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Talking about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with Comics

posted: 11.17.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Many campuses now have general education requirements that require students to take courses that incorporate sensitivity training designed to reduce incidents of racism or sexism on campus.  The problem with these courses is that they may often be too short in duration, too large in enrollment, or too superficial in content to effect real behavioral change, particularly among students imbued with false confidence that they live in a postracial society in which Obama is president, they don’t know any racists, and they can adopt completely color-blind attitudes.

My colleague Ethnic Studies Professor Wayne Yang, whom I have written about in Bedford Bits before, asks students to consider how there can still be racism without designated racists, given existing structures of inequality.  In his courses he also assigns work by the Hernandez Brothers, such as the classic Love and Rockets series to help students understand everyday racism, sexism, and homophobia and why it is so destructive.

Not every conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion needs the visual and verbal sophistication of the so-called Los Bros. Hernandez to get started.  Many students encounter spurs for discussion in the cruder comics that might be shared through social media venues.  For example, xkcd’s classic stick comic that opposes “you suck at math” with “girls suck at math” is frequently reposted.    Other examples that promote “stick figure politics” can prompt meaningful exchanges, which your students may be willing to share if they have encountered them on feeds from Facebook, Tumblr, and other sites.

After Elliot Roger’s verbal rants and misogynistic killing spree that targeted University of California students at the Santa Barbara campus, a Japanese artist working under the penname Rasenth wanted to call attention to how sexist attitudes could have many kinds of negative consequences with this comic, which The Huffington Post praised as one in which “This Comic Perfectly Captures How Feminism Helps Everyone.”

In fact “perfect” is often a term that describes such comics, such as “What Men Need To Understand About Everyday Sexual Harassment, In One Perfect Comic” or “This Comic Perfectly Explains What White Privilege Is.”  It might be worth talking to students about why a particular rhetorical performance with “comics” might be understood at “perfect” and how the medium of comics might be seen as distilling particularly essential truths.  Of course, the danger of introducing comics into sensitive conversations about race, gender, sexuality, age, class, and ability might be to reinforce cartoonish notions that the issues are easy to reduce to simple truisms or can always be understood easily without a complex process.   Nonetheless, comics can often be a good way to introduce dialogue about sexism and racism.

That said, drawing attention to comics isn’t always the right way to go in discussions about disparities around gender and race.   For example, given the current discussion about the intensity of online harassment that can be aimed at women in the wake of the GamerGate, I am not sure that this essayist in The Atlantic is right to equate earlier debates about “high” and “low” culture in comics with the hate speech that has boiled up in response to the challenges of AAA games from those in the independent games movement affiliated with feminist critics and developers.  I would urge instructors who want to address this straight-from-the-headlines story to read the text of “The Art War Before GamerGate” themselves, but I fear that the author doesn’t get specifically to issues about how women may be silenced in hostile online environments.  (For more on the GamerGate story, check out my #GamerGate 101 and resources about Diversity, Equity, Access here.)

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