Once upon a time, there was a little girl in an all-pink bedroom who spent her Saturday mornings watching cartoons and eating multicolored cereal. One morning in particular was interrupted by an epic guitar riff and a battle for equality between humans and mutants. She was awestruck by the program, but what made her heart skip a beat was the appearance of a woman known as Storm: Mistress of the Elements. Up until that point, the girl hadn’t seen such a heroic woman of color in her animated television. In fact, up until that point, she hadn’t seen any women of color standing with the heroes.
Up until that point, she had thought that the heroes in her Saturday-morning geekdom could only be white, and it would take over two decades for her to highlight women of color in her own work.
I’ve told this story before in a different context, but I feel it’s important to reflect back on it as I jump down the rabbit hole with last month’s release of Ghost in the Shell. There was an amazing video by Chewy May and Jes Tom that went around, which talked about the importance of representation as it relates to the release of this movie. The message definitely hits home, and it brought me back to that pink bedroom I grew up in. I remembered the pure joy I felt when I met Storm, and which is a feeling that many geeky people of color (POC) have felt when they’ve finally seen themselves in these fantastical stories. Of course, that didn’t stop the numerous defenses for the casting of white actress Scarlett Johansson as the protagonist of the Japanese-created Ghost in the Shell, and while I won’t sit here and rehash what’s already been said about that, there’s a point of view I want to address: that of the creators, particularly POC creators.
There’s something I’ve noticed with the release of this film and other forms of media that lack representation, and that is the use of people of color to defend it. I’ve talked about “the magical one” before, that one POC who has no problem with the constant missed opportunities to be more inclusive with our media. But this takes on a whole new meaning when it’s a POC creator. To us, they’re the ones who have the power to make the final call on whether or not that big-screen adaptation we’ve been aching for stars a POC or yet another white person. Ten times out of ten, people immediately point at them when they’re trying to defend a casting choice we complain about, as was the case with Ghost in the Shell. “See? The creator is fine with it.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if numerous POC have an issue with it because the creator has spoken—praise him or her, right?
Here’s the truth of the matter: I’m not at all surprised when a POC creator, director, writer, or anyone in between says they’re fine with a white person being the headliner of their work. I’m not speaking here as a viewer of media; I’m speaking as a creator who, once upon a time, assumed that white was the default and put it front and center in her works. It may seem strange that a queer woman of color like me ever felt this way, but there are several reasons why I did, and why some creators echo my past sentiments.
We Write What We Know
As I said, Storm is the first clear memory I have of seeing a woman of color in my geek media. Years later, things have changed . . . a little bit. Yes, there are several examples of women of color who can fly around and use extraordinary powers, but when you compare it to the amount of heroes that exist overall in the media, it’s still a shockingly small number. Now, you may think that’s a good time to tell us to go out there and create our own heroes, but we’re already out there doing exactly that. Us creating something doesn’t mean that mainstream media is presenting it evenly to other potential creators out there, so they fall into the same trap I fell into: expecting white to be the default and, furthermore, the norm.
Beyond that, as a queer woman of color, there’s a certain kind of story that people expect me to tell. I received the message that I was supposed to stick with the “angry black woman” and “tragic queer character” story lines already laid out for me—that or remain in the “best friend” sideline role with witty lines for the straight, white heroes of the story. And you know what? I wholeheartedly believed it. Despite the joyous feelings my child self felt about Storm, that was only one example out of an overwhelming number of white, straight leads, so that’s exactly what I wrote about in my first published work, complete with black side characters. As a POC creator, I put white front and center because I wrote for genres that rarely featured me as a focal point. This isn’t exclusive to large genres like urban fantasy; I did the same thing in my first full-length gay romance novel, because queer media is predominantly white, too. I saw what the covers looked like. I saw who the heroes of those stories were. I thought I had to fit in in order to get anywhere, so to me, white was the default—even if I personally wanted more representation. And in a way, I thought I did have representation. After all, people of color did exist in my earlier works, they just weren’t front and center. That was enough, right? That’s what everyone else did.
The Backlash We See
Boy, oh boy, the backlash against diversity can be enough to scare any POC creator from giving the starring role to someone who looks like them. Why in the world would I want to have a black female lead after I watched Leslie Jones get annihilated on Twitter over getting cast in Ghostbusters? Yes, the entire cast got harassed, but only one of them was torn apart so much that she left social media. Same with John Boyega as Finn. Same with Amandla Stenberg as Rue. Same with the numerous other POC who have dealt with hatred for the color of their skin. So when a POC creator decides to follow the path of least resistance with a white main character to avoid the barrage of “monkey” comments, n-word bombs, and the always popular “I love the work—I just don’t see so-and-so as black,” I’m not at all surprised. You may be tempted to point at the recent backlash for works like Ghost in the Shell or even Iron Fist as proof that people support protagonists of color, but there’s a difference between questioning a lack of representation and a woman having her social media account hacked because she dared to star in a movie with three white women rebooting a franchise.
