For a while I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the concept of systemic racism in America and where to begin addressing it. I mean, there are obvious things we could do about it. As I write this, two more black men have been shot and killed by police and there’s a frighteningly loud-mouthed orange man who wants to shut Muslim people out of America. The problem is we see large, catastrophic events occur without stopping to address the underlying issues which fuel them.
And by us, I mean the white people who have been complicit in fueling racism with our silence.
It’s really easy to fall into the trap of what we consider to be common sense. We see #BlackLivesMatter and counter with #AllLivesMatter, because to us, all lives should matter equally. We make sanctimonious declarations about how many Muslim or gay or black friends we have like we’re collecting achievements while not pausing to understand their struggle. The problem isn’t that all lives shouldn’t matter. It’s that, more often than not, theirs don’t.
As I said, though, merely acknowledging the problem exists isn’t good enough to usher in true, lasting change. We’ve been acknowledging the problem in much more evident, vocal tones ever since the shooting of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson, MO. It’s been a part of the black community from Reconstruction onward and in more modern-day terms, it remains the great failure of the post Civil Rights era, that we have found more insidious ways of undermining people of color. Historically, people of color have not only been shut out of white communities and denied advancement, they’ve also been either falsely represented or underrepresented in our art.
Much to my delight, that’s started to change in recent years. For example, there’s been a huge push by people like Marvel to include more diversity in their lineup of heroes. You have Miles Morales, who has filled Peter Parker’s shoes in Ultimate Spider-Man, and Kamala Khan, who became Ms. Marvel. Recently, the announcement has been made that Riri Williams, a brilliant, teenage woman of color, will take the mantle of Iron Man. We’ve seen more women, more LGBTQ people, and more people of varying races and religious creeds filling roles on television and in the movies that would once have gone to white people first. Of course, this has not gone on without a significant amount of backlash.
It begs the question of why, though. Some people argue that the attempt to include more diversity is contrived and it never fails that whenever I see the topic of representation in fiction arise in discussion groups, more than a few people have negative feedback to offer. Our own subtle and systemic racism bleeds through into the conversation, sometimes without us knowing it’s happening. To a lot of white people, it seems like the call for diversity in books, television, and cinema is groan-worthy affirmative action at best, and an outright attempt to push white people out of our culture at its most pernicious.
But it’s not. The one thing I’ve realized above all other things is how little we understand people whose cultures and beliefs differ from ours. A brief conversation with a Muslim man about Ramadan turned into a history lesson I’ve never been exposed to in a Western classroom, and I couldn’t help but to feel robbed of a richer understanding of what’s shaped the world. There are a lot of ways we could remedy that, but outside of textbooks and college courses, we have our art. Representation in art would go a long way into exposing us to other worldviews and immersing us in people whose lives we’re not able to experience otherwise.
And therein lies the path toward compassion. Towards breaking down the barriers which exist inside our own minds, preventing us from acknowledging people who differ from us as actual human beings. We’re so used to the human experience as we encounter it that we fail to see even the passive ways we undermine somebody with different colored skin. Or a different faith. We need so many other measures to stop the dehumanization of others, but representation is one of the most basic ways we can depict not merely the rich collection of cultures which exist, but understand how they fit into the kaleidoscope of our nation.
So, please do yourself a favor the next time you’re tempted to react with fear or disgust at the inclusion of other races or cultures or gender identities in the fiction you consume. Take a moment to see the benefits which come from representation. Chances are, if you’re reacting poorly to something like the concept of a black girl becoming Iron Man, you could stand to appreciate not merely the triumphs and trials of young Riri Williams, but the same celebrations and struggles people of color face every single day.
That’s my soapbox for today kids. Stop the hate and embrace compassion. And if you’re feeling adventurous, take this as a writing prompt. Read something and write something more diverse and challenge yourself to see the world through another set of eyes.