As a 34-year-old, I’m firmly among those millennials deemed the “Participation Trophy Generation” (patent pending). You know, the world kissed our heinies from day one and told us we were all winners, so we expect maximum appreciation for any level of accomplishment. I can rage against that all I want — we’re perhaps slightly more entitled but we’re nonetheless hard workers — but I can’t deny that some of these self-congratulating tendencies do, in fact, exist.
Case in point: with Barack Obama, people of my ilk thought we’d achieved a major accomplishment by electing the first black president (and his subsequent reelection). Not that we’d annihilated centuries of racism and systemic injustice, but we’d made the first essential baby step to living in a post-racial America. Hope is alive and well and hell yes we can make America actually great.
Yet the fact of the matter is that’s not the world we live in; this blissful, burgeoning society where equality beats in the heart of every city from suburbia to downtown. And not just because Donald Trump’s first term has all but cast a post-racial society into the library of American myths. We are still dealing with deep-seated racial bias and discrimination across all facets of our world beyond the Orange Man’s specific influence. Even in the land of comic books, where we think Superman can make it all better, we’ve yet to defeat the real crisis on this Earth.
This week, Lateef Ade “L.A.” Williams and Harvey Richards, two former editors at DC Comics, shared painfully similar experiences of race-based mistreatment. It’s really important to read the whole Business Insider piece for yourself, but Williams and Richards, who worked at DC at slightly different times (Williams’ tenure ran 1994 to 2000, and Richards left in late 2019 following 22-ish years), were hindered at every step.
That included being passed up for promotions, not given nearly enough credit for their work, and being made to feel powerless for driving lasting efforts toward diversity/inclusion. Their interview comes just a few months after the story of Charles Beacham, who left Marvel after five years for a litany of similar reasons.
These aren’t isolated cases, either. The comics industry has always suffered from a massive problem of inclusion. Even if publishers have made an effort, like with Marvel’s hip-hop-centric covers from a few years back, these often feel forced or lacked follow-through. What’s especially confounding is that it seems like comics can’t keep pace with the times; where the MCU is flourishing, Marvel’s comics still have very few minority leads.
It’s not even just racially-motivated issues: women continue to struggle in establishing a place in comics publishing and comics have often bungled meaningful LGBTQ+ representation. More often than not, comics seem to be by white men, for white men.
That’s not to say there aren’t measure being taken to expand comics’ scope and drive some meaningful changes. There’s creators across the board who are continually opening up spaces for under-represented people. There’s even ample resources for finding these books (peep this CBLDF list). Indie comics, for what it’s worth, fair a little better in diversity efforts. More than all that, however, there’s evidence that readers not only want to see more diversity in their favorite books, but that despite another pervasive industry myth, diversity does big business. I think this all ultimately about a much large issue.
Let’s call it “The Participation Trophy Fallacy.”
Despite the bias and generally bad beliefs of nasty people, I generally believe the bulk of comics fans are good and decent enough. So they’ll see evidence of gay or black writers (as just one rather specific example), not to mention books starring these same groups, and they think to themselves, “Well, we’ve clearly made progress” (i.e., not unlike how the world reacted with Obama). But these same people fail to see these are often just the start of something substantial, the much-needed systemic change that can make a huge difference and drive us to a more lasting and sustainable form of inclusion and diversity. Yet we’re often satisfied with owning just the participation trophy, this shiny reminder that we showed up with good intentions and a desire to work together.
The trophy is proof we’ve done real something worthwhile, but it’s only real impact is how it quiets important cries for real, industry-wide changes. G. Willow Wilson makes a great point about the language surrounding this issue: diversity is often “performative,” and what “draws those elusive untapped audiences…. is particularity,” or “authenticity and realism.” Basically, it’s about the deeper context and sense of progress; what we think is enough is often just indulgent theatre.
So how do we get what we want (real change) and not just the façade? We do more. First, we recognize that token displays (think the Marvel’s hip-hop covers, once again) are always a halfway decent foot in the door. They may make for great news pieces, and certainly make folks feel good, but their allure is, speaking in the big picture sense, just a distraction. Second, we realize that this issue — making comics a reflection of the real world both behind the scenes and on the page — isn’t something that’s solved with one issue or a new hire or a bump in sales numbers.
No, it’s something that we have to keep working at all the time. Some folks (the more troll-happy among us) might argue that “forced diversity” is a sign that A) nothing is wrong and B) people don’t actually want change. But as I’ve tried to argue, we’re facing decades and decades, layer after layer of systemic bias, and that’s going to take a lot of continued effort to break through. Especially because, as repulsive as it may be, something like Comicsgate was actually something of a “success,” and that bit of (bad) news just further proves how much left there is still to be done.
It means keeping the charge going, and to not let little victories distract from larger goals. (But they can still motivate and inspire if nothing else.) It means recognizing the discrimination, no matter how subtle, is still happening all across the industry. It means calling everything out when we can to foster an ongoing dialogue. There is no solution; no great sunny day when the world is a perfectly just and fair place for all. We are fighting decades of history, our own weaknesses and shortcomings, and the machinations of people who don’t think there’s anything wrong and will sacrifice ample time and effort to prove just that. The fight is all we have.
This is a tussle that will last forever, and while that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the uplifting moments, these should always be tempered by what comes next. How will some groups try and tell us to go back to the way things were? What little secret cracks of anger or ignorance still exist within our beloved institutions? Are we doing enough, both as individuals and as a culture, to make the world better than we inherited it? We also can’t forget about practical changes. As Brenna Clarke Gray pointed out via Book Riot, there’s more tangible ways, like implementing a pull list and requesting books through libraries, to help foster inclusivity. But perhaps most important of all, “When you start talking more about diversity, people will come at you — engage them.”
Sure, all of this sounds tiring, and it means we live in a world that will never be quite what we want or need it to be. It will take everyone doing their bit part to make things more equitable in ways that actually matter. It’s easy to get lost in the conflict, or distracted by the billions of other things going on in 2020 (“The Year of the Giant Turd”), but it’s that diminished focus that lets things slip in to undone any genuine momentum. Ultimately, we must consider the alternative: good people left out of the life-affirming act of making art or perpetuating ideas that enhance the experience of everyone everywhere.
We owe it to ourselves to stay vigilant if we really and truly believe in the ideals and messages of our most beloved comic books. That’s how we all win in the end.