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A Geek’s Reaction to Dallas & The Week That Was

“It’s easy to be in a cocoon as a white dude.”

That’s what podcaster Al Kennedy tweeted yesterday. He was speaking specifically about race relations in America, how even the most progressive white person can still be deeply ignorant about race without realizing it.

It’s a timely comment. Police officers needlessly killed not one but two black people this week, first in Louisiana and then in Minnesota. Both instances were captured on video and understandably lit up social media. Black Lives Matter protests and marches were swiftly organized around the country, but one of them turned deadly last night when snipers took advantage of a downtown Dallas march to open fire on police officers, presumably in retaliation for Louisiana and Minnesota. Five officers are dead, including the first ever Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer to be killed in the line of duty, and at least nine more people are wounded.

Now, it turns out there was a similar shooting in Tennessee on Thursday morning, with another black shooter targeting white people.

Notable African-American figures, from President Obama to Lebron James (and a crapton other big name athletes), have stepped forward to beg people to stop the violence, yet I opened this article with a quote from a white guy. Moreover, that guy wasn’t even talking about Louisiana, Minnesota or Dallas; he was referring to Marvel’s decision to make the next Iron Man a 15-year-old black girl.

Female Iron ManTo recap, on Wednesday Marvel announced that after its current Civil War II arc wraps-up later this year Tony Stark will be replaced as Iron Man by Riri Williams, a 15-year-old MIT prodigy who was only recently introduced in the pages of Invincible Iron Man. Brian Michael Bendis, the prolific comic book writer chiefly responsible for prior torch bearers like Miles Morales (the mixed-race Spider-Man) and Jessica Jones, is similarly responsible for the creation of Williams and will be handling the writing duties once her time comes to shine. As he told Time, she is meant to be an inspirational figure, a character whose life was marred by random street violence which she managed to rise above and emerge as part of the new generation of heroes which already includes a mixed-race Spider-Man, black Captain America, Muslim Ms. Marvel, Asian-American Hulk and female Thor and Captain Marvel.

By Thursday, geek commentators and the Twitter hive mind weren’t chastising Bendis for effectively making a traditionally white character black, as you’d expect. Instead, they were mad that this black character will be written by a white guy, and that Marvel doesn’t even have a single black female writer right now.

Al Kennedy asked his Twitter friend, “Q for the superhero comics historians: has a black woman ever written an ongoing series for Marvel?” When it turned out no black female has ever written a Marvel comic in the company’s 77-year history, Kennedy concluded, “Jeez. Feel like an prime idiot for not picking up on this before now. Easy to be in a cocoon as a white dude.”

In its assessment of the controversy, Vulture concluded, “The issue being addressed in the past 24 hours is the fact that four of the most lucrative and famous of these race/gender-switched characters — Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America — are being narratively stewarded by people who don’t share their ethnic or gender identities. Their solo titles are all being written by white men.”

29-brian-michael-bendis.w529.h352

Brian Michael Bendis and his creation Miles Morales

Marvel can’t drape itself in the flag of progressiveness if the improvements in representation are only occurring on the page and not behind the scenes. But that’s not completely fair. The number of female creators at Marvel is generally on the rise, up to 19% (it used to be closer to zero). Plus, Sana Amanat has emerged as a cultural hero to all, a Pakistani-American Muslim woman who created Marvel’s first Muslim character (Kamala Khan) and now serves as the company’s Director of Content & Character Development. When asked about the representation vs. opportunity debate earlier this year by The Mary Sue she argued:

When you’re a very good writer, you know how to write experiences that are different from your own, that are distinct, and that’s fundamentally what it means to be a good writer. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, brown, whatever – you need to know how to get into what makes a character a character; what makes them interesting and relatable

If I might argue with myself for a moment, what in the Sam Hill does any of this have to do with what happened in Dallas? Some comic book fans are peeved about representation vs. opportunity? Who gives a shit? People literally died yesterday. The racial make-up of our comic books or whatever other facets of pop culture we use to entertain ourselves doesn’t seem especially important right now.

Here’s the thing, though: I was just in Dallas for a comic book convention. According to The Atlantic, the Dallas shootings occurred near the corner of Main Street and Lamar Street. In the first weekend of June, I spent two solid days walking up and down those very streets. I was staying at a hotel just one block north of that location with fellow WMIFer Julianne. We were among the 50,000+ in town attending Dallas Fan Expo. 

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This Phantom Menace cosplayer immediately wowed me at FanExpo

This was my first big convention. Juli’s an old pro. At one point she compared notes with a fellow well-traveled convention veteran, and they might as well have been Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfus comparing scars in Jaws. I was the Roy Scheider of the scenario, too embarrassed to even mention my one measly scar (i.e., that I once attended a very, very small Doctor Who convention).

