White As Default: How White Protagonists Impact Our Perceptions Of Race

white as default

Not too long ago, a couple friends of mine created a superhero. One of these friends is female, the other male, and both are people of color. Yet the superhero they created was a white man.

I found myself immediately thinking: why a white male? Shouldn’t it be more intuitive for artists and writers to craft protagonists who are similar to themselves? Yet it seemed to me that they never considered creating a superhero who was anything but a white man. After all, the most popular superheroes are white and the vast majority are male, to the extent that, for most people, even the word “superhero” instantly conjures images of sculpted white men.

This subconscious tendency to “default to white” extends far beyond superhero stories. Regardless of genre, in cases where a character’s race is undefined, such as in a novel or audio drama, most people will automatically assume that the character is white.

One well known (and contentious) example of this is the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, in which the characters have largely undefined physical characteristics. The main character Cecil is often assumed to be white, despite there being no explicit reference to his skin color. In the early days of the podcast, fans argued as to whether the character Carlos is a person of color, and these arguments persisted even after the revelation that Carlos has dark skin.

The majority of our movies, TV shows, video games, and comic books feature narratives that center on white people, and that trend influences the way in which audience members see and interpret fictional narratives as a whole. Regardless of demographic, it often requires a conscious effort in order to break the mold.

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To writers and artists: Do I think that people of color have an obligation to create nonwhite characters? Or that writers should always clearly define the race of their characters? Personally, I don’t believe that people of color are obligated to create characters similar to themselves, as I think that expectation places an unfair burden upon them, and one that doesn’t exist for white creators.

However, I ask that all creators, regardless of race, question the assumptions and biases that immediately (and often inevitably) hold us captive when conceiving a character. If your character doesn’t at all resemble you, ask yourself why not. If they do resemble you, tweak some aspect of their physical identity and think of the ways in which your story changes due to that edit. Above all else, open yourself to new possibilities rather than relying solely on what’s been done before.

To readers and listeners: Similar to my opinions stated above, in the instances where a character’s race is ambiguous, I don’t think audiences are obligated to think of them as people of color. But if you choose to think of such characters as white people, I ask that you question why that is. Is the character’s perceived whiteness truly integral to your interpretation of them as a person? Other than skin color, what aspects of that character will change if they are not white?

As for you: Do you have a tendency to “default to white,” and if so, do you see that habit as problematic? Comment below or tweet me @overlookedblog. Thanks for reading!

Icon in image by Icon Island from the Noun Project.

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