‘Forced Diversity’ in Modern Media
The expression“pushing identity politics/representation” is just the beginnings of addressing racism in problematic cinema
Let me start this essay with a disclaimer: I don’t care how you feel about this issue. That felt good. I am done listening to the cognitive dissonance surrounding the belief that all movies made from racist materials, created in bygone eras, must continue reinforcing racial intolerance and subservience on the part of anyone who isn’t White.
When White society didn’t acknowledge racism, we could all pretend there was a reason few, if any, Black people appeared in major motion pictures. Blacks and minorities weren’t considered people, so films about them weren’t necessary. The idea minorities shouldn’t be represented in any media, unless it is derogatory, abusive, or criminally-inspired is mean-spirited and systemically racist.
I have refused to name any particular works or the conflicts surrounding them because ultimately badly behaved fans shouldn’t be given the benefit of promoting their racist hatred under the guise of “polite discourse” since it is anything but. Besides you know who they are. See: ComicGate, Sad Puppies, Vox Day, and all the other proponents of White male superiority in media.
I do not apologize for writing this. I wrote it because no one else will, without trying to justify why it’s okay, or why the phrase ‘identity politics’ doesn’t seem to include White people.
The media erasure of people who are not white is the ultimate form of “identity politics and representation.” That it can happen so effortlessly is the problem.
If you aren’t clear as to why, read on.
Tears on your pillow…
The latest crop of whining over ‘forced diversity’ has made me get out of my sickbed to point out an obvious thing most of the whiners have failed to remember about American media.
“The only identity politics that matter in America are the ones which stipulates Whites are the true identity of America today. The only representation which matters, is the one where Whites rule over the land, distributing knowledge, culture and opportunity to the less fortunate non-identities in their care. If you are not White though it is never said directly in polite company, you are a supplicant or a servant. You will never be thought to be equal and our media will always reflect this.”
For those with a short attention span I sum this up thusly:
Most American media is racist. It depicts a nation controlled, managed, maintained, lead, and deemed successful through primarily the efforts of White men and to a far lesser extent, White women.
The goal of White-run media is to create a culturally acceptable engine of White propaganda promoting the White experience, whether it be historical or fantastic, as the only experience worth knowing.
The latest series of whining about “blackwashing” white characters from books (even when the writer makes the character Black in the books — see Rue, Hunger Games) is not about the integrity of the work, but the intolerance of the audience.
The fear of being replaced by the people White America has actively oppressed and later suppressed has revealed a truth about American media most have been willing to ignore:
White people are in almost every movie and paint themselves as the heroes of every event, no matter how great or small. The complete invisibility of people of color, even in our own stories has been part of the American experience since mass media began. Even after we began to appear, it was always in subservient roles, either taking care of Whites or subservient to them.
White media paint White characters as indomitable, unstoppable juggernauts overcoming any obstacle. From seaside Viking raids to intergalactic alien invasions, no matter where it happens, the perception is, only White people will be leading the way and will WIN, because of their <insert ability inherent to and uniquely held by White protagonist here.>
This failed perception, this false worldview, is both problematic and reductive. It makes White people seem to be the only problem-solvers in movies and the lack of participation by other groups is because they have nothing to offer. The world view which says Whites are the ultimate expression of knowledge, culture, significance, beauty and creativity is a lie and it has been promoted through mass media since the turn of the last century.
This perspective has become so ingrained, people of color from around the world are bleaching their skins and divesting themselves of their own culture to gain access to the White hegemony and its oppressive racially-intolerant culture. Online bleating by racist fans of <insert media genre here> would have you believe the nature of inserting people of color into any media, no matter how appropriate to the very job of acting is an affront to their whiteness and the integrity of the work.
Never mind that acting is just a job, or that the appearance of this character is just a role, and thus no one is harmed if an ACTOR plays a ROLE in a story. Unless this is more than just a question of acting in a story. Perhaps if we examine it further we can discover why so-called fans harass actors who embody something beyond the White aesthetic.