  • Did we spend a seemingly interminable amount of time simply standing in line for things? Sure.
  • Were certain appearances and planned panels canceled or rescheduled with practically no notice? Damn you, Peter Mayhew (shakes fist in the air like a cartoon character)!
  • Did we ever actually have a chance of being able to see and do everything we wanted? It’s so cute that you’d ask that.
  • Was the food overpriced? For the most part, although the pretzels were pretty reasonable.
  • Was it all still worth it? Of course.

But why was it worth it? Because this is what we geeks do. Sports fans turn stadiums into temples because a sense of history and community deems that to be the socially acceptable response. Over the past two decades, sci-fi/comic book conventions have grown at a rate commensurate with the comedy club boom of the 1980s, and they have become temples for the nerds and geeks. Of course any large gathering of people is going to involve lots of lines and frustration, and captive audiences are fish in a barrel for price-gouging vendors. But where else can we go and strike up an immediate conversation with random strangers about the glaring flaw in the original U.S. Power Rangers (e.g., Why do all the villains just stand around while the Rangers form their machine? That’s the perfect time to attack)? Or how we still can’t believe how much Caroline grew from the first to the second season of Vampire Diaries?

fan-expo-dallas-020

There were so, so many Harley Quinns at FanExpo, and this wasn’t the only one to sport a human-sized sledgehammer

On Twitter. And Facebook. Through Tumblr, WordPress and all sorts of other blogging platforms. In the comments sections of AV Club articles, or on IMDB message boards. Those are the types of places we can go to have some those same kinds of conversations with complete strangers. It’s how sites like Vulture essentially crowdsource arguments over polarizing pop culture topics, and it’s how I even became aware of Al Kennedy, someone I most likely will never meet.

In those arenas, arguments like the one about Marvel’s representation vs. opportunity problem are in perpetual motion, just cut and paste one hot button topic (the female-led Ghostbusters, the white-washing of Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, #OscarsSoWhite, etc.) for another. It’s what we do. We love pop culture so much we want it to be better, and social media allows us to engage with pop culture creators in unprecedented ways, giving us a sometimes outsized sense of ownership and influence.

But social media can be so much more. It’s what enabled the Arab Spring. It’s how we even know about Louisiana and Minnesota, and it’s how the Dallas Police Department’s lead suspect was quickly exonerated. A social media video of Dallas Black Lives Matter demonstrators running on the streets once the shooting started clearly showed the suspect to be in the crowd with everyone else as opposed to up in some skyscraper taking aim at the cops through a sniper’s rifle.

Yet there is still value in Twitter refusing to buy the company line and drawing attention to how few black female writers have ever worked at Marvel. Or contemptibly pointing out that Sky Ferreira, Renee Zellweger and Margot Robbie deserve better than male journalists jizzing all over them (or, in Zellweger’s case, deciding she’s unfuckable now). When pop culture itself loses its conscience we can collectively act as a check on that.

But sometimes you just want to dress up, go hang out with like-minded strangers and have fun. There’s a line in The Purge: Election Year which describes the titular killing event as “Halloween for adults.” Well, geek conventions are like Halloween for adults AND kids. I saw so many families in attendance at FanExpo, many of them in costume together (e.g., one family dressed up as the Belchers from Bob’s Burgers). Or how about these daughters as DC heroines taking on their dad as the Joker?

lM8m7.St.117In one panel, I sat behind a family of X-Men, the father a spitting image of Wolverine from Days of Future Past. It truly felt like I was looking at Hugh Jackman.

However, that wasn’t the only striking imagery on display in Dallas that weekend. Every morning on my walk to the Dallas Convention Center and every evening back to the hotel I passed the same group of black homeless people on the street. According to the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance’s 2016 census, there are currently 3,900 homeless people in Dallas, a 20% increase from last year. Of those 3,900, 60% are African-American. Whites are a distant second at 33%.

Is that bad? Good? About average?

Dallas is the 9th most populated city in the United States. Let’s compare it to the 9 other most populous cities in the country:

# City Name City Population Homeless Population

Homeless

Whites

Blacks

10

San Jose

1.02 million

4,063

39%

20%

9

Dallas

1.30 million

3,900

33%

60%

8

San Diego

1.39 million

8,742

60%

19%

7

San Antonio

1.46 million

2,891

71%

23%

6

Phoenix

1.56 million

5,631

N.R.

N.R.

5

Philadelphia

1.56 million

5,738

N.R.

N.R.

4

Houston

2.29 million

3,626

N.R.

