Over the weekend I binge-watched 3%, a dystopian sci-fi Netflix original set in Brazil. The plot was rife with quirks and unexpected turns, but the biggest surprise of all was that the diversity in the show reflected the diversity in Brazil. The cast featured myriad shades and races, absent the stereotypical casting, such as the confinement of black and brown actors and actresses to supporting characters with botched, surface-level backstories.
This is what accurate representation looks like. This show reminded me of other shows on Netflix, like Sense8 and Black Mirror, whose colorful casts and stellar ratings demonstrate that diversity works. So what’s wrong with the rest of Hollywood?
I grew up on fantasy and science fiction, devouring books, television shows and film built under their umbrella. I stood in hourslong lines at bookstores waiting for sequels to be released, finishing thousand-page novels before the sun came up the next day. I went in full costume to midnight premieres, tickets in hand that I had purchased weeks prior. I wrote elaborate fan fiction and spent hours online moderating forums for people like me.
I wasn’t just any groupie, a random passerby stopping in to look—I was a buff. I was ride-or-die. King Kong didn’t have anything on me, because to me, a black girl at an all-white school, these genres that celebrated difference and rooted for the underdog were my safe haven.
These worlds gave me the belief that different was OK. Perhaps it just meant that one day I, too, would get a visit from Hagrid informing me that I was actually a witch. I would speak a goodbye curse over my haters, afflicting them with poorly timed gas or the constant sensation of having to sneeze. Then Hagrid and I would take off in his flying motorcycle, pettily cackling at everyone who never believed in me. That would make everything—the microaggressive comments from my peers, the feeling of not fitting in, the surprise of my teachers at my intelligence—all worth it because I would finally belong somewhere.
In these fictional worlds, anything could happen: magic, dragons, travel through space and time. Anything, that is, except diversity. The more I read and watched the genres, the more I felt just the way I had at school. As if I did not belong. It came as a huge blow that these mythical worlds that I immersed myself in had not, in their entire theory or practice, created a place for me.
When there was a “place” for me, it was as a marginal, peripheral character. I didn’t get to defeat Lord Voldemort. I didn’t get to mount dragons and burn my enemies to a crisp by uttering “Dracarys.” I didn’t even get to travel to Narnia. My roles were different.
I was Dean Thomas, appearing ever so often in the halls of Hogwarts, but never enough to truly be seen. I was Daenerys’ personal assistant, whose insight, wisdom and strength were valuable enough to be leaned on, but not exceptional enough to actually be the Breaker of Chains. In worst cases, I was a villain, a miscreant or no one at all—an extra fleeting through a scene too quickly to even be registered.
So why do fantasy and science fiction lack diversity?
Sometimes the erasure of black people in these genres masquerades under the guise of “historical accuracy.” Fantasy and sci-fi often draw inspiration from ancient Celtic, Norse, Greek and medieval European culture. Therefore, disgruntled white fans often use this knowledge to perpetuate the white nonsense that black people should not exist in these universes.
Such fans cited this notion as evidence in their racist tirades against Idris Elba when he was cast as Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor. “But Thor is based on Norse mythology, so Heimdall can’t be black,” they cried, as hot, salty white tears streamed down their faces. Their imaginations could stretch for alien attacks, a man with a magic hammer and interdimensional travel, yet could not encompass a black man playing a make-believe character.
Another reason this racial disparity in fantasy and sci-fi media and literature exists is that black people are often not thought of as a target audience for these tales. This fallacy has been promoted so aggressively that we have started to believe it, teasing those among us who are interested in magic and mythical creatures by calling these black folks white. However, this fallacy is exactly that: a fallacy.
Platforms like Black Nerd Problems and Black Girl Nerds have built their empires on black fantasy audiences. The hashtags #DemThrones and #ThronesYall were curated purposely for black people to engage with one another on Sunday evenings after our wigs have been snatched by the Night King. We are here, and it’s time we were acknowledged.
