Creating Responsibly: Comics Has A Race Problem
Comics — you have a race problem.
Deny it if you want, but after last week’s Strange Fruit controversy (which Boom Studios has yet to address), this week’s discussion about Marvel’s appropriation of hip hop and black culture (which Tom Brevoort addressed first badly, then wrongly) and a general pattern of racial diversity promised in press releases but rarely actually seen in the creative process… the writing is on the wall.
In these last two weeks, I’ve seen discussions about who-can-write-what and who-can-do-what explode onto social media. Many feel it is unjust for white creators to be told they shouldn’t write stories specifically about racism, or for publishers to be told they shouldn’t borrow from black people. After all, how is it fair that I, a black person, get to do x, y, and z, when a white creator only gets to do x and y? And aren’t I stifling creativity by telling them what they can or can’t write when they probably have a great story to tell?
I want to give a metaphor here, one that is not completely perfect, but one that I think will illustrate the point clearly enough that perhaps people will start to get it.
There is a phrase that appears on almost all advertising for alcoholic products in the Western world. It’s a phrase that you have probably seen before but didn’t pay much attention to. The phrase is: “Please drink responsibly.”
Now, when you decide to go out, have a night with your friends, and you opt to get drunk to an unsafe degree — that is your prerogative. No one from the government is going to slap the drink out of your hands. Your friends or others might suggest that you stop, but ultimately, no one can take away your ability to choose to drink.
The same applies in this situation. My response to all the thinkpieces, all the forum arguments, all the disappointed and angry tweets is this; please create responsibly. No one can stop you from creating what you want to create, but we can ask you to do so conscientiously.
In the case of these hip hop variants, Marvel was not being conscientious of their approach to blackness — specifically, not being conscientious of the fact that they are happy to use the products of black culture to sell their comics but not let black people have a part in the creative process. It’s is their prerogative to make those choices, but it is also my prerogative to openly challenge them.
In the context of our metaphor, consider that responsible use of alcohol is different for different people based on their backgrounds and pre-determined characteristics. I’m a sad, sad lightweight, so after about one and a half margaritas, I am not to be trusted (and might even be sick). Most of my best friends, however, can drink grown men under the table, so “drinking responsibly” is different for them than for me.
Now, I can obviously choose to drink my way into an emergency room because it’s annoyingly unfair that they can have more than me, but the fact still stands that it would not be a very responsible thing to do.
Of course, this metaphor clearly fails on some scores for this discussion — for example, everyone has a different definition of what it is to "drink responsibly." Does drink responsibly mean don’t drink such that you get sick, don’t drink such that you don’t black out, or don’t drink such that you don’t hurt someone else? Carrying those questions forward to our original discussion — why do black people get to decide what it means to create responsibly in regards to anti-black racism?
And the answer is: because it’s black people who pay the ultimate price.
In terms of Strange Fruit and similar works, it’s black people who suffer when white readers think that racism is only enacted a certain way. Those same white readers, after a lifetime of textbooks and films and shows that insist that racism is using the N-word and calling me “colored,” will leave their homes, go to their jobs, and think the reason they decided not to offer their black employee a raise was his perceived aggression in the workplace.
Or, say, when a certain comic book company doesn’t want black people in their offices but is fine with using black culture to sell products.
When you choose not to create responsibly and get behind the wheel anyway, it’s marginalized people you inevitably mow down — even if you didn’t mean to, and even if you thought no one was around and it was just the short drive to your house down the street.
Creating responsibly means looking at how your work may impact people with less structural power than you, looking at whether it reifies larger societal problems in its narrative contents or just by existing at all.
So, here’s the last iteration of the metaphor: sometimes drinking responsibly means abstaining.
Alcoholics are deemed alcoholics for life — rather than just the period in which they are enacting unsafe behavior — because, due to circumstances outside of their executive control, they are unable to judge when their drinking is no longer safe. As a result, the majority of recovering alcoholics elect not to drink. They recognize that they have a serious blind spot when it comes to their judgments about alcohol, so they decide not to partake in order to prevent unintended consequences for themselves and for others.
Because sometimes, it’s better just to… not.
This metaphor isn’t meant to suggest that white creators are addicted to writing about these issues, and it is especially not meant to imply that these creators don’t have control, in the way that alcoholics — who have an illness — do not. Consider it this way: there are people who, every day, recognize that there is an area in which their judgment/thoughts/opinions cannot be trusted and so act accordingly. They see that blind spot and hopefully trust others to remind them it exists.
It is my request that white creators, executives, human resources officials, PR staff, editors, and readers alike think about these blind spots, to consider that racism might not be what they thought it is — especially in the face of the realization that their knowledge of race relations and racism in general has largely been drawn from other white people, rather than those affected.
So please. Create responsibly. Create conscientiously. And ask yourself if it’s worth “just having a drink” in the first place.