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:
- Make the protagonist’s rival a white guy who’s almost as good but isn’t.
- 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.