Riri, Miles, and Adolescent Racial Politics in Comics

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

Art by Mike Deodato

Art by Mike Deodato

Riri Williams, created by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato and a new fixture in the world of Tony Stark, is set to take over the mantle of Iron Man. Because she is a brilliant 15-year-old Black girl, Riri is a welcome change from the status quo. However, I’m hesitant about her portrayal because of another young Black hero: the 14-year-old Miles Morales, better known as Spider-Man, is a wonderful character whose interactions with others are full of awe, respect, and youthful wit. Yet, I have had some misgivings about how he is written with regards to race. These same concerns I have with Miles are what I fear will surface with Riri. These concerns, though, also bring to light something important about racial politics as Black teens and often how it manifests as White-leaning ideals.

Dr. William Cross, Jr. developed what is known as nigrescence theory, which addresses how Black people develop racial identity in an American and predominately White context. Within this model, we move from assimilating with White culture and ideology to a point where we have a conception of race that permeates our life and works for the benefit of others. The theory is not truly linear, as we can hold beliefs that correspond to varying racial attitudes across the model. Still, it is not uncommon for Black youth to think in line with the earlier stages, defined by less awareness of being Black, though this is heavily contingent on their social and environmental context.

Art by Dave Marquez and Justin Ponsor

Art by Dave Marquez and Justin Ponsor

Miles sometimes seems to be in line with the Pre-Encounter stage, encapsulated by the three racial identity attitudes of Assimilation, Miseducation, and Self-Hate. As written, he doesn’t appear to discuss his complex racial identity as an Afro-Latino teenager, something which is typical of individuals within the Pre-Encounter stage. Similar to this are individuals who espouse colorblind ideals or advocate respectability politics. Sometimes, even in heavily Black environments, Black youth do the same, which can be a symptom of a White society that thinks that we must wear suits and have straight hair to be seen as respectable or the fact that these same views are often espoused by older Black people.

While my exposure to Riri admittedly has been sparse, I wonder if she will go down the same road as Miles. When written by White writers, particularly White men, Black comic characters appear, not so surprisingly, more likely to have views that are assimilationist. To put in other words: I’m not sure White writers create Black characters as Black, but instead they are Black characters firmly enmeshed in White ideology. To contrast this assertion, look to Nighthawk, done by David Walker, Ramon Villalobos, and Tamra Bonvillain, and Luke Cage and other Black characters in Power Man and Iron Fist also by Walker with the addition of Sanford Greene and Lee Loughridge. The Black characters within these series are multifaceted and alive, not the product of what someone from outside the perspective thinks of Blackness or the manifestation of colorblind politics in Black bodies.

Art by Ramon Villalobos and Tamra Bonvillain

Art by Ramon Villalobos and Tamra Bonvillain

Not a moment passes where I wonder what it’d be like for Miles, and now Riri, to be written by a Black writer. I wonder what narratives would emerge, whether their racial heritage would actually be touched upon and fleshed out, rather than an invisible and subtextual message delivered through minimal dialogue or references. My hope, as always, is that more Black creators, particularly Black women and LGBTQ people, will craft more of these narratives and imbue them with the lived experiences of those of us within the diaspora. Then, maybe teenagers wouldn’t have assimilationist or colorblind views. Maybe they would be characterized as woke, as many Black youth are, regardless of the growth they need to do. One day, Black characters in comics will reflect more of our reality, from the pain and trial to the triumph of dated and narrow stories that refuse to see us for all we are. Black youth especially deserve this change.

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