(image Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

I didn’t read comic books growing up, I’m not a boy, and I’m not Indian — I’ve never even been to Kuala Lumpur. But I feel pretty good calling Umapagan’s Ampikaipakan’s recent New York Times op-ed a bunch of hogwash. The piece details his love for American comic book superheroes, claiming that it’s okay for them all to be white because it’s necessary to uphold the idyllic portrayal of a white hero for the hordes of boys who are waiting to be indoctrinated into the American Dream. He goes on (gallingly) to claim that Asians are inherently incapable of being heroic because of their cultural traditions and baggage. He is happy to subsist on the golden (white) superhero as food for his fantasies. He needs it to remain so. What poppycock.

First of all, America has PROBLEMS. Like real freaking problems. Our biggest social justice campaign is Black Lives Matter, meaning we have to TELL our fellow countrymen that black lives matter. We have a hashtag to remind people that OTHER HUMAN BEINGS matter! That’s how bad it is over here. White people are in denial about pretty much everything at this point. Their number one presidential candidate is a reality show star who keeps his hair comically lopsided because he thinks it’s “lucky,” makes psychotically strange faces, and lets white people beat up non-whites at his rallies.

I like to believe that this is a sign that things are changing, that this kind of farce is just the death rattle of a bygone era. Mainstream sources of media outlets (namely television) are not the only star-makers anymore, as young people today get their inspiration and programming from platforms like YouTube, a fairly egalitarian canvas with a global rainbow of role models and superheroes — for better or worse.

Even Star Wars has gotten with the program, for god’s sake: the three stars in the newest film are a black man, a Latino, and a woman. These heroes — not white men! — were amazingly heroic, and we didn’t need to make any compromises or suspend any disbelief to accept that they were. We were all fine with it; I mean, except for the group behind #boycottstarwarsvii and also China, which had an issue with John Boyega as a black Stormtrooper. What an unfathomable issue to have! You need the people in the white suits to match the white suits? You need to believe that everyone playing a Stormtrooper is white in order to enjoy the film? If you do, your fantasy is built on the backs of others. Like my black poetry teacher taught me in college about telling a story: the truth rhymes, and lies don’t last.

So who is building our dreams? So far, it’s been people like Matt Damon: the ultimate superhero astronaut, math genius, and bionic spy. In last season’s Project Greenlight, he now-infamously told Effie Brown that you tackle diversity in the casting of the movie, not the casting of the TV show — or, more explicitly, that it’s not important that the people in power be diverse. It’s totally okay for a bunch of white guys to make movies about black people, as long as they cast the characters with actual black actors! Matt Damon made this sound so obvious — except that it’s not. Just ask Asian folks about their ongoing struggles to get cast in stories about ASIAN people.

The American white superman is not a real thing. He’s a myth. (If he were real, let’s be honest: he would probably be gay.) When we insist on upholding the idea that he’s real, we all suffer. This includes contemporary white men, with their inability to fulfill the seemingly iron-clad ideal of 1950s masculinity: being the strongest, having all the answers, and being able to shoulder that burden without ever displaying any doubts or emotion.

Times are changing, and to support a perspective like Umapagan’s is not only counterproductive, it’s regressive and harmful. I’m not saying he doesn’t have the right to feel the way he does; millions of other people do, too. But he should really have let his therapist read his draft, and if she didn’t change anything, it should probably have been relegated to a bottom desk drawer to be revisited at a more sober time.

I’m Filipino American, my husband is Chinese American, and we just had our first child. I believe this makes him Filichino. I choose to believe that someday, a decade from now, I’ll be fussily pulling wrinkled comic books from the different corners and crevices of his messy room and I’ll notice that the superheroes on the covers are a constellation of Asian, Black, Muslim, Filipino — even of indeterminate race. And by then, that will be completely moot.

Nancy Bulalacao studied performance poetry with Kurt Lamkin and Pablo Medina. She has been creating public programs for the Asian American community for over 20 years. She has worked for organizations...

13 replies on “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Another White Superhero!”

  1. In his piece, the author seems to be equating “white” with “American”, which is something american racists also do.

    1. When you say American, people only think of white people. That’s racist.

      Calling out you racist white supremacists is NOT racist.

  2. I have to admit: I read that piece and marveled at its lack of self-awareness at the irony on display.

      1. Someone from India rhapsodizing about white-skinned superheroes who should be that way because, essentially, they always have been?

        Lots of irony right there. It’s skillfully covered over, with a lot of references to “American culture”, which he somehow perceives as being strictly white and little more… but nevertheless…

        1. Thank you. At least I now understand where you are coming from.

          And speaking of where one comes from, Kuala Lumpur is in Malaysia, not India.

          I would suggest that you read Eric Wayne’s thoughtful comment. There seems to be less irony than misunderstanding in this matter. Perhaps the irony is that through misunderstanding what he’s saying, Umapagan Ampikaipakan has been painted with a tainted brush, missing his serious and intelligent point altogether.

          Misunderstanding/misinformation is all too often repeated from one conversation to another, remember the child’s game called Telephone? I would suggest that this is a persistent problem in how well we communicate, and that it is problematic in our understanding of ‘others’ — as well as of ourselves.

          1. I apologize for the error in geography: my adoptive mother, who was a teacher, wold have been horrified at that gaffe.

            But you have to admit that there is a certain amount of disconnect going on in that article. I get his point, even though I find it somewhat clumsily stated… and not without an ever so thin veneer of the irony I spoke about at the beginning. The whole concept of the genre in the first place was to give kids some kind of inspiration to be *good*, no matter what your strengths might be or what country (or, in Supes’ case, planet) you come from. But all the author can see is how much it reflects an American culture he pretty clearly idolizes.

            Then, just as a side note, there’s something *very* ironic about the American values laid on a character like Superman… who was created by a pair of Canadians. They werent thinking of him as “American” or even Canadian but as universal, something *everyone* could aspire to, each in his or her own way. Sadly, nowadays, comic book art is little more than the same stories told over and over ad nauseum, with a shellacing of soft-corn porn for their primary 18-to-25-year-old market readership. But that seems to be where the money is, right?

            Thanks for the responses!

  3. You don’t like the existing heroes, make your own.
    Makers don’t have any special responsibilities except to their craft, sometimes art and often science.
    My superhero is Tesla.
    I’m not going to apologize for his skin color.
    All colors benefit from electricity and radio.

  4. I think the author makes a good point however I would like to know her point of view on the cultural aspect of the linked story. It seems that she is taking the point of an American without any commentary on her or her husband’s cultural roots, which I think is the point of the NY Times piece.

  5. Wow, talk about hitting the self-destruct button. That graphic perfectly illustrates the explosive end of this woman’s art world career. I think an editor could have saved her a bit by curbing some of that categorically racist nonsense.

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