You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

by Sigrid

My daughter, K, is six. My son, M, is five. They read comics. And everybody in comics is white.

My daughter is reading a lot of kids’ superhero comics. Mostly from the Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC lines. She’ll get to White Tiger, she’ll get to Greg Rucka’s upcoming Batwoman, she’ll get to Gotham Central, but not for a while. In the comics that are age-appropriate for her, everybody is white.

I went to my Local Comics Retailer last week and scoured the shelves. The Source is a good, good store. They understand customer service, they stock practically everything, they are well-informed and responsive. They have a kids’ section. They have shelf upon shelf of manga and manga-format titles. They have the entire Minx line. I asked My Comics Guy if he could think of books for my daughter. Titles that had characters who looked like her. “Not manga,” I clarified. “Characters who actually look like my daughter.” Dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, high cheekbones and light brown skin. Manga, whatever the purported ethnicity of the characters, largely consists of black-and-white art — this does not meet my needs. My Comics Guy looked at my kids. He’s known them since I hauled them in every week in the double stroller. “I get what you’re saying,” he said. “I’ll keep my eye out for stuff. But . . . ” He shrugged. I understood — in superhero comics, everybody is white.

I searched through the shelves. I started with the superhero comics marketed for kids. I found Cyborg in Teen Titans Go!. I found Falcon, sometimes, in Marvel Super Hero Squad. That’s it, out of three shelves of superhero comics marketed for kids — two not-white characters. In the manga section I found a Lilo and Stitch movie adaptation and some Avatar books in color. Not the superhero comics I was looking for, but I bought them. In the main graphic novel section, books that my kids are really too young for, I found Araña. I bought it anyway. The cast of Araña isn’t white.

When I got home I went online. Surely, I thought, there are comics for kids, featuring people who look like my daughter, and I just haven’t heard of them. Publisher’s Weekly’s The Beat doesn’t seem to know of any. Neither does LibraryThing, except for manga. (Though LibraryThing does have some recommendations for slightly older kids — Persepolis, and American Born Chinese.) Amazon is no help. MarvelKids is an embarrassment. DC Kids is a tiny bit better, in that their kids’ comics have more tokenism and people of color in guest appearances. I spent some time searching the blogosphere. I found comics for kids, and comics featuring Hispanic, Asian, and black characters — but not in the same title, not at the same time. As far as my kids are concerned everybody in comics is white.

I read an interview once with Robert Rodriguez, director of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. In the interview he said he made the Spy Kids franchise because he wanted his kids to grow up seeing families like their own in movies. Families that are Hispanic, in movies that are not about The Experience of Being Not-White. Rodriguez wanted his kids to watch the kinds of movies that everybody likes to see, the American action-adventure flick, and see themselves.

The fiction we give the next generation influences the way they see the possible world. Reading, literacy, is important not only for the factual information that can be accrued through text, but through the visions of the future that become accessible by exposure to the stories of others. Fairy tales teach competence and morality, myths teach cultural values, best-sellers teach what everyone wants in a given moment. A while back in my blog I talked about this. And I listed off the geek cultural influences in my house. And one commenter, Handyhunter, very rightly brought up the glaringly obvious fact that the geek culture I was giving to my kids was entirely white.

What are we as comic geeks saying to kids? What are we as comics writers, artists, and fans saying — however unintentionally — to kids of color? I think the answer is pretty clear. We’re saying that American comics don’t care to counter white privilege. That comics don’t care about anybody except white kids. That superhero comics — with their soaring messages of hope and honor, of pride and strength, of ethics and power and responsibility — are not for kids of color. That there’s no place in the superhero’s world for a girl who looks like my daughter to be proud and powerful and courageous. And that not only is there no room for her to be that, but no one in a position to change this cares.

Marvel and DC are getting slightly better in their mainstream lines. In the comics for teens and adults there are great characters of color. But by the time my kids are eleven and twelve and thirteen, I expect my daughter won’t care. Why should she? Why should she, or any other kid like her, stick with mainstream superhero comics or mainstream geek culture at all through the early years in order to get to the marginally better products and stories for adults? If geek culture, if comics, don’t care about her, why should she invest her time in them?

I don’t want this to be true. I see the loss of the superhero genre to be a loss. Some of the best myths of our time are being told in comic books, and comic book movies, and fantasy and science fiction, and through the sweeping glory of modern myth and metaphor. To be ignored by those myths, to be dismissed as not worth the bother, is potentially damaging to every person of color.

Think about it. Think about what we are telling our kids.

There are heroes. And unless you’re white, you’re not one of them.

[Title courtesy South Pacific.]

Email: sigrid @ fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: sigridellis

  • Menshevik

    @Handyhunter –
    Re. the actors: I am not denying white privilege, but in this example its “benefit” is dubious. A white actor is privileged because when s/he is rejected s/he must put it down to a personal failing? BTW, one possible reason for being rejected could be not being American (and this not just in US productions, there are also quite a few examples of Americans being cast in big parts or even the lead of non-American films in preference to the home-grown talents in order to promote international sales. Thus e.g. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Charles Bronson got a huge career boost from semi-obscurity through their appearances in various Italian Westerns).

  • handyhunter

    @Menshevik I think we are coming across the great roadblock that makes up institutionalized racism (which is related to, but is not quite the same as personal prejudice/racism).

  • @Menshevik You’re right that there are many biases and problems in the representation of anyone outside of the privileged American norm in modern media, and they should all be combated with equal fervor.

    My intention is not to convince you utterly of my position. However, since you’ve argued with nearly every person in these comments, I assumed you were interested in ongoing debate. If you don’t wish to debate this further, we can certainly end the discussion.

    I look forward to your comments on future posts.

  • Regarding kids comics with characters of colour, I can’t think of any superhero comics, but maybe Magic Trixie? The lead character is a white girl, but two of her best friends are girls of colour: Nefi the mummy girl is of middle eastern descent, naturally, and Loupie Garou the werewolf is Hispanic.

    And there’s Rapunzel’s Revenge. Again, a white heroine (darn it all…), but the partner/sidekick/love interest, Jack, is dark skinned. And, also, kinda awesome. His ethnicity is never stated, but I would guess Native American.

    I am so sorry and pissed off that I can’t think of more suggestions. There are clearly not nearly enough out there to choose from.

  • Fiona

    @Margot I heartily second the Static Shock rec! It’s being rerun by Disney XD these days.

    If you can find Gargoyles on DVD anywhere, then you should get that. Your daughter will appreciate Elisa Maza like there’s no tomorrow. (Bonus: Salli Richardson, who voiced Elisa, is now the female lead on Eureka, and is AWESOME. I don’t know if your kids are quite old enough for Eureka, but I highly rec the show anyway. Possibly you’ve seen Eureka already, though, in which case you can ignore me.)

  • sigrid

    @Dani Thanks for the recommendations!

    @Fiona You know, I think I’ve never seen an episode of Gargoyles. 😀 Worth checking out, thank you.

  • How about Disney W.I.T.C.H.? It’s more magic-girl influenced but still is an all-girl team saving the world and sometimes the universe.
    I would recomend steer away from the animated series though… but It’s just probably my personal taste. Hope it helps.

  • fernald

    Try old copies of DC’s Legionnaires, they had a pretty multi ethnic cast. Of course after the reboot it went back to a pretty much all white cast.

  • xenokattz

    Second and third the Gargoyles rec. Most of the lead characters are PoC (or in the Gargoyles’ case, completely different species). The continuity is excellent, the characterisations complex and satisfying, and there are almost no straight forward bad guys. To top it all off, Shakespearean references abound.

    Dang, now I want to re-watched the series.