Why “black guy” isn’t enough: Understanding characterization imbalance in the creation of images of racialized people

I was hanging out in the waiting room at my dental office with the kids this afternoon. My 10-year-old was showing me his latest collection of comic characters (he’s taken his agenda, and turned the ‘month at a glance’ pages into comic frames – which is ingenious, really).

“This is happy, this is sad, this is middle, this is zoom out, this is zoom in, that’s Scott Pilgrim, there’s Ramona, oh, that’s a black guy, and there’s Lady GaGa, oh, and this is Knives Chau.”

“That’s a black guy?” Okay, on one hand, it’s pretty awesome that he’s seeing that people have physical differences, and acknowledges them in his illustrations. But… something is just not cool about it.

Teachable moment, anyone?

He didn’t identify any of his other characters by racial/ethnic identifiers. Many of them had names. Others were defined by emotional or personality characteristics. So I told him as much.

“The boy, you know I love your characters. I think we need to talk about this a bit, though. Did you notice that you didn’t call any of them “white guy?” And that Knives is Knives, and not “some Asian girl?” So how come the “black guy” doesn’t have a name, an identity, a personality?”

He paused, mulled it over, laughed a bit when I referred to Knives as “some Asian girl,” and I think he started to get it. “Okay, how about *this* black guy is Disguised Manhunter?”

Works for me.

This is a really talented kid, and I think he’s going to continue to work on his comic drawing skills over time. I love that he’s not seeing a whitewashed comic world in his head. I hope that he remembers our talk and that it leads to complex character development, more than one “black guy” and “Asian girl,” and that maybe sometimes his racialized characters play lead roles in his storylines.


1 Comment

  1. leesis said,

    September 28, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    loved your post. My sons now fourteen and seems to have entered concrete land whereby everyones been reduced to colors, sexes and either kids (annoying) adults (bad) and teens (sensible ones). And now ranger has been added. Crikey! I’m hoping all the ‘talks’ Ive had with him will come back as we pass through this back and white stage. 🙂

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