In the last few years, there have been many controversial opinions surrounding the casting of POC (usually Black women) to play white characters. From Zoë Saldaña as Gamora in the MCU, to Candace Patton as Iris West-Allen in the Flash, to more recently Anna Diop as Koriand’r in the Titans series.
The backlash of these women being cast as racially ambiguous/white characters have been ruthless. Patton frequently talks about dealing with racist trolls. Diop recently deactivated her social media because of the trolling she endured. So, the conversation around race-bending is not a new one, but the conversation has been skewered and manipulated to the point where it seems that no one knows what race-bending truly is.
Race-bending, in essence, is the process of a perceived culturally ambiguous character being changed into a person of color. The term is not necessarily synonymous with whitewashing. This term was birthed from protests over the whitewashing that the 2010 film The Last Airbender. Director M. Night Shyamalan chose an all-white cast for the lead characters, who were all distinguished Asian and Inuit characters in the series.
What is Race-Bending?
The term Race-Bending is a play on the series’ “bending” which refers to the manipulation of the elements air, water, earth, and fire. The term was explicitly coined by the website Racebending.com, created in 2009 after the cast of the movie was released. Now, the website aims to draw awareness to areas of cultural appropriation and help content producers create culturally accurate content.
Since the birthing of the term in 2009, the word has gone through a metamorphosis. In 2010, four weeks before the premiere of The Last Airbender, a DreamWidth blog named DarkAgenda published a challenge for its readers, titled “The Racebending Revenge Ficathon”. The contest challenged its readers to “re-write one or more white characters in the fandom(s) of your choice as chromatic/non-white/PoC, in a story of at least 500 words, with some acknowledgment of how the racial difference would make a difference to the story being told.” Although the term was originally synonymous with whitewashing, it has now evolved to a more “positive” definition.
In the specific context of comic books and comic book movies, race-bending and whitewashing have always been controversial topics. From accusations of gatekeeping to race-baiting, there have always been conflicting opinions about whether race-bending is helping or hindering minority representation.
Where The Controversy Comes in
One of the first notable comic book examples of race-bending is when Marvel Studios cast Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury in the MCU. This did not go over well with all fans. Many comic fans argued that Disney was “trying too hard to be diverse” and that Nick Fury is supposed to be white. Then, in 2011 Marvel Studios cast Idris Elba as Heimdall, and for some, this was the last straw. The Missouri-based Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group, called for a boycott of the movie on the website boycott-thor.com that is no longer active. The boycott stated that, in casting Idris as Heimdall, “Marvel has now inserted social engineering into European mythology.”
This take is interesting given the fact that the Thor comics are loosely based on Norse mythology; Many aspects of the Thor comics directly disregard Norse mythology exclusively, but they chose this moment as the last straw? This shows that arguments against race-bending are often based less on historical or comic accuracy, but on the race of those involved.
In the specific context of comics, the arguments surrounding race-bending are often muddled by gatekeeping tactics that already limit diversity in comics. What many comic fans seem to think is that if a comic character who has an ambiguous cultural or racial identity is race-bended, this changes the essence of the character. This is not necessarily true. For some, race is not a huge aspect of their character and thus race-bending them can only enhance these characters. If anything, it is even more critical now for characters to hold some form of identity, especially racial identity.
There is a level of selective bias that drenches this argument into racist territory. For example, Wanda Maximoff has been whitewashed in the MCU and stripped of her Romani and Jewish identity. This has drawn little noise from the anti-race-bending crowd. The rebuttal to this issue is often, “other characters have been race-bent, so why does it matter when a non-white character is changed into a white character?”. In the history of cinema, characters of color have been routinely stripped of their cultural identity and replaced by white counterparts. The complaints of race-bending and lack of complaints of whitewashing illustrate how the issue boils down to bias and selectivity.
Issues with Race-Bending
This is not to say that there are no issues with race-bending in the mainstream media. At first glance, the rumor that Marvel Studios is considering casting a POC as Magneto and Professor Xavier in the new X-Men movies seems bold and inclusive. But upon further observation there is a looming issue that is not being acknowledge, which is Magneto’s cultural background.
In the beginning of the X-Men comics there was little mention of Magneto’s background. It was not until Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run that we are introduced to Magneto’s origins. Claremont introduced the backstory of Magneto being a Holocaust survivor, though his Jewish background was seldom shown in later comics. This was simply because Marvel studios was hesitant about the perception of anti-Semitism in making an X-Men villain Jewish. Nonetheless, his Jewish background has become a defining characteristic of his character:
Magneto’s outlook and many of the decisions he made throughout the course of his history have been shaped by his experiences surviving Nazi Germany, Auschwitz, and Vinnytsia. The erasure of this part of Magento’s character erases what makes him Magneto. This is not to say that his character can not be a person of color; there were many North African and Middle Eastern Jews who endured the Holocaust. Professor Xavier, on the other hand, has few background characteristics that require him being white. Therefore, there is little comparable harm in race bending him.
Where Do We Go From Here?
This is in no way an indication of what Marvel should do or should not do. However, it is crucial to understand which choices are complexly problematic and which ones are ambiguously problematic. The debate around race bending also begs the question: “Why race-bend characters when you have an arsenal of diverse characters already?” which brings up an excellent point. In the specific context of X-Men comics, there have been many diverse iterations of X-Men characters and leaders. From Storm to Karma to Psylocke, there have been many mutants who have taken the lead and created exciting storylines.
This is an ongoing debate touted by many comic book fans of color. Why don’t studios use their already established diverse characters, instead of race bending? This leads many fans of color to say that studios are taking the “easy way out” when it comes to promoting diversity. Whichever opinion you hold, one thing is evident: comic book fans are eager for diverse and accurate representations. The only problem is how the studio decides to work towards that goal.