“We need more people of colour in the directing, producing and writing stages of films/media…” – Haaniyah Angus
I’m not certain of whether I was fated to be a comic book enthusiast or became a fan by default. Growing up, the only other kids close to my age were my two cousins, Kaylin and Tristan (my “stand-in brothers”), who practiced WWE moves on me and allowed me to play Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe where I got to witness Kitana repugnantly slicing people in half. Our childhood sleepovers predictably ended with the three of us snoozing on the floor after staying up too late to watch Justice League and Batman: The Animated Series on Cartoon Network back when they played some decent shows. Today, my pre-bedtime routine makes up a shamefully significant part of who I am, consisting mainly of comic books, caffeine and Netflix superhero series’. Yet, I still don’t think I can confidently claim that I’d have instinctively drifted toward these things without the peer pressure from my cousins. After all, I could never truly relate to the characters that I treasured so much; none of them looked anything like me. I had no idea that, on the other end of the world, a young black Muslim girl was feeling much the same and was assembling her very own league to contest white-washed nerd culture.
White-washing in blockbuster superhero films has become somewhat of a norm, as is the failure of superhero films centered around more diverse leads – just look at the box-office flop, Power Rangers, which starred four young actors of colour. Systemic racism in Hollywood was inevitable, bearing in mind that the first ever spoken words in cinema were by a white man in blackface in The Jazz Singer (1927). However, for many, comic books and superheroes offer a sense of awe, assurance and escape from reality; excluding entire demographics is proving to be damaging to the mentality of fans who feel that they will never measure up to those they’ve admired for so long.
Haaniyah Angus, a UK-based writer of Somali/Jamaican heritage, started the NerdyPOC publication on the Medium platform only a year ago and has since then amassed a loyal audience of twenty-three thousand Twitter followers. As a fellow superhero fanatic and series’ binger, the barefaced racism within the entertainment industry had left her with a mounting sensation of apprehension – and this is the reality that many geeky people of colour will face at a point in their lives: there is no representation for them in nerd culture.
“I saw that there was a gap in the ‘market’ for nerdy publications dedicated to people of colour. As you know, some do exist; however, in my opinion, they aren’t as unapologetic as we are…”, Haaniyah expounded over a recent email exchange. “Unapologetic” is an unquestionably apt description. Haaniyah, as well as the NerdyPOC writing team, has been increasingly vocal in her disdain for issues surrounding sexism, cultural bias and racism in the entertainment industry – specifically pertaining to all things “nerd” related.
In fact, Haaniyah expresses that if she had to pinpoint a catalyst for her conception and development of NerdyPOC, she’d narrow it down to the following white-washed atrocities that we’ve seen over the past two years:
- Bane, Talia and Ra’s Al Ghul in the Nolan DCU Batman
- Major in Ghost in The Shell.
- The Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
- Pietro and Wanda Maximoff in Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
- Danny Rand in Marvel’s Iron Fist.
“We need more people of colour in the directing, producing and writing stages of films/media to prevent this from happening.”, she furthers. Her words hold a severe bite when reflecting on Marvel’s directorial team: not a single woman or person of colour in sight. This fell under intensely punitive critique from those who felt that the upcoming Black Panther film would only be safe in the hands of a black director – and justifiably so, considering the brand’s history when conducting adored non-white characters.
Inescapably, there have been those who misconstrue Haaniyah’s criticism as “reverse-racism”, calling her out for demanding that white actors be more mindful when accepting roles that should be been designated for people of colour. When queried about her implications, she clarified that the Eurocentric nature of the media needs to be evaluated more critically, especially in countries where white people do not make up the majority of the population.
“… mainstream media in the West is centered around white people when most of the countries are actually very diverse in their population.” – Haaniyah Angus
The backlash of a few, however, does not deter from the love she’s received from her many thousands of followers. Both readers and content contributors feel a cherished sense of community surrounding the publication. Some have gone so far as to say that they’ve found an online “family” and a “safe space”, something which brings Haaniyah an immense amount of joy and gratitude.
“I don’t treat NPOC as a company; if that makes sense? I treat it as my friends who want to help the publication grow and want to create a community for fellow nerds of colour.”. And that is precisely what she’s accomplished; though, she has no intention of becoming complacent with her online success. When prodded about her plans for the publication, Haaniyah reveals that she would gradually like to move the publication off Medium to a custom-URL site before ultimately launching podcasts, merchandise and even a YouTube channel. In the meantime, she’s content to appreciate the publication for what it currently is: a group of friends geeking out over the escapades of fictional characters.
The work of individuals like Haaniyah who create spaces for nerds of colour to express their own distinctive outlooks is consoling when endeavouring to dismantle the exclusionary nerd sub-culture. As a nerdy brown girl, there are moments of immeasurable thankfulness that come from seeing a fan-art post of a hijabi Robin and thinking ‘yeah, why not… that could be me.’.