Transformative change in the way fantasy and science fiction are immortalized on the screen could take place with an increase in black writers. According to a Color of Change study, only 35 percent of writers’ rooms have at least one black writer on staff, and within that 35 percent, less than 5 percent of the writers in the rooms are black. Navigating race may be intimidating to white writers—I mean, could you imagine if Marvel’s Wolverine, a mutant who lived through the last two centuries, was black? The writer would have to situate him in history, which may prove difficult for someone whose ancestors were living their best lives during those times.
However, there are much simpler approaches that white writers could use to include black people in their chronicles. Superheroes could be diversified relatively effortlessly. You’re trying to tell me that Superman, a man who gets his power from the sun, isn’t black? Tell that to the melanin of 1,000 generations of my ancestors.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Hogwarts competes in the Tri-Wizard tournament with two other institutions of magic: Beauxbatons and Durmstrang. Either of these could have been depicted as a historically black wizardry school, especially since J.K. Rowling herself has said that magic originated in Africa. In fiction, as in reality, black people are the ghostwriters of everything wonderful.
Writing whiteness is no challenge. Whiteness in fantasy just is. There’s an assumption that we black people must make a case for our existence in fantasy. We are required to hype black characters, promote them endlessly and buy the characters’ merchandise in order to be given more. For our obsession with T’Challa, we were rewarded with a solo Black Panther flick, the HBCU of Marvel movies. In unreal worlds, just as in the real world, we live in a constant fear that if we do not make enough noise, we will be erased completely.
This eradication occurs in many forms. Occasionally, an author will choose different central figures, ornately depicting people of color as main characters. However, when these novels are made into major motion pictures or television series, Hollywood’s overwhelming whiteness arrives like a storm to rain on our parade. Roles written for us become whitewashed.
In both The Girl With All the Gifts and Avatar: The Last Airbender, white actors and actresses were cast as protagonists whom the author explicitly described as people of color. In other circumstances, roles written for us are diminished. The Hunger Games had several phenomenal black characters in print, but on-screen they were weak, diluted and allotted minimal screen time.
The most ironic part of all of this is that while fantasy and sci-fi fail to produce meaningful black characters, the plots seem to echo the black experience. In X-Men, mutants face marginalization, violent hate crimes and structural policies created to impede the upward mobility of their community. Even main characters Magneto’s and Charles “Professor X” Xavier’s crusades for mutant rights seem eerily familiar. The militant Magneto is often painted as a villain because he aims to achieve power and opportunities for mutants “by any means necessary.” Professor X’s nonviolent approach stresses educating and reconciling with humans as an agent of change—which is often referred to as “Xavier’s dream.” Does this conjure visions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X? It should. It’s a shame it did not conjure more roles for people of color.
This parallel is not unique. The Planet of the Apes series invokes an Exodus-like liberation of apes from enslavement and persecution, yet the few humans (both ape allies and oppressors) who do appear in the movie are white. In the Harry Potter series, Hermione is a member of a community of witches and wizards who lack a purely magical lineage. These individuals, derogatorily classified as “mudbloods,” are frequent targets of harassment and bigotry.
While reading Rowling’s famous series, I always took Hermione’s curly hair, ancestry and bouts of intelligent sass as signs that she was, no doubt, a sister who, in her free time, could be found leading Hogwarts’ Black Student Union meetings, organizing #WeTooAreHogwarts movements and resisting pure-blood supremacy (by the Trumps—I mean the Malfoys). Yet when she came to the screen, she was as white as snow.
Somehow, our experience, our struggle, our story, makes its way into every fantasy and sci-fi novel, television show and film, but we are nowhere to be found. We are there in the minute details, there in the theory, but never there in reality. For even in imaginary tales, our narrative matters, but we don’t. We remain invisible and unworthy in both this world and the ones created in others’ minds.
Just because the world is magic doesn’t mean we aren’t real. What is real, however, is the pain felt when dark faces watch screens, searching to identify with someone, anyone, and find nothing.
Ashley Nkadi loves God, her mama, being black, Gucci Mane, cheese, potatoes and eyebrow maintenance. In that order. Read more about her here.