Problematic Archetypes in Writing: The Magical Negro
Being in an interracial marriage, my husband and I talk a lot about race and discrimination in society. It’s great to vent with him and have him simply listen or just want to understand my perspective. There’s no BS with each other and I’ve always considered my hubby pretty woke. And it’s his healthy desire to learn and have real talks that keeps him that way.
Recently, we watched an episode of “Key & Peele” (we LOVE that show BTW) and was laughing at the episode that satirized the “Magical Negro” archetype. It was hilarious how they made it so extra. Afterward, he asked me, “I’m aware of the stereotype of the “magical negro”, but why is it considered toxic when it appears to be a positive representation of black people in entertainment?”
I had to give my answer some thought, because I’ll be honest, at the bare bones, growing up watching black people being street thugs, prostitutes and other criminals in literature and cinema was damaging and confusing to me. I grew up on the east side of town—my parents was one of only two families of color with the balls to integrate into an all-white neighborhood during the 60’s. And the Black people I knew where doctors, lawyers, and teachers.
I never saw a black street thug growing up. I knew they existed, of course, but it was quite rare. So all the frequent negative representations confused me.
So to many people, the idea of a black character represented as something other than a criminal or loser seems like a step up. But here’s the thing, and this is what I told my husband:
“Baby, at the heart of all stereotypes, they are ALL negative. Even the ones that seem positive such as ‘Asians are super smart & good at math’ or the ‘magical negro,’ who is only there to support the white character and solve all their problems.” I could see in his eyes that something clicked to him as I continued:
“The idea of a magical negro is still toxic because, like all seemingly “positive” stereotypes, it reinforces some dangerous expectations that those groups shouldn’t have to meet. That all people of color are good for is to assist in solving white people’s issues. That we’re just the help. That we are only the sidekick, and never good enough to be the lead. That we are only created in the story to serve the elevation of white success, and not our own. We are not a plot device and we are not tokens.”
I went on to explain that I have a theory that the whole idea of the ‘magical negro’ or POC sidekick has caused some real problems in the workforce for blacks and other people of color. How it is so surprising to see a black person lead instead of the expectation of being the ‘magical negro’ behind the scenes making the white leader look good? Being a sidekick in the company and not a leader? Hmmm? But I digress.
All in all, that’s my piece on the dangers of the ‘magical negro’ archetype, and a glance into the crazy, thought-provoking house of Kharma :)