Let’s Talk About: The Ethnic Rival

I’ve watched three things recently. Doctor Strange, John Wick: Chapter 2, and Iron Fist.

And all three of those things . . . featured an Ethnic Rival.

Now, I don’t want to spend too much time talking about this. Maybe because I’m tired of talking about race after 2016, the year when I discovered that some of my friends really were Hydra the whole time. Just when America started to become a bastion of hope for acceptance, it one-eightied, becoming a place where people defend their right to say disgusting things while shaming you for reacting to them.

Still, with the hope that someone, somewhere, will take this to heart, I’d like to say . . .

. . . stop writing the Ethnic Rival, please.

To be clear, an Ethnic Rival is exactly what it sounds like–a non-white villain in any movie that gives our white protagonist a run for their money, but who is always, ultimately defeated. The Ethnic Rival can be unnamed, appearing for only one scene (Tim Burton’s Batman had the black Joker goon who only appeared in the movie’s conclusion). They can start off as Ethnic Sidekicks (a whole other thing), as they did in Doctor Strange and Iron Fist. And they can have names and tons of screen time, serving as opposition for our protagonists for a long portion of the plot.

But, no matter how long they’re in a story, Ethnic Rivals are always awkward. And obvious.

In the three pieces I mentioned earlier, you have white, male protagonists who are the best in the world at ______. The runner up? A black/any-other-race-but-white man of a similar build, height, and skill set. A guy who’s not as good as the protagonist, of course, but who’s–oh man–so good though.

At best, it feels like the pandering that it is. “See? We had to make out protagonist white, of course, but hey–this other guy isn’t white, but he’s really good too! Like, wow, he’s on the same skill level as our white protagonist! Oh man, aren’t other races great? We think so too!”

At worst, it comes off as petting a sense of white dominance. “See? This other sorcerer/assassin/fighter is almost as good as our protagonist. But he’s not as good. And he never will be. Because our white protagonist is just . . . better.”

Now, look, if you are white, I’m not trying to attack you. I think that, usually, the Ethnic Rival is a reflex–a standard that writers fall back on because we’ve seen it so many times before.

And, further on the bright side, the Ethnic Rival is a super easy problem to fix. I offer two solutions for it:

  1. Make the protagonist’s rival a white guy who’s almost as good but isn’t.
  2. Make your protagonist . . . a minority.

From the bottom of my Puerto Rican heart, please just pick option 2.

~~~

Keeping things short today, because I don’t want to rant. But, also, one of my eyes is killing me. I don’t know why, but I don’t have to; eye pain is eye pain, and it’s always terrifying.

I hope you enjoyed and weren’t offended. More than anything, I hope this one gave you something to think about. Because progress is a slow, rapidly changing thing.

My name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was recently published in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out. Part of that means posting on here every weekday, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting an email every weekday–a new post from me delivered right to your inbox–then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Regardless though, thank you just for dropping by. And, as always, write well.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About: The Ethnic Rival

  1. Well done for posting this. As a Caucasian male it’s so easy to think you’re doing the right thing in your writing but then fall foul of unconscious stereotyping and conditioned racism/homophobia etc. In my last book I consciously chose a female protagonist and a multi-cultural cast of characters, partly to force myself into a mind-set that was more balanced. However, when looking back on this and another of my books, I come to the realisation that four or five major antagonists are LGBT and I now wonder how this affects readers who identify themselves in this way. Thank you for raising this issue in a way that doesn’t alienate people like myself but nudges and challenges us in the right direction.

    1. Wow. Well, sir, thank you for this comment.

      These days, living in America sucks a lot more than usual, in part because bigots are becoming vocal about their right to be bigots. That means that writing something like this post . . . usually leads to a deluge of unwarranted rage and pressure to not “censor” their “voice.”

      Because, ya know, America is the absolute worst kind of mess.

      What I’m trying to say is, really, thank you. Maybe I shouldn’t be thanking someone for being an awesome human being, but it seems like their are fewer and fewer of them as 2017 rolls on.

      Also, I can see what you mean about your LGBT antagonists, but I will say two things:

      First, you care enough to be worried about how that’s perceived. And that’s awesome. I genuinely can’t tell how bad it is, but at least you care.

      Second, it’s also awesome that you’re consciously going with multi-cultural characters and female protagonists. Because that takes a ton of forward thinking and a lot of bravery.

      So, kudos, sir. And thank you for venturing down a path that some writers don’t even realize is there.

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