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The Racism That Dares Not Speak Its Name
Recently, a franchise I really love (which I will not name because the phenomenon I am about to discuss is happening in every franchise) committed a “race swap”. The writers found a relatively obscure character from the 1970s who had a cult following within the fandom but was not well developed. The character, having had only one episode of animated television, was recreated as a live-action version in the most recent flagship show. Fine and dandy; some of us had been wanting to see that particular character in live action for years.
Except that the animated character was a white man, and the live-action character was black. Instead of choosing an already established character from the franchise canon, a black guest star who rivaled the white lead in charisma, bravery, and sheer presence, the franchise ignored that character in favor of race-swapping a white character for a black one.
This is not the first time a popular franchise acted according to the prevailing postmodern Neo-Marxist narrative. Only a few years ago, the franchise inserted a never before heard-of, “strong” black female character into the most popular family in the franchise. The prequel nature of the television show allowed the writers to retcon that character to be the reason that family and those characters were so successful and endearing. The show retconned the father figure in that franchise to be the “bad good guy” and the strong black female character to be the magnanimous, wounded poster child for the father figure’s guilt, shame, and regret.
But what’s the big deal? Doesn’t our culture need to “uplift black voices” and include more “diverse” characters? I don’t think anyone would disagree that we do. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it.
There has been a great deal of contentious discourse around the practice of race-swapping. I argue (and my best friend counter-argues, because that’s what best friends are for) that race-swapping in television and movies is a manipulative and subtle form of racism. It is predicated upon the assumption that an original black character, who is a well-written, well-acted, deeply layered, and complex character, cannot succeed independently. In order to ensure the success of the black character, the writers have to replace a white character and take over that character’s legacy. Or the writers clumsily shoe-horn a black character into an already established character’s past. The black character is not allowed to stand or fall upon their own merit; they must be given an advantage of connection to an already established white character. This is a paternalistic “white savior” mentality at its finest. But that’s only the beginning.
Race-switching creates a lot of controversy around a character. The firestorm that ensues is “free advertising” for the franchise because in our outrage culture, controversy sells subscriptions. This comes across as an incredibly manipulative way to get views. Not only that, but it is insulting to the black actors who are being recognized for their diversity and not for their ability to act, emote, and enchant viewers with their own unique talents.
Finally, the discourse around the controversy turns into a childish game of competitive piety, who can be the most anti-racist. If you so much as whisper that you disagree with the race-swap or even hint that the original character had committed the unpardonable sin of whiteness, you are howled down. And this is damaging because it shuts down discourse. The only way we are going to combat true racism, not imaginary, is by open discourse.
Perhaps the practice of race-swapping is well-meaning. Perhaps it is motivated by white guilt. But be that as it may, it isn’t helping the black community in any substantive way. To pretend that the rich and diverse cultures of the black community are interchangeable with the white community ignores the centuries of myth, folklore, legend, and hero’s journeys the black community could bring to entertainment. And that is an incalculable loss.
But the most important argument is that many black voices are pleading with white writers and showrunners to stop the practice of race-swapping because they feel infantilized, insulted, and, yes, “marginalized” by the practice. By refusing to listen to the black voices pleading with white people to stop this practice and let them be their own beautiful, rich, layered, complex characters, without white paternalism trying to give them a leg up, we are silencing the very voices we are trying to uplift. By drowning out heterodox black voices with our endless self-congratulation about how anti-racist we are, we have become what we hate, and we don’t even realize it.
“With love and gratitude to Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Africa Brooke, and Amala Ekpunobi, for showing me the way.”
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