (a benefit of the doubt guess): 1 (8%)
Whites: 13 (100%)
Whites: 5 (83%)
Blacks: 1 (17%)
Whites: 6 (100%)
Whites: 19 (100%)
Well, allrighty then. Not exactly reality is it? The city is totally inaccurate.
Like many larger U.S. cities, San Francisco is a minority-majority city, as non-Hispanic whites comprise less than half of the population. The 2005–2007 American Community Survey estimated that 45.0% of the population was made up of non-Hispanic whites. Asians make up 33.1% of the population; people of Chinese descent constitute the largest single ethnic group in San Francisco at about one-fifth of the population. Hispanics of any race make up 14.0% of the population. San Francisco’s black population has declined in recent decades, from 13.4% of the city in 1970 to 7.3% of the population in 2007.
For this episode, I’m going to skip counting any person who is a non-natural color (e.g., green, crayola toned, etc).
Whites: 4 (100%)
Whites: 34 (97%)
Blacks: 1 (3%)
Note: a crowd scene
Whites: 5 (100%)
Whites: 37 (81%)
Blacks: 7 (19%)
Note: Also a crowd scene
You think San Francisco is 97% white? Really?! And again at 81%.
Note that there were no Asians that I could find, despite two distinct crowd scenes that showed faces. Two. A full third of the the city, and yet none were there. NONE.
Both cities depicted here should have had a majority of people of color, because both cities—like most cities in America—have a minority of whites.
I was going to keep going and do this with several more comics, and if anyone really really wants me to, I might, but it’s too damn depressing.
If anyone doubts the importance of portraying the world accurately-that is to say, with a wide variety of faces and skin tones and body types-I’d like to point you to this excellent speech.
Update by Noah: You can read all posts in the roundtable here.