There’s also the backlash from the corporate side. It’s a bit more subtle, as most companies won’t flat-out state that diversity isn’t marketable—usually—but it is something that I feel as a creator. When it comes to what makes money, not only is white seen as the default, it’s seen as the marketable default. There are many creators, myself included, who are pushing for representation, but we’re being overlooked in favor of stories that we’re told are more marketable and, worst of all, more relatable. Sure, we have people around us who encourage us, but it’s hard to keep at it when you’re told your work is only a passion project and will never make enough to support you unless you put a white face on the cover. Case in point: The Great Wall. Yes, it had a nonwhite creator, and yes, that creator put a white actor as the lead. But before you use that as an excuse, stop and ask one simple question: “Why did the creator feel that he needed a white lead to reach a worldwide audience?” When you’re told that your work won’t relate to the audience unless you follow a certain structure, or you constantly see that this structure works, sometimes you decide to follow that structure. I don’t blame the creator; I blame the ones who constantly support that structure and keep it in place.
The fact that the other women of Ghostbusters said nothing to defend their costar is something that still stays with me. The backlash itself was disgusting, but the silence from the three white female leads was what really frightened me—and still does. There are people who say they’re all for diversity . . . but are they really? Or are they only here for certain kinds of diversity? This is the thought in the back of my mind whenever I see someone defending a work that lacks the diversity that said person claims to want. There are far too many times when people have labeled us as “unappreciative” if we dared question the representation in a work. There’s this very real feeling of having to settle for whatever we get in favor of sparing the feelings of the majority, and while there is encouragement for us to speak up, the lack of support for Leslie Jones is a prime example of why some of us decide not to. We don’t want to do this alone, so we sacrifice our feelings in favor of keeping the majority happy and making sure we still have fans to come back to.
Many POC creators who decide to step away from what is deemed as “the default” do so knowing the kind of reception they will face. The hateful comments are terrible to deal with, but many of us are able to push through because of the encouragement we receive. Furthermore, we’re able to push through when we see others demanding diversity and better representation. But there’s a special kind of curdled feeling that hits the pit of your stomach when the support you thought you had makes itself scarce at the most inopportune times. There is a cry for more diversity, but when we see people supporting problematic works and, even worse, using other people of color to defend their decision, it hurts. When we hear the supportive voices go quiet when one of us is being harassed to the point of wanting to give up, it hurts. It sticks with us, and it makes us want to fall back into the “white is the default” formula. It’s safer, and in some cases, enough people support it regardless of how problematic it can be
From a creator standpoint, when you’re faced with all of these things, it’s really easy to just throw your hands in the air and give the people what they apparently want. This is extra frustrating for a creator who is used to not seeing themselves represented in the media. As a queer woman of color, I’ve become accustomed to people having an issue with my existence in the real world, so having the opportunity to create my own stories where I’m not only visible, but respected, is wonderful—until I decide to present it to a mass audience and the fear in the back of my mind kicks into overdrive. Many writers will tell you that putting their work out there is like having their heart, mind, and soul on display to the entire world, so imagine your work being bashed not because of the story, but because the lead face isn’t “the norm.” A lead face that is similar to your own, underrepresented face. Imagine being told that you need to alter your work to reach a wide audience, not because of the plot but because the characters who look like you look too “different.”
Even worse, imagine feeling like you have to make these changes before anyone has even told you to because you’ve seen such a lack of diversity that you assume it’s what’s supposed to be done. You’ve been made to feel that you have to put white front and center if you’re going to reach a wide audience, as though nonwhite characters were some niche market that can’t appeal to the general public. You’ve seen so many excuses defending white leads in works that could’ve—should’ve—been led by people of color that you’ve decided to just go along with it. And now you’ve become that POC, that example people use to continue the cycle, a cycle that people look to you to break (“If you want more diversity, create it yourself!”) while simultaneously telling you to stop “making it about race.”
While there are many people calling for more representation, the fact remains that these detractors are enough to make POC creators not even bother. So instead of pointing to them in a “They’re okay with white being the default” gesture, please take a moment to realize how they reached that point. In a geeky world where white is presented as the go-to race for well-developed, fun lead characters, it’s no surprise that some POC follow suit in their creations, say that they’re fine with the way things are, and even belittle other POC for speaking out about misrepresentation. The same can be said for any underrepresented group—unless, of course, you decide to stick to the roles that group is often seen in.
So don’t point the finger at POC creators in an attempt to justify where we are today, and don’t just tell us to go out and create groundbreaking new characters as if that’s the end-all, be-all solution to the problem. Because until we’re convinced that white isn’t the default, we’re just as susceptible to it as you.