Fandom, by and large, tends to be a white space. And people of colour (PoC) are, by and large, good at negotiating white space. We have to be. We speak the lingo and know the canon, and we do such a good job blending in online that we often … disappear.
I’ve done it. For a while it was a relief, because the anonymity of online interaction offered me a brief (albeit artificial) respite from the complications of my brown skin. But there’s a hollowness that comes when you start assuming that everybody around you is white, and then one day you’re astounded to find another Indian person in fandom and you realize that you’ve effectively erased not only the ethnicities of the people around you, but also your own.
I’m writing this to everybody like me; everybody who already knows what it is to never be the Default.
What I want to say is: don’t be afraid to make some noise. Don’t be afraid to point out that you’re not represented in comics or film or that the existing representations are racist, and don’t be afraid to speak up when somebody says something ignorant. I’m part of the so-called “model minority” (raised properly to speak only when spoken to) and it’s been hard for me to cause a ruckus, especially when it comes to pointing out the unthinking and often condescending privilege of white/mainstream feminism. That kind of uppity behaviour on the part of PoC is usually met with lectures about ‘tone’, or ‘politeness’, or how you’re being ‘divisive’ within feminism, or how you’re ignoring the oppression of people who identify as gay or have red hair.
I know it’s hard, and it’s frustrating, and there comes a point when you want to just throw up your hands and stop having to ‘teach race’ all the damn time. I reach that point with maddening frequency, and I am not even a full-time anti-racist feminist blogger or anything.
But the alternative is letting it slide for so long that we forget each other, we erase each other. I’m tired of being a visible minority in real life and an invisible one in fandom and online; I’m through with accepting the perception that I am never truly the Default.
Now, I can fully expect a comment telling me how words like “misogynist” and “homophobe” and “racist” hurt people’s feelings and activist fans are not looking at things through the point of view of the struggling creator. And no doubt some reviewers are unfairly cruel in their zeal to be an entertaining read.
But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
I’m thinking, specifically, of a way writers can refine their craft and avoid dustups over social issues at the same time–by placing themselves in the shoes of a person with the same background as a character they are trying to write. By not using a minority character as a mouthpiece for the agenda of the majority, but instead doing the research and presenting a reasonable minority perspective–even if it means you have to deal with unfortunate questions. By making fully rounded and self-deterministic female characters rather than easy sex appeal for a coveted and vastly underestimated demographic. By concentrating on making fully realized people who carry their own plotlines which sometimes involve dealing with prejudice or romance, but doesn’t lead to burying a character in a toychest until it’s time for a very special issue on tolerance.
It probably takes some research, and some mistakes, and some arguing — but this should be the ultimate goal. Characters who are more like people than like ink on paper. Someone relatable to the reader. And if people who have similar backgrounds to the character you’re writing are offended by what you have that character saying or doing, then you’re not writing a realistic character.
To celebrate Native American professionals working within the industry, Michael Sheyahshe (Caddo) sits down with comic book artist / illustrator, Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva / Gaelic / Scotish), who is gracious enough to share her story and experiences working in comics. To combat (at worst) stereotypes and (at best) poorly-created Indigenous characters, we Native Americans must tell our stories. Thus we showcase Indigenous people in the creative seat.
MS: What is your opinion about Indigenous characters in comics? Do you feel we portrayed properly?
WA: I feel like there are not a lot of Native characters or creators I am familiar with, in dealing with Native people in comics. But with anything that is associated with Native people, I think there’s still that stereotype in a lot of the work that does come out, and I think it’s partially to blame because history books and the American history curriculum treats Native people as either a mythical creature that is extinct…like unicorns or the Tasmanian tiger…or dives right into the auto response people now seem to have in regards to the casino bands of Native people, and the resentment that seems to accompany that.
It’s kinda ‘you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t,’ mentality. I find it a very interesting social response. When there’s so much more to the lives and history of Native peoples, and they choose to focus on the misrepresentations of hippie aesthetics or reservations or casinos. I mean, one thing that always amazes me is how the massacres of Native peoples is always sort of ignored and tiptoed around when it happened so recently…yet, the Holocaust is always talked about.
MS: Do you know of any other Natives in the “biz” (comic industry)?
WA: I have met one, he’s an editor. More often than not, the subject doesn’t come up, because I don’t look physically Native American straight off the bat. Usually the thing that starts that conversation is my name, and with almost all Native people I have met, it has started that way. I think if I had a common name, no one would suspect. Although I’ve been mistaken for Russian and Japanese before because of my name as well.