Racebending vs. Whitewashing Characters in Comics: Which Does The Most Damage?

NPR’s Gene Demby wrote a blog piece, “Who Gets To Be  A Superhero? Race & Identity In Comics.” The article explores the artwork of Orion Martin, who reimagined comic book characters through racebending.

Racebending is a concept that takes white characters and makes them characters of color instead. Due to the underrepresentation for people of color in media, racebending is a popular tool in creating more diversity in films, television, comic books, and other types of medias.

An edited image from the series X-Men of Color. Copyright Orion Martin.

An edited image from the series X-Men of Color. Copyright Orion Martin.

Martin specifically focused on the X-Men series, as the two main characters, Professor X and Magneto, are metaphors for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively. In fact, Stan Lee said in the past,

…it occurred to me that instead of them just being heroes that everybody admired, what if I made other people fear and suspect and actually hate them because they were different? I loved that idea; it not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time.

So, why are many leading characters in comic books, not just the Marvel Universe, depicted as white? Even further, why are new adaptations in film and television still cast only white leads or whitewash characters of color?

Left: DC Comics' character Ra's al Ghul is of Middle Eastern descent. Right: Liam Neeson, a white British actor, portrayed the character in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins

Left: DC Comics’ character Ra’s al Ghul is of Middle Eastern descent. Right: Liam Neeson, a white British actor, portrayed the character in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005)

Arguments made are that altering a fictional character’s race & identity would be too confusing, or not accurate to the stories. However, if you take a character of color and make them white, apparently that’s fine, too.

Personally, I believe by not diversifying a story—whether it’s by race, sexual orientation or gender—storytellers find themselves in a closed corner. I mean, have people forgotten 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness? White, British actor Benedict Cumberbatch played the character of Khan Singh. Khan Singh, a character with Indian origins in the original series who was portrayed by a Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán. Back in the 1960s, getting a character of color to be portrayed by a person of color was a beautiful, rare occurrence. But here we are in the 21st century, whitewashing an intelligent, threatening character so Sherlock Holmes can play Singh instead.

So, does racebending ruin a good story? Or is it more harmful to allow media take the experiences of minorities in Western history and let whitewashed characters use those experiences for their own personal, tragic backstory like a plot device, further eroding the severity to which people of color struggled and suffered at the hands of racism? Hmm….

Jennifer Babu

Jennifer Babu is the editor-in-chief of Videshi Magazine. She's a film & TV addict, and suffers from sleep deprivation (self-inflicted). Follow her on twitter @jenibabu.

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