8 Dog Whistles Racists Use (To Pretend It’s Not About Racism)
May 30, 2023   •   Tim Henares
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May 30, 2023   •   Tim Henares
The Little Mermaid isn’t even done at the box office yet, and already, more people are up in arms over something that should have never been a big deal in the first place:
“And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.” pic.twitter.com/zi1JQBCHjb
— Magic: The Gathering (@wizards_magic) May 28, 2023
“And behold – the clarion call for racists.”
Yes, that’s right — a white character is black again!
Except for the time when he was literally not white, yet nobody seemed to mind.
“But,” you begin to say. “How sure are you that they hate seeing Aragorn black because they’re racist? What if they really just believe in respecting canon?” That’s because someone saying the quiet part aloud just shouldn’t be done. So instead of saying “Oh, great. Another black character,” they’ll couch their language into something that sounds agreeable on the surface. This is what we call a political dog whistle. Here are just 8 examples of that:
The Argument: If you’re going to adapt, you shouldn’t change anything! Canon is canon.
The Counterargument: If you’re not going to change anything, why would you even adapt?!?
Remember when Vince Vaughn did a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with next to no changes? No? Then why are we complaining when remakes, reimaginings, and adaptations change something? Of course you expect them to change something! That’s the entire point of adapting: so you can inject something new to it.
If Batman: The Animated Series were a 100% faithful adaptation from the comics, then we would never have Harley Quinn or Renee Montoya. Kryptonite came from the radio serial, not the comics. Marvel’s movies change the characters they adapt so much, the comics sometimes create entire events just so the comic versions align more with the movie versions, and not vice versa. Just ask how the Nick Fury patterned after Samuel L. Jackson ended up in the main Marvel universe, I dare you.
The Argument: Them being white/male/straight is essential to their character. Changing that is sacrilege!
Is it, really? To return to Aragorn, wherein the stories did it dictate he must be white?
So “pale” is now automatically “white?” Never mind the fact that anyone can be pale? Don’t forget: these were the same people who complained that The Little Mermaid, a tale already changed beyond recognition by Disney from Hans Christian Andersen, crossed a line by making Ariel black. Why is it that it seems like any change to the source material is fine, whether it’s the ending, the themes, the costumes, the setting, the time period, but once someone goes black, that’s unacceptable? What does that sound like to you?
Apparently, elves, dwarves, gigantic eyes, mermaids, giant octopi women, and even changing all of those elements from the book to movie are all totally plausible, but the moment someone turns black, that’s beyond the (ahem) pale?
The Argument: If race-swapping from white to non-white is okay, race-swapping from non-white to white should equally be okay.
The Counterargument: Sure. If it weren’t denying non-white people opportunities for work or representation the way adding a black guy to a cast of white characters doesn’t deny white people opportunities.
These people want you to forget that for decades, even centuries, whitewashing already happened. Jesus was represented as white. Genghis Khan was played by frigging John Wayne. Black people were played by white people wearing blackface in minstrel shows. All these acts denied people of color the opportunity to be represented because guess what, the white people did it for them.
It’s a false equivalence when they make these arguments: unless one’s skin color is integral to their character (like Black Panther or Obama), then changing race should be fair game. But you rarely erase non-white people because there’s already a minority of them to begin with, so erasing one could erase them completely.
Still not convinced? Turn Chandler Bing black in Friends, and the main cast is still 80% white. Turn Winston Zedmore white in Ghostbusters, and the main cast is now 0% black. That’s the key difference.
The Argument: These corporations don’t care about you. They’re just pandering to you so you’d buy their products.
The Counterargument: So you’re arguing that because they’re after money, they should pander only to you?
Oh, don’t worry: we get it. Corporations are eeeevvvvviiilllll. But if there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, then it’s really a battle between lesser evils. And “pretending to be not racist” is, in that criteria, a whole lot better than “being blatantly racist.” Slim pickings? Maybe. But if those are your only choices or to starve yourself of anything and everything from food to entertainment, the choice should be much clearer.
