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Categories, Race

Uncovering the Racial Themes of the X-Men: 1st Glance, Racial Justice; Double-Take, White Privilege


I originally thought this scene from an X-Men comic (circa 1981) was a great example of the internal process a white person undergoes when realizing they benefit off of white privilege. But on second thought (and with some research), I no longer think it promotes racial justice.

The context: Lee Forrester, the then girlfriend of Cyclops, meets Magneto. Upon their introduction, Magneto shows nothing but contempt towards Lee simply because she is human. Lee reflects:

Here was my initial interpretation of Lee’s realization that mutants are disadvantaged just because of their mutant genes:

(In a repentant tone):
I’m human white. I’m nothing to Magneto (who is non-white)…the fact that I personally have not done anything to harm him racist actions to him — or any mutant person of color — doesn’t matter (b/c the unequal structures of bias and culture of privilege that favors humans whites over mutants non-whites has so hurt Magneto). I’ve never been…hated like that just because I’m white.
 

After reading Neil Shyminski’s article, “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants: Appropriation, Assimilation, and the X-Men”, my interpretation of this scene changed. I no longer think the writers of X-Men had racial justice or progress as their main agenda but rather, racial integration, which promotes the racial status quo (granted, this was written in 1981. But as Shyminski points out, similar themes are still at work in contemporary X-Men comics).

In this article, Neil explores the “representational politics of race” in comics, specifically how the majority of white American comic book writers have represented the racialized Other in X-Men. Marvel comics portrays mutant-kind similarly to victims of racist, sexist, or homophobic violence, for both “groups possess visible attributes that they cannot reject or deny but are nonetheless punished by family, friends, and government for possessing them” (387).

In simpler terms, humans are white, privileged, and in power; mutants are non-white, disadvantaged, and lack political power. By use of this analogy, X-Men comics may explicitly grapple with themes of racial tolerance, acceptance, and utopian racial-dreams for U.S. society. But in the subtext, these costumed crusaders reinforce racial inequality and white privilege in two main ways.

  1. X-Men’s readers are taught to identify with the oppression the X-Men face as mutants, but their oppression is based on performance, not biological phenotype: most of the X-Men, save perhaps Beast and Nightcrawler, look like regular human beings who possess superpowers that strip them of their rights; comic book readers, who historically have been white and male, lose social status because they are labeled geeks, not because of their race or gender. Thus, the readers’ identification with mutant marginalization does not match the marginalization non-whites, women, and queers actually experience. The latter cannot shed themselves of say, their skin color or gendered features. The readers’ dual narratives of oppression (via geekiness) and privilege (via whiteness and maleness) see their geeky-selves as victims, which often discredits the structural oppression of marginalized groups.
  2. The X-Men resist their marginalization through acculturation, not racial (mutant) justice. Professor Xavier indoctrinates his students to believe in maintaining their unique mutant identities/communities while fitting into human society. This teaching is reinforced by the fact that the main villains they fight are militant mutants who want a mutant-led revolution (see Magneto). The X-Men spend more time “protecting humans from fellow mutants than dealing with that which oppresses them…and are more interested in protecting their oppressors than fighting for their freedom” (396).

Based upon this new framework, I must reconsider how I initially viewed my beloved X-people’s anti-racist efforts. Here is my reinterpretation of the above comic strip:

(In a defensive yet sad tone):
I’m human white  (and feel guilty about being white). I’m nothing to Magneto (who is non-white and blames my kind for his enslavement and second class status)…The fact that I personally have not done anything to harm him done racist actions to him – or any mutant person of color – doesn’t matter (plus, I have a mutant black boyfriend!). I’ve never…been hated like that just because I’m white (I’m a victim of reverse racism).
 

This reevaluation of the themes pop culture promotes may seem depressing. But in retrospect, I’m glad I originally interpreted this scene as a privileged person becoming aware of her privilege. By studying race, I not only more readily see white privilege at work in America, I also more clearly see the ways in which I am privileged over (or at the expense of) others. The beginning of racial justice, or any form of justice for that matter, is to realize the ways representations and institutions operate to give some groups privileges and others disadvantages. X-Men scratched the surface of race relations, but still have a long way to go.

Shyminski, N. (2006) “Mutant readers, reading mutants: Appropriation, assimilation, and the X-men.” The international journal of comic art, 8 (2). 387-405.


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