Not Your Mascot: American POC Characters & The Perpetual Foreigner Treatment
Does anyone remember Gargoyles? The 90's cartoon series? I do. And I miss it. It was a fantastic show. There was tons of action, great characters, complex storylines, and--my personal favorite thing--a WOC main character!
Five-year-old me didn't realize how important that was at the time. What I DID know was that Elisa Maza was awesome. She was a multifaceted, interesting character--smart, savvy, gentle, and tough at the same time. And she was a WOC main character with a biracial heritage that I have yet to see again in animation: Black (Nigerian descent) and Indigenous American (Hopi).
Rewatching the series as an adult, it's interesting and cool to see how seamlessly her racial identity was woven into the show. There were episodes in which her heritage played a key role without being a heavy-handed, low-key racist Super Friends-esque portrayal. The writers didn't beat viewers over the head with it. They didn't portray Elisa as a WOC caricature or inclusiveness mascot.
They portrayed her as an everyday person. That, for me, is huge because whether it's IRL or in fiction, POC in the U.S. are often treated as though we're perpetual foreigners. There's a model for what most people think of as an American. You've probably heard the phrase "All-American." (Or seen it on a package of hotdogs at ShopRite. Whichever.)
It's a phrase used to describe wholesomeness, American values, and American pride. But when it's applied to people...that's when it gets interesting. When applied to people, "All-American" has always meant a white person, typically someone with blonde hair and blue eyes. The default, or model, American.
That idea fosters the notion that everyone who doesn't check those boxes is a foreigner, no matter what. And when it comes to diversity in books, TV, and movies, American POC characters tend to be written one of two ways:
Using their race(s) and culture(s) as joke fodder so that the "foreign" qualities are the extent of the character's depth (i.e. the stereotypical POC comic relief).
Using their race(s) and culture(s) as their entire identity, rather than as one defining aspect of it.
Elisa Maza was neither of those, and one thing I hope this blog does is bring attention to more books, movies, and TV shows with characters like her.