This is a world view which does not include or consider the contributions of anyone but White people and actively creates media (which doubles as a lived experience, some scientists believe) reducing the acts of minority involvement in history to an unreliable footnote. The epitome of racism, both systemic and cultural violence both on the mind and the mental health of a society which is not entirely White or male.
Why This Matters
When you cry about insisting a character from a story, book or comic be of a different “ethnic persuasion” because it HAS to be a certain way, you are, in essence, being racist. I know it’s hard to see this but you have to understand why.
Systemically, most media in America is actively racist in its depiction of Whites as the dominant power in any media, any story or any depiction on film. There are no other social groups who can and have been able to say, in American cinema, a character no matter what his ethic background in a book or story can be played by a White person and there be no other acceptable decision.
However, the opposite is never true. There will never be a role taken by a Black actor which will not encounter pushback if the perceived role of the character was White. Not without a significant challenge on the part of the cultural establishment. Witness Exhibit A and B. Heimdall, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe was portrayed by Idris Elba. A fine actor with a host of credits to his name, he was, however, vocally disapproved of for the role of Heimdall because it was supposedly a White, Nordic deity and he was considered unsuitable due to his Blackness.
To their credit, Marvel left Idris in the role and his portrayal was an excellent one though I hear tell the stress of playing the character, due to unpleasant fan interaction, meant Idris felt little sadness when Heimdall was killed recently in Avengers: Infinity War.
For over a hundred years, Black and minority writers were excluded from publishing their stories into mainstream media. Book publishers excluded Black writers. Movie companies actively avoided Black characters unless they were being cast as criminals, mammies, entertainers or slaves.
Today, we hear the cries of “forced diversity” whenever a movie wants to cast a single character of color into a movie where literally everyone is White (or alien) and claim this is damaging the integrity of the work.
The work has no integrity to damage.
It’s just a story. Your concern as to what actors play what roles is secondary to the opportunity for actors to participate in being role models to their segment of the population. None of the people who exist in the book are real. Therefore, there is no integral harm being perpetrated by changing and including others in the new version of the work itself.
A classic pair of racist responses is to say to Black movie-goers and creators:
“How would you like it if we had a white actor portraying Black Panther?”
Or the other chestnut…
“Why don’t you create something new, featuring Black characters rather than inserting Black characters into our White stories.”
Alas, that problem stems back to the underlying systemic racism in society. The publishing companies are run by White men who have decided what is able to be published, what people are willing to buy and base their latest books on projections that figure Whites are the primary purchasers and thus are the only audience worth catering to.
They do not see this as racist. They see this as business. Make no mistake, they are not mutually exclusive. Given America’s predisposition to use money to discriminate, this is just another representation of the problem. Since money is in the hands of Whites, they use it to create mythology of White superiority through media messaging.
The Comic Connection
If you look at comics and anything related to them, unless the stories were written after the 90s, almost the entire cast of every comic made was White. Any Black characters were usually an afterthought or token characters, who brought very little to the plot being nothing more than White characters in “blackface” — they had little to no social or cultural relevance to the story.
See: Spider-Man’s Robbie Robertson, assistant editor of the Daily Bugle — a significant character in the fact he mitigates the bad tempered owner of the Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson. Robertson acts as a conscience and manager of the newspaper, but has only a fraction of any writing directed toward making his character less two-dimensional. He plays the role of Black ‘spiritual advisor’ to Peter Parker, a role all too familiar to the Black characters in White-created media.
This means stories written about comic characters since the turn of the century were almost exclusively White, because the publishing company decided Black characters were socially and culturally unpopular and unacceptable.
America was actively racist during the Golden Age of Comics and not too much less racist during the Silver Age. It wasn’t until the seventies before any significant Black characters appeared in comic media as more primary characters given depth, significance and occasionally they even had super-powers.
Fast forward to an era where the technology allows such characters to hit the silver screen and what do production companies do?
They cast everyone in the movie as a white person because the comics were inherently White and thus they are keeping to the material DESPITE THE FACT, everything written during the periods they are emulating in new media was decidedly racist.
