White Privilege, Epistemic Power and the Comic Industry by Alexandra Iciek

A Cautious Introduction

 I will be honest-this piece originally started as something intended for Comfort Food Comic’s “Read Pile” (it is very good, go check it out!). I was asked to write a review of the latest graphic novel from my read pile. At the time, this was 2019’s BTTM FDRS, written by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore.  BTTM FDRS is a horror story about urban and artistic gentrification, created by a mixed-race writer and a Black artist. I understood that in my review, I would need to approach the text from a position of recognized subjectivity. I am a white critic, after all. To simply acknowledge my position as such and analyze the book from that moment forward would simply not be enough. I was unsure of how to approach writing my review before I had even opened the book. I was not convinced I should write it at all.

After reading BTTM FDRS, it was confirmed to me that I was, unequivocally, in no position to review this text. I am both, at once, present in the text, and an interruption to it. Daniels and Passmore tell a story of a living organism that occupies a building. This organism, created by a Black woman (Auntie Jay Jay), was intended to be assistive in communal living. However, the organism becomes corrupted when outside, white-owned corporate forces attempt to weaponise its body. BTTM FDRS explores the presence of white power in Black spaces as an act of violence. For some very good reviews of this book, by Black critics, I would implore people to go read Frantz Jerome’s piece at Black Nerd Problems, and one by Evan Narcisse over at Io9.

Upon hesitation, I questioned if I could feasibly write a reflection on BTTM FDRS at all. On the one hand, I believe that as a white writer, there is a responsibility for me to actively deconstruct and recognize my own privilege. I should hold the racialized structure I actively benefit from to account. More so, I should hold myself to account. On the other hand, by writing about the subject, I would risk positioning myself as a sort of discursive authority that was removed from the text. By writing about race and racism, I could instantaneously appear to absolve myself from my own engagement. Beyond this, Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian writers will always, without a doubt, be better suited to talking about race than me. There was a concern that I would be speaking over their more legitimate voices if I published anything.

I eventually came to the conclusion that, if I were to write about anything, it should ultimately be on the epistemic positionality of the white author/writer. This was, after all, the core of my dilemma. How does my whiteness sustain how I write, and my relationship with any given text?

What I have written below is not meant to be an authoritative discussion about how white writers and readers, such as myself, must approach race. It is frankly not my place to do this. Rather, it is about how they (we) must continuously inspect their relation to subjectivity when interacting with any piece of literature. Systematic privilege means the white experience is, by default, considered the universal perspective in which narratives are told. Here, I try to go some way in scrutinising this positionality, whilst also holding myself accountable. 

If I sound unsure of myself, it is because I am. Quite frankly, I think I should be. I hope that my writing goes some way in deconstructing whiteness as a sustained, epistemic power. That said, I am aware that I can not escape the very topic I am writing about. My writing here should be an act of reflection and unlearning, not of sanctioned lecturing

Whiteness and Subjectivity

Claudia C. Tate

Literary scholar, Claudia C. Tate comments that one of the key issues with white critics, and indeed white readers overall, is that they implicitly assume that they occupy the position of the universal subject. When faced with literature or media that disrupts this perspective, they will take themselves out text. She writes:

There is white artistic universality, dramatized events and characters with which white readers readily and willingly identify. Similarly, there is black universality….white readers of black literature seem somewhat reluctant, often adamant, in their (conscious or unconscious) refusal to identify with the humanity of black characters.

It would be a mistake to interpret Tate’s comments as a simple critique of white readers/consumers that comprehensively refuse to engage with Black or non-white literature. Her analysis goes far beyond this. What Tate is arguing, is that white consumers will observe the dissonance between their lived experience as a subject on the one hand, and the text’s narrative portrayal of the lived experience of the subject on the other, and readjust their position as a reader. From that point, they are outside the narrative. They are exterior to the work.

The fallacy of this exercise is that white readers are often actively in Black texts. I do not mean to say this as an unconditional rule- to assume a white presence in any and all literature is wholly misguided. More that– particularly in literature on racism and racialized dynamics of power– white readers have a lived presence between the text. Their status as a ‘white person’ is not revoked in the pages by virtue of observational abstraction. Rather, it is operative and realized in the work.

