A few days ago a friend tagged me in the below video.
She asked. Tyler the Creator answered. The Jellies! coming soon to Adult Swim.
Posted by Adult Swim on Tuesday, July 25, 2017
This video is from a Comic-Con panel for “The Jellies”, an upcoming adult swim show that Tyler, The Creator is producing and starring in as Cornell, a human adopted by jellyfish. “The Jellies” was previously featured on Tyler’s “Golf Media” app, but will now see its debut on television later this year. The original app version of the show featured a white Cornell, and a fan asks (on behalf of her boyfriend) why Cornell is black in the adult swim show.
I do have some of Tyler’s songs on my phone, but can’t say that I am a huge fan by any means. These words aren’t the words of a fanboy. These are the words of someone surprised by how calm and articulate Tyler The Creator was in his response. He first challenges the fan to provide him with the names of five main black cartoon characters from shows that are currently airing. No sidekicks, no comic relief. Just black main characters on mainstream television. The fan can’t do it, and I am pretty sure her boyfriend wouldn’t be able to either. From what I understand, Cornell being white was not an important part of his identity in the show. As long as he is human, Cornell’s story, personality and struggles will be the same. The character is not ruined by changing his race. In Cornell, Tyler saw a chance to create a black main character who was not an athlete, a sidekick or comic relief.
Tyler’s response is perfect and also helps to illustrate the double standard concerning race-change that I have talked about repeatedly in my Youtube videos and on this blog. If a character is white-washed, regardless of how important their ethnicity was in the source material, then people argue that we should focus on talent or story, and not race. Anyone who disagrees is labelled a “libtard,” “race-baiter” or the more popular term, “social justice warrior”. If a character is “blackwashed”, then people are no longer “colour-blind”. The real issue is that people just have a problem seeing more colour on screen. In America, white is considered universal. It often becomes the default.
When you read a novel, what race do you assume the character is? Obviously the author’s race might give you a preconception, especially if the author is known for writing characters of a certain race, or if the publishing house focuses on characters of a certain demographic etc.
Let’s pretend the author is unknown. You don’t know their name or race, and have no indication of what these things could be. The book uses generic descriptions for the character. It does not tell you the character’s name, doesn’t describe their hairstyle, skin tone, nationality, etc. You know the protagonist lives in a multicultural city, that is mostly white, but that is the closest indicator you get to race. You know the protagonist is tall and thin, that is it. What race do you assume?
For many people in America (or Canada in my case), the default is white. In China, the default would likely be to assume the character is Chinese. Even though I am black, I have found myself assuming the character is white unless there is some hint provided they are likely not, such as a description of dark skin or the reveal that they are of Chinese descent. My most recent example was “American Gods”, where I assumed the main character, Shadow, was white until a prison guard asked him if he “had nigger blood in him”. Shadow’s skin is also described as “brown” later in the book. This made it clear the character might not be black, but likely wasn’t white either.
Like me, many other people do this as well. My point? When white becomes a default, it is easier to view anything else as subversive, “forced” or “politically correct”.
If the Facebook comments are any indication, people will be quick to rattle off a list of black characters and actors in an attempt to shut down Tyler’s argument. Many of these examples will list characters that are not main characters, or list shows that are cancelled or currently not on the air. This makes it clear that people’s comprehension skills are poor or that they likely rushed to the comments before finishing the video.
Even if people manage to list five characters they don’t realize the larger point Tyler is making. They don’t realize what a small percentage all these figures account for. Blacks are over 10% of the population in America, and their representation (especially positive representation) in American film and tv comes nowhere close to reflecting this. As I’ve discussed before, this is also not due to a shortage of talented or aspiring black actors. More obscure actors aren’t coming out of nowhere for productions like Luke Cage, Black Panther, Straight Outta Compton and The Get Down. They have been waiting for their chance to get a good role. They have been waiting for their chance for the representation that triggers the people who preach about being colour-blind.