They fail to recognize by perpetuating this under the guise of keeping to the medium, they are, in effect saying, “we endorse the racism of this material and will be emulating it in future iterations, no matter what.”
Even though there is no inherent reason these characters couldn’t be portrayed by actors who weren’t white.
Racism is still an issue in America and Whites have always made it a point to control the media and the message and their message remains: America is a country made for Whites, by Whites and all of our media will remain White for as long as we can convince you that our Whiteness is a primary and necessary element of any successful media made today.
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
Ironically, whenever a piece of media comes out and does not include Whites and yet manages to make money (See: Black Panther, 2018), the third highest grossing movie in history, the first thing racist Whites (yes, fanboys I am talking about you and your slavish devotion to White purity in comics, movies and book adaptations) want to say is: Why should we change our movies to suit you?
“What if we wanted to create a White “Black Panther” character or change the Black Panther to a White man?”
You already did. He’s called Tarzan and he has been running through the “jungles of Africa” since the turn of the century.
Tarzan (John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke) is a fictional character, an archetypal feral child raised in the African jungle by the Mangani great apes; he later experiences civilization only to reject it and return to the wild as a heroic adventurer. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan first appeared in the novel Tarzan of the Apes (magazine publication 1912, book publication 1914), and subsequently in 25 sequels, several authorized books by other authors, and innumerable works in other media, both authorized and unauthorized. The film version of Tarzan as the noble savage (“Me Tarzan, You Jane”), as acted by Johnny Weissmuller, does not reflect the original character in the novels, who is gracious and highly sophisticated.
Appearing in iteration after iteration, saving White people from the savages of the Dark Continent every generation, portrayed by a White actor, surrounded by Black people in Africa who are, even in their own continent, subservient to the White nobleman dressed in a loincloth and “protecting” the jungle.
It sickens me that whenever I have to listen to White people complain about sharing the silver screen with a single Black person who has been added to the movie as a sign of representation, but not equality; the whining becomes almost unbearable.
“You are taking something from us by making a White character Black. What about our national, cultural, or ethnic purity? This book was written by a Slavic author, shouldn’t everyone in his book be White?”
Should it? Does it mean that? A historically accurate portrayal doesn’t even mean that according to historians. People of color moved around the world and there were very few places that were completely white without the presence of minorities of any kind. Rampant colonialism exacerbated this condition. So a book written by a Slavic author doesn’t have to mean everyone is White.
Presumably, such a world could have existed but history does not bear this out. Not to mention the book also includes elves, dwarves and other fantastic beasts, which no White person seems to have a problem relating to them, but are yet NOT HUMAN. It is only when the script changes and includes a person of color does everyone lose their minds.
Once More for the Bigots in the Back…
Mass communication media has been racist (positively reinforcing the superiority of Whiteness) for almost the entirety of its existence. It’s hard to hear. I know this, but that is the reality.
Money, the deciding factor in almost all media productions, ensured that the writers, actors, creators, and producers were invariably White (and male). Which is why, when you look at television produced until the late 60s or early 70’s, minorities, Black, Asian or any cultural representation that wasn’t White is basically non-existent.
Ultimately, Your White whining should fall on deaf ears.
You have enjoyed seventy plus years of literally every story appearing in almost every kind of media in the United States being about, for, featuring, extolling, promoting the magical power of Whiteness. It makes jagged edges, smooth, it makes social direction so clear.
White is right. White heroes save the Galaxy before breakfast. And with our trusty minority sidekick who may get a single line in the story, White people are the saviors of Humanity no matter how tough things get.
This is the message of White media. You don’t have to like it or acknowledge it. I bet you won’t because if you did, you would be able to see that complaining about a single Black character in a movie with fifteen white ones and making the issue about the single Black character, is as racist as it can be.
No one should have to be marginalized to the point of non-existence. That is the minority experience in media even today. We are aware of the racist messaging in modern media as a society, but seem completely unwilling to do anything about it.