N.R.

3

Chicago

2.72 million

6,789

21%

76%

2

Los Angeles

3.97 million

28,464

24%

42%

1

New York

8.55 million

60,067

7%*

58%*

* Refers to homeless shelter residents as opposed to a count of all homeless, shelter or unsheltered

N.R. = Not Reported, or at least if there is any recent demographic breakdown I couldn’t find it

Dallas’s ratio of blacks to white among its homeless population is only similar to cities which are at least twice its size – Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. In those cities which are similar in size to Dallas, most of their homeless people are white, not black.

How exactly is that applicable here? For starters, it’s a startling fact I didn’t know about before going to FanExpo, and it was but one way in which race factored into my Dallas experience. All of the security and food service personnel (as opposed to the volunteers wearing actual FanExpo shirts) I encountered at FanExpo were black. The same goes for the desk clerks and various other personnel at the hotel.

Of course, that’s anecdotal, and in no way verifiable. When I casually mentioned this to Juli she’d made no such similar observation, and any fellow FanExpo attendee who happens to read this could shoot me down in the comments section.

My point is not to diminish food service, security or hotel workers, or to somehow suggest the high number of black workers made me uncomfortable in any way. I was just surprised by how consistent it was, how nearly all service economy employees I encountered seemed to be of the same exact race. I was in town to celebrate fantasy, and in the process I was getting a peek into Dallas’ reality.

Maybe that’s because Dallas-Forth Worth is considered the fifth most racially diverse Metropolitan Area in the United States, 50% White, 27% Hispanic, 15% African-American and 6% Asian.

Maybe it’s because Dallas has the highest poverty rate of any city in Texas, and keep in mind that it’s only the third biggest city in the state. 95% of Dallas’ mostly upper-income areas are dominated by white households. Dallas also has the 34th highest rate of income inequality among the top 100 Metropolitan areas, and the entire state of Texas ranks fifth in the country in income inequality.

“When you look at poverty rates for African-Americans and Hispanics, they are two or three times as high as they are for non-Hispanic whites. Blacks and Hispanic incomes are 60 to 75 percent compared to whites,” said Steve Murdock, a Rice University professor interviewed by the Star-Telegram.

Or maybe I’m just some huge racist, the white guy wrapped in a cocoon, clueless about life in a legitimately big city. I was similarly taken aback when I stopped off at a Wal-Mart on the way in to Dallas and was introduced to the state’s “Right to Carry” law when a scruffy white guy in a tank top walked by me with a semi-automatic weapon nonchalantly dangling from his hip.

However, when I first heard about the Dallas shootings I flashed back to my experience there, and I wondered if I had turned a blind eye to a city in the midst of civil unrest. After all, why did Dallas, out of all the cities in the country, have to be the place where black men retaliated for the actions which happened in Louisiana and Minnesota? It doesn’t seem to make sense. According to The Atlantic, “Dallas’s reform-oriented police department is considered a national model, credited with improving transparency and lowering homicide rates. The department’s official Twitter account posted photos earlier Thursday night of officers peacefully mingling with protesters at the demonstration.”

I’ve been on those streets. I know exactly where they’re standing. Minnesota and Louisiana are just states on a map to me. Martin Luther King, Jr. rightfully said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, but when it hits home like this…

Says the white guy who visited the city for one weekend.

I am so not qualified to even be talking about this. I know that. However, the Dallas Convention Center was the sight of one of the highlights of my year, and now just a couple of blocks away hundreds of people experienced a tragedy which they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. We can use pop culture to sometimes cocoon ourselves away from the world’s problem, or to become a social justice warrior on social media to makes us feel like we’re making a difference (and in some way maybe we are).

But there’s a real world full of fucked up problems. In the immediate aftermath of the Dallas shooting, the easy truce between cops and demonstrators broke down, and reporters observed one depressing scene where the cops barked orders at a potential suspect. As they took him into custody, the gathered crowd begged the cops not to kill him, which is sad in and of itself, that they’d have legitimate reason to believe a standard arrest could quickly elevate to homicide.  One cop attempted to calm the crowd, and a young girl black reportedly shouted something to the effect that she was only there because she thought she could make a difference in the world. The cop quickly assured her that she still can.

Earlier that very morning, Brian Michael Bend was describing the new black, female Iron Man as being a survivor of random street violence. If Riri Williams can be Iron Man then maybe that girl in Dallas truly can overcome this and not give in to despair. That seems like a trite thing to say, remarkably patronizing even. But the world might be a better place if the heroes in our stories inspire us to become the heroes of our own story.

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About Kelly Konda (1817 Articles)
Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

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