Black, Yellow, Brown, Or Normal

The title of this post comes from the image below, which I see floating around the internet from time to time. It might’ve been from one of Cracked’s PhotoShop contests, I really have no idea.

ornormal

The reason I’m bringing this to your attention is to underscore the fact that, by and large, “White” really does equal “normal,” at least in North America. You don’t really have to search hard to stumble across that fact, either. Think about how it works when you recount stories to other people-

Imagine you’re talking about this weird dude who sat down next to you on the subway. If he was White, would you bother mentioning that? How about if he was Black, or Asian, or Latino?

The terminology used in this gif aside, you probably never make reference to a White person’s ethnicity.

Here’s the thing, I do this all the time. To save you the time from clicking on my bio page, allow me to remind you that I am an Asian-Canadian; Filipino-Chinese, to be precise. Heck, I still went out of the way to refer to Thai people by their nationality when I lived in Thailand. I mean, honestly.

And this extends further, as most things do-

Brian Lee O’Malley vs. The Respectfully Asked,
Extremely Valid Question

Brian Lee O’Malley is a really great guy, and I say that because he created the Scott Pilgrim series of books, which you may know from that one movie which starred the perpetually awkward Michael Cera as the title character. Also because I met him once and he complimented me on the shirt I was wearing.

Earlier this summer he was asked the following question on his tumblr:

Q: This isn’t meant to be an insult or a rant or anything of the sort, but I was wondering why in scott pilgrim vs the world (which I loved a lot btw) there aren’t very many people of color? There was Matthew but not any or many others, unless I was very silly and I missed them. Is this because the setting? (it is my understanding that there aren’t as many people of color in canada as in the us) or you didn’t think of it? Im just curious and i hope I didn’t come off as rude! thanks!

Look, a Toronto street corner.

Before I get to presenting his answer, I want to personally address one of the asker’s questions. The Scott Pilgrim books take place in Toronto, and Toronto is full of people of colour. Wikipedia links to three sources that back up the fact that “Toronto is one of the world’s most diverse cities by percentage of non-native-born residents, with about 49% of the population born outside Canada.” As someone who lives there allow me to state that when walking down most streets you will see a pretty even mix of White and non-white people. 

And now on to most of his answer [I’ve cut out paragraphs here and there, and embedded the image that appears at the bottom of his own post] :

first: I think it sucks that Scott Pilgrim came out so white!!!!!!!!!!!

I am mixed (white + korean) and grew up being told that race didn’t matter — that race was kinda over. As with many things you’re told as a kid, it took me many years to realize that it wasn’t really true… It was kinda wishful thinking on the part of my parents, who were in a mixed relationship. I mean, I wish it was true, we all wish it was true, but it’s not true.

Baby O’Malley and his parents.

I did grow up in an extremely white environment. In northern ontario during the time I was growing up it was really just white people and Native / First Nations people. i moved to a bigger town in high school and i think my school had like 3 black kids and 4 asian kids or something. later in high school and in college I hung out with asian kids a lot, but White Canadian Culture was like 99% of everything around us.

so anyway, I guess what I’m saying is, what I knew in the first 20 years of my life was white people and a little bit of asian people and so that’s what I put in Scott Pilgrim. I had an unexamined non-attitude towards race and I didn’t think about it until years later.

Honestly, when i saw the Scott Pilgrim movie it was kind of appalling to see just how white it was — to not even really see myself represented on the screen… At least in the comic they were just cartoons. You can project yourself into a simple drawing of a person so easily; race seems to matter less (look at the global popularity of manga, where everyone is ostensibly Japanese).

I’ve sometimes joked that Scott Pilgrim is my fantasy of being a cute white indie rock boy (which, as an ostracized mixed-race weirdo, was something I occasionally wished for when I was younger). I guess I whitewashed myself out of my own story, and I got what I deserved.

It took him a few years to realize it, but race is important, and it’s not just that he has done well [see the character Knives Chau in the series] but that he can do better. O’Malley further cements my respect for him by mentioning that he explicitly chose to do his second book, Seconds, in colour because he wanted to be able to better portray the characters’ skin tones. What a guy. Furthermore, what a guy I can personally relate to.

More Personal Information Than You’re  Used To

This is how I feel looking back at most of my work.

I’ve already stated my ethnic background above, and I want to add to that the fact that I like to write more than just this blog every week. Going to as far back as middle school I’ve always been engaged in some form of creative writing, and thinking back the stark truth is that I imagined every single one of my characters as being White.

Granted, when I lived in both the Philippines and Thailand I primarily hung out with White friends, but that doesn’t excuse the years I spent in Canada when the majority of my friends were Chinese. I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by a myriad of different cultures and people groups and I still wrote, year after year, about White characters.

I could try to justify this, of course, by falling back on the words “write what you know,” but they ring false, my evidence for that being the sheer number of times I asked people in high school “What do White people eat?”

What I’m trying to say is that I’m just as in on this as many people are.

Okay, So We Know About Both You and O’Malley,
Why Does This All Matter?

The danger in thinking of White people as the norm is that the way we think affects the media we consume, and vice versa. There is a cultural expectation for characters to be White, and a surprising [to some] amount of backlash when those expectations are overthrown.