 

BTTM FDRS and the Horror Metaphor

In BTTM FDRS, the organism is indeed the conduit for the gory terrors. However, it is white mechanisms of power that are truly culpable in the horror of the book. White violence can be identified in the corporations that defiled Aunty Jay Jay’s invention, in the landlord that brought up the building, in the rich creatives who commodified a Black area of Chicago. By extension, the identifiable symbol of whiteness that I exist in, and ultimately privilege from, is the antagonising force in the plot.

It is more than that, though. Being a white reader of BTTM FDRS means understanding my subjective culpability as part of the text. I cannot see myself fully in the novel’s protagonist, Darla, because I am part of a hostile force that causes her anguish.

 As a white creative, my own experiences will ultimately be closer to Darla’s friend, Cynthia. This character is a white artist who essentially picks and choses when she wants to engage in a friendship with Darla, according to how it benefits her. Much of the violence committed by Jay Jay’s organism happens under Cynthia’s control. I am not suggesting here that white readers unequivocally share the cruel intentions or personality of Cynthia. Nor do I wish to erase the underlining class struggle of the story—something that does intersect with the lives of white people (albeit differently). Rather, that white readers must begin to recognise their own experience as active beneficiaries of a racially oppressive system in characters such as Cynthia. Once more—the white reader cannot abstract themselves from a racialised narrative.

 

The Presumption of Universality in White Writing

  My intention in this piece is not to go on about how white creatives and readers must engage with Black texts, or any text by a person of color. It is absolutely not my place. Even now, I risk abstracting myself from the very issue that I am writing about. The reflections here come not only from what I read in BTTM FDRS, but more broadly from the state of the comic industry.

 Fellow CFC writer, Guilherme Preusse recently analyzed the issues behind the depiction of Yara Flor—DC’s Future State Wonder Woman, who is an indigenous Brazilian woman. Preusse unveiled how writer Joelle Jones assumed that the subjectivity of a white, Anglo-American character could be carried onto an indigenous Brazilian one. Yara’s character is not recognizably Brazilian outside the basic narrative prompts that tell the reader she is.

Jone’s writing in this case closely relates to the fallacy described by Claudia C. Tate. As a white woman, Jones constructed a character around the lived experience of whiteness, assuming this to be a general universal template. Thinking otherwise would have proved unprofitable, because it would have likely led to the conclusion that an indigenous Brazilian woman would be more suitable for the job.

The operations of racism and white dominance in literature and media will not go away with passive recognition. I am talking to white comic critics, writers, and readers, when I say that we must change the way we engage with literature created by Black, Indigenous, Latinix and Asian creatives. This entails examining how our whiteness shapes and creates our interpretation of any given text–rather than assuming there is a universal, objective position we can take as a reader.

Moreover, industry contributors need to take a step back when it comes to writing and editing diverse stories, even if this means passing up opportunities. This is particularly the case in the bigger publishing houses, where white male writers dominate despite the plethora of writers and artists trying to get into comics.

Sustained Deconstruction

When interviewed about BBTM FDRS, artist Ben Passmore commented on whiteness and gentrification, saying:

I think the solution for gentrification is to end the logistical benefits of white supremacy. And I think that’s a project that requires everybody, white people more than anyone else …

Finishing this piece is by no means a rupture in my own epistemic privilege as a white writer. I have not absolved my participation at the point of recognition. The deconstruction and undoing of racism, and white supremacy, requires a type of accountability that is continuous.

Acknowledgements

I welcome any feedback on this piece.

 A big thank you to Jonathon Asprilla, E., Ritesh Babu, Nathan Kiss and Dave Shevlin—all of whom gave me constructive feedback and critique for this.

Sources

(I’m a stickler for Harvard- sorry!)

Daniels, E C. & Passmore, B. (2019) Bttm Fdrs. Seattle. Fantagraphics Books Inc.

Lehoczy, E, Daniels, E C. & Passmore, B. (2019) Of Tenants and Tentacles: “BTTM FDRS” Confronts Gentrification In Comic Horror Form. NPR. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2019/06/27/736317209/of-tenants-and-tentacles-bttm-fdrs-confronts-gentrification-in-comic-horror-form?t=1615315479218

Preusse, G.(2021). Yara Flor and Brazilian Representation In American Comics. ComfortFoodComics. Available at: https://comfortfoodcomics.com/2021/02/22/yara-flor-and-brazilian-representation-in-american-comics-by-guilherme-preusse/

Tate, C. (1979). ON WHITE CRITICS AND BLACK AESTHETICIANS. CLA Journal, 22(4), 383-389. Access on: http://www.jstor.org/stable/44329423

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