“Not racist” isn’t good enough (it isn’t even a thing)

A white person is explaining something and a black person is putting up their hand to stop them. "Not racist" isn't good enough. (It isn't even a thing)
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I’m taking a break from writing about the characteristics of white supremacy culture this week, and instead focusing on something a little lighter: white comic book fans saying that it’s not racist to complain about Black actors being cast in traditionally white roles.

I was just listening to a podcast by comics fans about one of the many superhero movies that came out in the last decade, but one of the FEW superhero movies that chose to cast a Black actor in a role that was traditionally depicted as white in the comics. The person who expressed their objection to this casting choice said that their objection was not racist, because they would be just as opposed to a white actor being cast as a character who was traditionally depicted as Black in the comics. The example they gave was that no one would be okay with casting a white actor as Luke Cage.

What this argument ignores is the fact that race (and therefore racism) plays a much more visible role in the daily lives of most people of color than it does in the lives of most white people. Now, I was never much of a comic book reader, but I love the movies and shows, and I absolutely loved Luke Cage on Netflix and was very disappointed when it was canceled after two seasons. So take this with a grain of salt, knowing that my knowledge of the character is limited, but season one of Luke Cage came out during the era of Black Lives Matter, and he was a Black man that was bulletproof. Do you need to know any more about the character to know that casting him as white would basically be re-writing the entire character? It would be like rewriting Superman as not being from another planet. So much of his story and personality are affected by this fact of his biography. What it would NOT be like is casting Superman as blond, which was the comparison made by the person in the podcast.

Now let’s look at the casting choice that the person on the podcast was complaining about: Laurence Fishburne (an amazing actor) as Perry White, the editor of The Daily Planet, in the film Man of Steel. Again, I’m not the comics fan that this person on the podcast was, so I’m sure there’s a non-zero amount of rich history behind the character of Perry White that has to change now that he’s Black, but I don’t know what that history is because the person defending Perry White’s whiteness didn’t mention any of it.

What made me want to write about this today was that it betrays an ignorance common to many white people about the significance of race and racism in people’s lives, and how that significance changes depending on whether a person is Black or white, or something else entirely, or a mix. In most cases in our popular cultural stories, changing a character from Black to white is going to involve much more erasure of story than changing a character from white to Black, simply because of the ways white culture thinks (and doesn’t think) about race.

And finally, I want to address the claim that the person in the podcast made that their objection was “not racist.” I believe that what he meant by this is that individual racial prejudice did not inform his objection to the casting of Laurence Fishburne as Perry White. That might be true, but individual race-based prejudice is a very uninteresting and unhelpful definition of racism.

Here are some definitions and quotes from chapter one of Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist:

•Racist (noun): one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction, or one who is expressing a racist idea

“A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.”

“A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society.”

•Antiracist (noun): one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions, or one who is expressing an antiracist idea

“An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.”

“An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.”

“Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas. Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.”

Using these definitions, we can label this specific objection to the casting of Laurence Fishburne as Perry White as a racist idea, simply because it presupposes an analysis (an idea) that Perry White’s whiteness is as significant to his character in his story as Luke Cage’s blackness is to his character in his story. This idea dismisses the impact of racism on Luke Cage’s biography, and if you erase racist history from a story without also erasing racial inequity from the story’s present day, you are opening the door for racist ideas of inferiority and superiority to explain that present-day racial inequity.

Now to one final point: it was understandable for the person on the podcast to deny any racist intention when expressing his opinion about the casting choice in Man of Steel. It was understandable because we as a culture have accepted a definition of “racist” that includes a negative moral judgment. Robin DiAngelo calls this the “good/bad binary” in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, which is another way of talking about either/or thinking, one of the core characteristics of white supremacy culture. What this means is that we believe that if we do or say something racist, we are bad people, but this is a flawed assumption. First, it assumes that bad people exist, which I don’t believe, but I know I’m not going to convince you of that today, so I won’t try. Second, it assumes that if someone does something harmful, that means they are a bad person. Now, I hope that I can convince you that this isn’t true. We have all done harmful things, and we all love people who have done harmful things, so I think we can all agree that doing something harmful doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you a person who has lived long enough to have an impact on the world.

The fact of the matter is that racist harm is committed every day by almost everyone in one way or another, often without our awareness. If that disturbs you, it should. If you want to change that, I’m right there with you. The first step to doing so is getting curious about our assumptions and definitions, and educating ourselves about the aspects of reality that our society has failed to shine a light on for us.

“Not racist” isn’t good enough. It isn’t even a thing.

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