With social media being as powerful as it is, the message that a few extremely racist individuals can promote the idea of “White’s only” movies is a racist dog whistle of an entirely different era, where Blacks and minorities were made invisible through out any depictions of history, fictional or realistic; rendered non-entities in books and as part of a systemic and cultural hegemony, pulled from the cultural consciousness as something best ignored or forgotten.
Are Blacks making their own characters? Yes. Are we happy being forced to “blackwash” White characters in order to participate in the movie creating experience? Absolutely not.
But we are forced to reckon with the idea that media is racist. Such racist gate-keeping is being done by White men, who recognize their fading prominence and are doing everything to make sure the next century is as white, media-wise, as the last.
If you want to know the truth, we don’t want your sloppy seconds.
We have always told our own stories, and recognize White America wasn’t interested in them. Our Black and minority creators are out here, right now, doing some of the most amazing writing, winning outstanding awards, and telling stories never seen before. We aren’t interested in being secondary characters, or wearing your second-hand costumes eighty years in the cultural zeitgeist.
Since Whites do not appear to want to allow us into their movies we shall create new characters of impeccable Blackness, brownness, gayness and just about anything else White people hate, with the understanding it is our creativity which shall bury your tired stories of Whiteness saving the world. Because, frankly, Whites haven’t lived up to the hype.
Mighty Whitey (the designation given to the White Savior trope on the media awareness site — tvtropes.org) hasn’t saved the world. He hasn’t made it a better place. His stories of tolerance are anything but. White saviors are individuals who rebel against White hegemony; they are nothing more than stories told to make white people feel good about the bad their promoted system of systemic oppression has caused.
Instead of righting the cultural wrong, whether it be under-educated minority youth, or the prison-industrial complex, the White Savior allows some individual to arrive and still make the story about them, not the problem White hegemony has created.
The world is still racist. Still not entirely White, no matter what you might put into movie form. No matter what the story is, White people, you only care about it if it features White leads.
People of color are tired of waiting for you to figure out just how racist you are. We are tired of telling you we reject your viewpoint of your White superiority, because you have not lived up to your hype. We don’t want or need your approval to tell our stories. Nor do we NEED to be James Bond, the Doctor, or Superman. We don’t need to be shoehorned into your mythologies because we have our own.
And since you are forcing the issue, we will destroy your weak White savior myth with our Black creativity one. Except ours isn’t a myth.
Everything good about this country comes from the creativity of minorities. From exploiting our tales of colonization and suffering to the creativity of our musical expression and linguistic flexibility, the creativity of minorities surviving the oppression of your hegemony has been fantastic.
Those stories, those original tales of redemption, reinvention, revitalization are the stories of the future. If you are lucky, you will live long enough to see a world which casts your racism, your unwillingness to share the silver screen and the spotlight, on the screen as well as in the world, as the racially-intolerant bullshit that it is.
We never needed a White savior. We still don’t. We will save ourselves, just like we always have. While Whites condemn us, they still seek to emulate us, our resilience, our ability to succeed despite incredible odds. They seek to paint themselves our masters. While they copy how we look, emulate (steal) our music, copy our swagger, tan themselves into bad health and get surgical implants which risk their lives, all in order to acquire the cultural awesomeness that is Black Excellence.
Black creators, you have your marching orders. Go forth and create the magnificent works I know you are capable of. Take the lessons of writers and creators of color who are already refuting the lies of our lack of ability and show them just how outstanding you really are.
Whites are fond of the expression that they “stand on the shoulders of giants.”
We are those giants.
— I am your Cognitive Dissident, Thaddeus Howze.
Thaddeus Howze works as a writer and editor for two magazines, the Good Men Project, a social men’s magazine as well as for Krypton Radio, a sci-fi enthusiast media station and website. He is also a freelance journalist for Polygon.com and Panel & Frame magazine. Thaddeus is the co-founder of Futura Science Fiction Magazine and one of the founding members of the Afrosurreal Writers Workshop in Oakland.