Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Who Are The Real Racists?

First, the good news: we are theoretically acquiring broadband for the flat on Thursday. The last half-decade of dealing with Virgin makes me somewhat reluctant to put too much faith in that possibility, but it is at least conceivable that this black-out is near an end.

The bad news is that I am still four days from escaping the two busiest weeks of the year for me: two conferences which this time round have been placed back to back (indeed, the only reason I was able to spend a post talking about Durham beer is that the brewery tour that inspired it was put on by the conference organisers).

I'm spending some of the less interesting/useful talks thinking about the structure for my next X-Men article, which is centered around Joseph. As I began thinking about the nature vs nurture conflict that he represents (at least in part), I was reminded of this Matthew Johnson post about the problem with assuming the central metaphor for the X-Men is racism and/or homophobia:
if superhuman mutants really existed society would have a legitimate reason to fear or at least be wary of them, something that has never been true of any oppressed minority...

But if the metaphor that’s supposed to be at the heart of the series doesn’t work, why has the comic been so successful? Because the X-Men don’t represent oppressed minorities, they represent oppressed teenagers. (This may also explain why comic books about characters who are actually part of oppressed minorities generally fail to sell.) Nobody feels more persecuted than teenagers, especially the nerdy, white, middle-class teenagers who have traditionally been the main audience for comics.
I'm not sure I'd necessarily agree that middle-class white nerds/geeks like myself feel particularly persecuted as teenagers, or whether the persecution simply takes different forms and stems from different sources, but that aside I think Johnson is entirely correct as to the true reason the books sell. I'd hazard a guess that 99% of teenagers at least either want to fit in, or want to fit in with the group that doesn't fit in (let's call that latter truth the "Goth Paradox").

On the other hand, the fact that people are drawn to aspect A of a given story does not mean aspect B is not the intended heart of it. Studio 60... was never explicitly about how certain careers demand so much of your time that your co-workers ultimately become both friends and family, but having spent two years basically burning myself up in teaching, that was one of the things I loved most about it (see also Scrubs). That doesn't mean that must have been what Sorkin was pushing for (though if you do know what Sorkin was pushing for, please let me know).

I'm also not unsympathetic to Johnson's case that airport security makes clear that the case for the Mutant Registration Act genuinely exists independently of bigotry. I'd point out power-dampening equipment exists in the Marvel Universe, and I'd be rather more happy with the idea of attaching those to airplanes than demanding all mutants be registered, but I can see that leading to problems as well as more and more people start placing dampeners in more and more places and end up segregating mutants by default.

However, the critical mistake Johnson makes - and it's entirely understandable - is in comparing individual mutants to individual members of a minority. This, of course, is because a single homo superior has more power than a lone homo sapien. But does one mutant have more power than, say, the ACLU? Or HUD? Or ACORN could claim, once upon a time? Hell, some of the lamer mutants have less power than Park51 will, if it ever gets built.

Or, as a more direct comparison: does Magneto have more power than Barack Obama?

Racists in contemporary America don't hurl abuse at black people directly - at least, they don't in public. Instead, they attempt to whip up hysteria over groups that are either run by black people, created to help black people, or provide a service they think black people will disproportionately benefit from. The number of people who last year were convinced ACORN was planning voter fraud widespread enough to steal elections was truly frightening - to say nothing of how Congress took the unprecedented step of voting to deny all future funding to ACORN without a Congressional investigation, something they weren't even prepared to do with the guys who were locking up rape victims in shipping containers. Just two months ago we were inundated by terrified screams that the New Black Panther Party was coming to beat you up if you don't vote their way, and that the Obama Administration was covering their asses.

The racist dog-whistles of the 21st Century are all about pretending one's concern is over disproportionate or unequally applied power, and somehow it's always black people who are either wielding that power, or they're benefiting from it. "Attacking HUD is code for attacking blacks", as Deborah O'Leary opined in "Celestial Navigation".

It's still, I admit, not a perfect metaphor - the people running scared of the ACLU misunderstand both intent and power level, which is not so true of anti-mutant fear. I just wanted to point out that concerns over levels of power is not something that differentiates the Marvel Universe's fictional bigots from the ones we suffer right here.

1 comment:

Gooder said...

..the router has arrived and everything