The picture to the left is me. My father is a fair-skinned black man and my mother is an EXTREMELY fair-skinned white woman, which is why I look the way I do. Due to my mixed heritage, I have a very complicated relationship with my unbelievably curly hair. When it grows, it doesn’t get long, it gets big. And by big I mean huge. Like, routinely-loose-bobby-pins-in-it-I-am-not-kidding-that-actually-happens huge, which is why I wear it short. It’s also why I get extremely excited when I meet other girls, primarily mixed and black girls, with hair like mine. I feel like it gives us an instant connection to build on and, if they wear their hair long, I can’t help but admire their patience. I’ve struck up long engaging conversation with total strangers just with complements about their hair, questions about products, and thoughts on styles.
I form a similar connection with fictional characters and other images in media. I can be walking through a book store, browsing the internet, or flip through TV channels and I will stop when I see a woman with crazy-curly hair and verbalize my excitement.
“Wow, I love her hair.”
“Hey, she looks like me!”
It’s a very natural human response. Most of us feel a small internal spark when we realize we identify with others whether through interests, style of dress, hobbies, or for many minorities, something as simple as a shared skin tone. It looks like more and more creators are recognizing this connection and implementing it by including more people of color in their works. Personally, I couldn’t be happier.
Others, it seems, see this as a problem. It feels like every other day there’s some enraged white gamer, movie-goer, or TV-viewer who complains about “token minorities” or “pandering” simply because a character doesn’t look like them. Heck, minor characters that die can’t even be a minority without sparking some sort of outrage. Remember Rue from “The Hunger Games?” Yeah, those angry tweets were fun to read.
It’s not like white characters are dwindling that much in America. Regardless of genre or medium, most stories today still feature white main characters that live in primarily white cultures. There are still thousands of well-written white characters for people to share that spark with—a spark white people in this country have so much of that they don’t even realize it’s there until someone else gets the chance to experience it. Then they write the character or story off and don’t give it a chance. This is often followed by some notion that the story is unbelievable because it doesn’t line up with their preconceived notions about the minority group in question, resulting in the loss of an opportunity to learn something new about their fellow human beings.
One of my favorite fictional characters is Korra from Avatar: The Legend of Korra. She’s confident, brave, self-assured, strong, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind when she sees that something isn’t right—all traits I aspire to have (I also aspire to have her muscles, but I digress). Alongside Korra’s strengths, I also love her flaws. Many talents come naturally to her, so she quickly gets frustrated when she’s not good at something right away. Her desire to right wrongs sometimes leads her to act without thinking and she struggles to find her own identity in the face of other’s expectations and her own failures. These are all things I personally face from time to time, so it’s comforting and inspiring to see someone else overcome them, even if they are a fictional character with superpowers.
Like I mentioned before, I’m mixed and pass as white. In our world Korra would probably be considered Inuit, judging by the way her culture looks and operates in the show. We couldn’t look more different or come from more different cultures, but here’s the thing: our race doesn’t matter. Our joint experiences do. The differences between me and Korra only make me more interested in her. I love witnessing where she comes from, the culture that helped shape her, and the unique challenges it presents to her. Our differences provide me a chance to think a little differently and look at a new world with a sense of wonder. I also marvel at the fact that the creators of both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra managed to integrate East Asian philosophes into kids’ shows flawlessly but again, I digress.
Instead of looking at characters of color as a challenge or a threat, what if we looked at them as chances to show empathy towards people of color, who probably are happy to see more people like them in popular media, and a chance to learn about ourselves and the people around us? Or to learn about the society that has shaped the way we see each other? If people stopped making such vain and self-centered complains and focused on the stories in front of them, I think a lot of people would see that there aren’t as many differences between people as they thought, as cliché as that sounds. I also think people would realize that the differences between us are worth studying and understanding so that we can coexist better in this country. Again, cliché, but true.
So, if you routinely get upset when a character doesn’t look like you, stop. Take a breath. Let a person who does look like that character enjoy a connection you’ve probably enjoyed hundreds of times before. Then, give that character a chance. Let them teach you and take those lessons with you. Stories are some of the best lessons we have in regards to the human condition. Don’t waste such an opportunity.
If such things don’t bother you, call out people who complain. Question them. Make them think and reflect because, while stories are excellent lessons, sometimes we need teachers to get them across. I see no reason why it shouldn’t me and you.
Featured on tabbyafae.com on July 28, 2016