Arguably more than any other community depicted within comics, characters of color struggle most with the issue of balancing between isolation and exploitation. While the female and LGBT communities fight for proper acknowledgement, no other group has had their hand forced like people of color. The sheer quantity and frequency with which racial stereotypes were used in comics made it virtually impossible for creators to shift the paradigm to a celebration of diversity; instead, they had to rely on a white washing of all characters of color in hopes of developing the narrative that “we are all equal” and—to a lesser extent—all the same.
As a result of this problematic, but well-intentioned, goal, the angry rebellious black man, mysterious Asian, fiery Latino, and silent Native American were not replaced by positive diverse predictions, rather, they were exchanged for palate-swaps of their white counterpart. This historical white washing came in the form drawing every character, regardless of their document ethnicity, with European features—thin lips, light brown eyes, broad nose, and fine hair texture. Additionally, the visible argument for assimilation was proliferated by often surrounding characters of color with white teammates. Whether it is Mr. Terrific being the only black member of the Justice Society of America, Kato being tethered to The Green Hornet, or The Black Panther teaming up exclusively with the Fantastic Four, the agency of superheroes of color was legitimized only by their close association with white teammates.
Fortunately, over the years, creators have abandoned this strategy for the more progressive practice of giving characters of color prominent leadership positions on superhero teams, or giving them their own comic series. But as depictions transition from offensive and/or minimalist to relevant and respectable, the question turns to one of priority. That is to say, should a character’s ethnicity be an integral part of their being? Is it possible, responsible, productive, or right to make no references to an Asian or Latino character’s culture? Historically, characters of color and their development were associated primarily with their race. Some heroes acknowledge their ethnicity in their code name while others remind readers of their race and culture through catch phrases and vernacular (Eh-neek-chock!), and regardless of the intention of the creators, this tactic relies on the use of racial stereotypes.
But what is the alternative? Much like the one-dimensional depiction of LGBT characters, the use of antiquated characterization, however problematic, allows for easy recognition and guaranteed acknowledgment of a character’s race; to give that up seems a bit dangerous as to pursue the alternative is to revert back to assimilation. As a result of such unsavory options, most creators elect to choose the lesser of two evils, ensuring recognition at the cost of the most respectable depictions. For all minority communities depicted in comics, the name of the game is painful compromise; the only hope is that future creators can develop more full and round characters without depending on harmful tropes.