The Argument: Why touch old and beloved characters? Just make your own!
The Counterargument: Who says you can’t do both? Remakes happen alongside new IP all the time, and those remakes absolutely change things. Also, you call new characters of color “pandering,” too.
Following their logic, an old, race-swapped character is “disrespectful,” while an original black character is “pandering to the woke agenda.” See how that works? The objection isn’t really about respect or the woke agenda, because in these specific examples, they are diametrically opposed to each other. The objection, in both cases, is to a character who just happens to be black.
What makes us say this? Because if they truly cared about original characters, then they would celebrate Static Shock. Instead, they cynically call characters like that “ticking some boxes,” as if that means these characters should not exist. Because again, corporations should pander only to white people, because how dare they pander to anyone else. The real response to “pandering” should be demanding genuine representation, not expecting none altogether. What a false dichotomy.
The Argument: I don’t mind not seeing any white characters. I’m not fragile. Why do you need to see black characters to feel represented?
The Counterargument: So why are we having this argument if you “don’t” care?
Again, a false dichotomy. The reality is, being represented is such a low bar to clear. Turning Aragorn black in Magic while keeping Gandalf and every other human in the new adaptation white makes Aragorn the Tolkien black guy. We don’t absolutely need to have people who look like us in every story, but why do we have to put up with having none? Again, why exclusively pander to white people?
Remember: white was the default during a more racist era. Even the thought of adding a black character was considered taboo during those times, so you couldn’t even write a black character if you wanted to at the time. Now that we are adapting tales with modern sensibilities, still making white the default seems a bit archaic, doesn’t it? Or will the next Huck Finn movie feature full-on N words as the book did? So why is sanitizing language fine but turning someone black again is the breaking point?
Hint: because racism. If they cannot provide a consistent guideline to what can and cannot be changed and end up always making it about someone white no longer being white, then it’s probably racism. Otherwise, they’d be equally angry when Bullet Train featured Brad Pitt instead of the original Japanese leads, or when 21 turned the historically Asian protagonist (as in, this was a real person, not a fictional character) into Jim Sturgess. Or when Argo turned a historical Latino into Ben Affleck. Or when Gods of Egypt featured American and British actors and *checks notes* zero Egyptians. But no. They only crawl out of the woodwork when it’s a white person who’s affected.
The Argument: Surely, you can’t just make someone black for no reason. There needs to be a justification.
The Counterargument: Why do they have to be white?
People always talk about the author’s intent or some sort of context for when someone white should stay white, but ignore the very same thing when the authors clearly agree with a new portrayal. JK Rowling might not be popular right now, but she was on record as pointing out that yes, Hermione can be black, and nothing in her book absolutely, canonically says otherwise. Emma Watson? That’s — wait for it — an adaptation. So why should that count when the author’s intent on this is very clear? Suddenly, what JK Rowling thinks doesn’t matter when it gets in the way of racism?
This doesn’t even cover the many people who complained that Cho Chang (who has a name so Asian it borders on parody) was being portrayed by *gasp* an Asian, all because they assumed she was white.
People of color do not need to justify their existence any more than white people do. So why does there need to be a reason for something to be white or black? One is as good as the other, and diversity simply means everyone gets a turn.
The Argument: Fine. Maybe it shouldn’t be a big deal if some roles are played by people of color. But in the interest of equality, maybe we should just hire the best person for the job instead of picking someone who’s black just to score some free press and controversy.
The Counterargument: So why are you assuming that they didn’t?
Halle Bailey sings like a dream, and absolutely nailed “Part of Your World”. Have you seen that artwork on Black Aragorn? Stunning.
While some could argue these are instances of diversity hires or corporate pandering, not only have we addressed those concerns already, but by all indications, nothing, absolutely nothing, indicates that these choices weren’t the best choices they could have made at the time.
In a rapidly globalizing society where cultural exchange is becoming the norm, representation matters. We may not think we need it, but to someone, it absolutely matters. And if everyone gets a turn, then who is it really hurting except the racists who think it should always be theirs?
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