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The Racial Politics of Riverdale: Why an Interracial Kiss Is Still a Big Deal

Looking through Previews this month, we spotted the solicitation for “Archie” #608, where everyone’s favorite teen is on the cover kissing Valerie Brown from “Josie and the Pussycats,” and while that might seem pretty tame to anyone who doesn’t spend a great deal of time obsessing over Riverdale and its residents…

…this is actually a pretty big deal.How big? Well, in an essay on his website, comics writer Dwayne McDuffie relates a story of an irate reaction by the Archie editors at a story of interracial dating in “Betty and Me” back in 1992. According to McDuffie, writer Matt Wayne wanted to add some tension to the series by starting another love triangle, this time with Betty as the focus, being fought over by Archie and a new character, Dexter. Archie and Dexter would become friendly rivals in the same way that Betty and Veronica were, with the added benefit that the stories would actually be about Betty.

The problem? Dexter was black. And as McDuffie relates…

Darryl called Matt with the bad news. [The editor] had literally thrown the issue at him. He hated the stuff, wanting to know why Dexter was so much more accomplished than Archie, “What is he, super-Negro?” (at least, “Negro” is what everyone who told me this story reported him as saying. I have a sneaking suspicion that they were trying to save my feelings). Darryl was very upset and told off his boss, but to no avail. He was ordered to change the story in the cheapest way possible: Dexter was to be re-colored white.

And that’s not the last time it happened, either. As recently as 2008 — 2008! — a “Dating Game” style story-arc in “Betty and Veronica Double Digest” saw Cheryl Blossom hooked up with new characters, with readers voting on which one she should stick with. One of the potential love interests, Brandon, a character that was clearly black in the solicitations, show up with a much lighter skin tone in the actual issues:

The common thread here, of course, is that they were both black characters built as love interests for white girls.

To their credit, Archie has ramped up their efforts at adding a little diversity to the formerly gentrified Riverdale, especially recently. The last few years have seen the introduction of characters like Raj Patel, Kimiko, Tomoko, and even more featured roles for older characters like Ginger Lopez and starring roles for the core cast’s original black character, Chuck Clayton:

Are these characters one-dimensional? Well, yes, but they’re one-dimensional in the way that all Archie characters are, like Raj, who is frequently described as — wait for it — “out-Raj-eous.” He’s defined by one thing — in this case, his aspirations as an amateur filmmaker — but no more than Archie, who’s defined by being a girl-crazy klutz. It’s a reduction of a character to one note, but it’s a rare case of that one note being completely unrelated to their race.

Of course, our favorite subtle example of racial aspects of Riverdale comes in a story where Archie, deciding he wants to learn more about manga, just automatically assumes that his Japanese-American classmate Tomoko will have the answers, only to find out that she and her parents are Riverdale natives, her family having emigrated three generations back, and Tomoko could not be less into comics. It’s a small part of the story, but it’s a subtle way for Archie to learn a lesson about how making even “good-natured” assumptions about people based on race is not a great way to go.

Then again, any illusions of progress were shattered by the fact that the Tomoko story hit shelves before Brandon’s whitewashing.

This, however, is a different matter. Yes, it’s Archie kissing Valerie, which certainly plays into fears of miscegenation far less than having a black boy with a white girl, but the fact remains that they’ve put it on the cover. And unlike Brandon and Dexter, two new characters that readers weren’t familiar with, Val’s the longest-running black character the company has, making her first appearance way back in 1969. In selling the issue with that image, they’ve essentially locked themselves out of a change, short of something drastic that would involve re-lettering the whole story to make it about Melody, which at this point would be pretty noticeable.

So does it make up for Brandon and Dexter? No. But it is a step in the right direction, and we’re glad to see that there’s progress, even if — like everything else in Riverdale — it’s moving a heck of a lot slower than everywhere else.

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