Black Characters and Non-Black Writers: An Imperfect Union
It is no secret that white people don’t identify with Black people. It still shocks me to realize that something as superficial as my skin color causes people to completely disconnect me from humanity. There have been multiple studies on white people’s inability to relate to Black people, characters, children, etc. Very often we are reduced to stereotypes and caricatures of what white people think Black people are like. Knowing these things, navigating the mainstream and popular comics world is challenging, which led me to look at independent comics.
Full disclosure – I’m fairly new to comics. I’ve read webcomics for years, but I’ve read very few books. While I admit I wasn’t particularly diligent, I never really found anything that captured my interest. Over time, I’ve had to learn a lot about myself and what I look for in my comics, because they are so much more than just the writing. It’s the imagery, the color palate, the flow of the story across panels and pages. It’s also the sense of completeness I feel when reading – I’ve learned that I prefer trades over single issues because I need more content at one time for the story to click.
I also like my characters to be Black women who kick ass because that’s who I am in my wildest dreams. Needless to say, Kamikaze hit all the sweet spots. The protagonist, Markesha, looked amazing and I wanted to know more about her. I followed the comic on Taptastic and contributed to last year’s Kickstarter, feeling confident about the project.
Then my expectations changed. For a long time, I was happy with just seeing Black characters, but after seeing, reading, and thinking about many of the issues in the entertainment industry, I realized my bar was set too low. I needed Black creators, too. This shift in my thinking made content like Kamakaze problematic for me. Despite liking the story, we have a Black protagonist written and illustrated by a white woman, a white man, and a Non-Black Person of Color (NBPOC). After one of the most openly racist years in my lifetime, I learned that regardless of how open-minded and progressive people think they are, they benefit from and enact racist things all the time. It’s impossible not to because that is how American society was designed. So, I scheduled an interview to ask them about the character, their approach to their own internalized racism, and how they tried to compensate for it.
The team, who consists of Carrie & Alan Tupper and Havana Nguyen were amazingly receptive. And we discussed many of the issues surrounding representation, inclusion, using loaded language intentionally, whether it’s appropriate for them to write a Black character if their decision was motivated by money, do they use sensitivity readers, and etc.
I’m going, to be honest. I wasn’t satisfied with some of their answers. The conversation around inclusion and representation has become very nuanced, especially when talking about systemic mechanisms that push white creators of Black characters to the forefront while thousands of Black comic creators and writers are ignored and sidelined. In a time where we see numerous Black comic characters being written and illustrated by Black creators get discontinued and where the most prominent Black characters are penned by white people, it’s hard for me to co-sign on the continuation of this practice.
But I like the story. I like the creators. And I like that they are trying to do a good job and are willing to take the hits when they mess up. I also like that they accept that they are going to mess up.
We live in a complicated space with challenging and shifting dynamics. I’m aware that my enjoyment of the comic and its creators causes me to soften my stance a bit. In a world where white people refuse to try, it makes those who do try feel like winning. It’s not. Not yet. But at least the bar has moved. It’s not enough. It’s never going to be enough. Our system, country, belief structure, government, leadership, and pretty much everything is screwed up and without a complete demolition and rebuilding of what is, it’s going to stay that way.
But I can work with white people who own their ignorance, initiate and embrace learning, and are open to criticism. I can get down with folks who listen and shift when they need to shift. It’s not perfect. It’s never going to be perfect, but for right now, until we have other, better alternatives, it will have to do.
Plus, I’m really enjoying the story.
The Kamikaze team is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to print volume 2 of Kamikaze. It’s 80% funded and only needs a little more to hit their goal. There are only a few days left, so check it out, and kick in if you can. In a sea of white and NBPOC writers who think they can do no wrong, it’s refreshing to have some willing to admit their mistakes and do better.