I’ve written about this before, but just look at one of the the reactions that fans of The Hunger Games had when they found out that the character Rue would be Black in the film:

rueisblack

Easily one of the less horrible tweets about this out there.

And here’s the thing, that assumption is in direct opposition to what is said in the books. In it she’s described as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” and having acknowledged this fans tweeted things like “I just pictured darker skin, didn’t really take it all the way to black.”

To hop over to another fandom, here’s a particularly shocking fact that you may not have known about the Harry Potter films. Lavender Brown appeared in both the second and third films portrayed by two different Black actresses in nonspeaking roles. However, once she began to take more of a centre stage [flirting with Ron in particular] she was replaced by a White actress.

lavender browns

From left to right: Kathleen Cauley [The Chamber of Secrets], Jennifer Smith [The Prisoner of Azkaban], Jessie Cave [The Half-Blood Prince, The Deathly Hallows Pt. 1The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2]

That is terrible. I want to say more about it, but I’ll just let it sink in.

It’s also why, in response to the newly announced film set in the Harry Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the Racebending tumblr has been pushing to have protagonist Newt Scamander be portrayed as a person of colour.

This is largely because the namesake of the film is a textbook in the series, and as such there’s very, very little known about the author and character.

Fandom site Hypable presented six actors who could play Newt. “The World’s #1 Harry Potter Site” MuggleNet suggested seven of their own [pictured below]. White, every one of them. “Less official” fancasts on IMDB are the same way. This is a fandom, an entire subculture of people, who has accepted White to be the norm, and this is the effect it’s had.

These people’s expectations are taken into account by film studios, and we know they seek to please the largest number of people. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that only ever puts White actors into lead roles, and you can’t even blame Hollywood, because it’s the audiences who called for it.

Enough About Fandoms, Why Does It Really Matter?

Well, I think that the ability of actors of colour to find work, especially in lead roles and in major franchises is pretty significant, but there are other reasons as well-

No self-esteem for you!

Representation in media can affect those who watch it a lot. Usually negatively. I say usually because last I checked White boys were a minority compared to the sheer number of children that aren’t White boys, and they’re the only ones getting a self-esteem boost from watching TV. If you’re a White girl or a Black child the opposite happens.

And here’s the thing: By next year White kids will be a minority in children under age 5. Overall White people will be a minority by 2043.

As this trend continues it becomes more and more incorrect with every passing year. Eventually people will continue to believe that White is the norm even as they are outnumbered by other racial groups, and that is ridiculous.

On some level there needs to be a difference in the way that we think. I’m not sure how exactly that needs to be accomplished, but from what I can recall admitting is always the first step. Once we acknowledge what it is that we’re doing we can then move forward in changing that, and it’s a change that is ultimately better for everyone.

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12 responses to “Black, Yellow, Brown, Or Normal

  1. Holy cow, Lavender Brown from Harry Potter… That’s way over the line.

  2. I guess the question that always comes to my mind is this: as an aspiring content creator, is it my obligation to hammer home a racially diverse cast in everything I do in order to combat this negative status quo? What happens if I try to give good representation and fail, accidentally doing something racist with a character because I don’t actually know things about other cultures?

    Is it still possible, in your opinion, to tell a good story that doesn’t address issues of race?

    • Of course it’s still possible to tell a good story that doesn’t address issues of race. It’s been done before countless times and it’ll continue happening, I’m sure.

      There are a number of ways of finding out whether or not you’re writing something racist, namely by asking a broad range of people what they think; the fear of failing is a not a good excuse to avoid attempting.

      It’s not your obligation to do anything as an aspiring content creator. You can do whatever you like, really.

  3. As a white man born and raised in BC I easily forget, or simply don’t realize how much the world, especially media is geared towards me. I am thankful for the reminder of where society had placed me as far as being privileged.

    I grew up most of my life as a child and teenager unaware of any special treatment or lack of mistreatment that came from being a white guy.

    This racial/colour issue runs so deep that there used to be a crayon depicting what all people’s skin should look like, it was called ‘flesh’ – now it’s called ‘peach’
    (http://www.crayola.com/about-us/crayon-chronology.aspx)

    I did nothing to deserve special treatment, I haven’t earned it nor did I fight for it…I was just born a white dude in upper middle class Canada. It was as beyond my control as is the life of a disabled coloured woman born into a poor family. It’s a strange thought that I don’t ruminate on often enough.

    So now what? I am who I am and I can’t change that. I can however appreciate these type of articles that allow me to think outside of the ‘norm’ that we all live in. I can try to remember as I deal with the majority of the people I encounter everyday that the world is tailored to put me on a pedestal that I don’t want to be on and that I don’t deserve.

    I will fumble and forget and will need reminders of where I am in society based on my gender, skin colour and socio-economic status. I need these reminders because they don’t exist for me in media…I only see others like me in media, the privileged few who did nothing to get everything.

    Thank you again for reminding me of these privileges I receive everyday and so easily take forgranted. Doing so is extremely dangerous because it could lead to thoughts that I deserve the special treatment and then…bam..I’m being racist and won’t even realize it because it just being ‘normal.’

    • Thank you so much for your comment. As a straight male I definitely have to remember how that alone works to my advantage in this world. Your thoughts about this whole issue are greatly appreciated.

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