NPR commentator John McWhorter raises an interesting question for New Yorker cartoon lovers and creators, and indeed most gag cartoonists like myself when he asks “why are all the people in the cartoons white?”
While McWhorter calls the magazine “magnificent,” he also suggests that the racially monochromatic cartoons look “a bit backwards.”
“Take away the cell phones and computers and reading these cartoons is like going back in time to reading the funnies in the era of ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.'”
Most comic strips and animated TV shows and movies try to “include blacks, Latinos and Asians just enough to at least suggest modern America,” but not the New Yorker, notes McWhorter.
Of course the New Yorker is hardly racially biased, but why then are the cartoons so overwhelmingly white? And, now that I think about it, why too are mine?
To be honest, I’ve thought about it before, but I’ve always sort of sidestepped the issue by referring to my characters as more “generic” than white. They’re “every-people” you could say.
I discussed the NPR report with my wife while I showered and she got ready for work and told her my theory on race in my own cartoons. “But to anyone else they’re just white, honey,” she said, and I had to admit she was right.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in rural Iowa where you saw more livestock in school than non-Caucasians. We had two black students, one male and one female who, whether they liked each other or not (I don’t remember) were each others’ de-facto dates for any dance/event in high school.
I went to college and was surrounded by a more accurate representation of race in America. I befriended many and grew to understand and embrace cultures and ideas outside my own. When asked to design the t-shirt for one of my fraternity’s events, I included two black men in a crowd scene of about ten people. A fraternity brother (Caucasian for the record) later chidingly thanked me for adding some “token blacks” to the drawing. I was horrified and avoided any ethnicity in my cartoons for a long time afterwards.
I think too that being your garden variety white male aged 18-35, I’m a little gun-shy about trying to add ethnicity into my cartoons. What if I draw a black person’s lips too large? What if the slant of an eye in an Asian character appears more like a racial caricature? What if the color brown I choose for a Hispanic person is just completely wrong?
So I’ve stuck to my “generic” white cartoon characters and played it safe. And it’s worked for me. Over the last few years my cartoon business has grown and I was able to quit my day job and draw funny pictures full time.
But maybe it’s finally time I expanded my palette of colors. Working in black and white as I normally do, blacks and Hispanics will end up being different shades of gray. And I’m going to have to figure out how to draw some different hairstyles, but I have to agree with McWhorter that it’s time gag cartoons began to more accurately represent the America we live in.
Please, though, cut me some slack. It’s going to take some trial and lots of error to get this right.
Wish me luck, and I look forward to trying to stretch my cartoons a little farther.
And make sure you check out the NPR audio! Interesting and thought provoking stuff!