Where are the Super Heroes of Colour?

 In Elementary, Lessons and Ideas, Secondary

Updated in 2018.

by Leasa Adams, Teacher, O’Connor P.S., North York Board of Education

I have often used the theme of Super Heroes to teach media literacy with junior students. It is a great tool to get students to think critically about the world in which they live. It is also a good topic because often students who are experts on super heroes are not the best readers and writers. Often the students who bring into class action figures and trading cards are the ones who are experiencing difficulty. (Also, I must admit I too have had a fascination with super heroes since I was a girl. I was wooed by the romantic notion of a superhuman person saving the world from evil.)

I have also noticed that the action figures that the students bring into school do not reflect the different races and cultures that exist in my classroom. I have not seen many, if any, action heroes who are Black, Asian, or Native. It is disturbing to see young Black males idolizing these muscle-bound white male figures. I have found that the super-hero topic is excellent for looking at racism in its various forms.

The Super Heroes Unit

In the beginning I discuss with the students why we will be studying super heroes, and I explain a little about media literacy. I also send a letter home to the parents explaining the purpose of the unit. This is crucial because students will have to watch programs on television that their parents may not approve of. Quite often I get phone calls, even after I have sent home the letter.

The students’ first assignment is to choose a super hero on television and to watch a few episodes of the program. Then they are to write down the characteristics of the super hero, why their character is a super hero, what the program says about society, their opinion whether or not four-year-olds should be able to watch the program, and who they think is the targeted audience.

Before I give this assignment I discreetly inquire whether everyone has a television, as we cannot assume that every household does own one. Once I found out that a girl in my classroom did not have a television. We discussed various ways in which she could participate, and she decided to do the assignment with a friend at the friend’s home.

Also, before this assignment, we discuss what constitutes a super hero. Steven gave a very succinct definition. He said a super hero is someone who has super powers and who protects the innocent.

From the first assignment students find that in most of the programs that they watch, society is portrayed as dark, dangerous, full of evil and violence. We then discuss if they think this portrayal is accurate, somewhat true, or completely wrong. Viewpoints amongst the students vary. What is important is that they are thinking about society, and they are given an opportunity to discuss their opinions. They are also beginning to think about the effects of television. Almost all of the students agree that four-year-old children should not watch shows with a lot of violence, because of their inability to discern between pretence and reality. Finally, the students begin to understand that they are a part of a large targeted audience. Later I want them to see that as such they may have some power.

Next, I ask the students to make a list of all the super heroes that they know. We then categorize their lists in chart form under the headings of White Male, Of Colour, Female, and Non-Human (students felt we needed this last category).  There was some confusion because many of the super heroes were mutants (half human and half something else). So we decided if their human half was white male, they went in that category. As we were doing the chart students started to make observations. One girl, Russellynn, noted that there are many female super heroes. We discussed if the female super heroes are leaders, work independently, or are side kicks; if their roles are secondary, and whether or not they have as much power as their male counterparts.

Also from the chart students were beginning to see that there are not many super heroes of colour. Some students brought out their trading cards and we looked at them closely. Some of the X-Men had dark skin, but had white features. Were they people of colour or were they super-tanned white men? Again more discussion. Students clearly saw that they were not represented in the world of superdom. When I asked them how this made them feel, Josephine, one very articulate girl who is half Chinese and half Black said, “I feel isolated”.

Next the students talked about super villains, and what kind of effect it has when people of colour are portrayed as evil. At this point, we discussed stereotypes such as young Black men as thieves, or evil Asians (such as the super villain in Power Ranger) trying to take over the world. Sometimes these discussions led to the question of whether or not newspapers, when they are reporting a crime someone is said to have committed, should include the person’s race.

After having discovered the lack of super heroes of colour, the students then have to think about and discuss how this situation occurs. With some help and some thought-provoking questions they begin to see how all the various influences come together (some intentional and some not intentional) to create the situation. Then we must figure out how we can try and change the situation. (Once the students have a better understanding of the economics of television, they get more ideas on how to try and change the situation.) One idea that the students came up with is letter writing. Many wanted to write to YTV, because at this station you can write to your favourite deejay and hopefully have your letter read over the air to get other people thinking about the situation. We discussed sending letters to toy manufacturers to say that students would like to buy action figures of colour. We discussed boycotting, picketing and other forms of peaceful protesting. Some students had some difficulty with the ideas of boycotting because they didn’t know what they could play with until the new figures came out. They knew it was going to take a while. Other more altruistic types said it would be worth the sacrifice, because it was going to be for something more important. I’m always impressed with the sophistication of the students’ arguments.

Many of the other students said when they grew up they were going to become cartoonists, animators, writers, and directors, and they were going to create programs with more super heroes of colour. Later I will describe some activities that students can do to learn more about the creative aspect.

To get students thinking about the economics of television I ask them to watch their program again and this time to write down all the different commercials and to keep a tally of the number of times the same commercial comes on. (With the tally students can learn about averaging in math.) We can then discuss who these commercials are geared towards. Students learn that in order for a television program to get on the air it must have sponsors, and that sponsors will only support a program if it has a large viewing audience who will buy their products. Here is a good time to point out that many of the action figures are created first, and then the program is developed around the character. Students learn that they have some power as a collective because they help determine, in various degrees, what cereal, snacks, clothes, and toys their parents will purchase. General Mills isn’t going to care if one person will not buy its cereal, but if many say they won’t purchase its cereal, then maybe that company will think about the types of program it supports. Students could petition the school population to get support for more super heroes of colour and send the petition to different companies.

To further explore the idea of working together as a collective to bring about change I had the students in small groups make another chart. I had them chart what kinds of problems super heroes had to deal with, and what kinds of solutions they used. The problems of super heroes are fairly simple. They have to stop criminals, or they have to stop evil aliens from taking over the world. They solve their problems by beating up their opponents, or by using futuristic gadgetry. The students, of course, know that these shows do not deal with real problems, although there was some discussion in my class about Power Rangers, because at the end of the show one of the Rangers gives a talk on topics such as racism or bullying.

Next I had them write down the real problems of society, and what solutions would work best for these problems. Here is the list the students came up: pollution, bullying, racism, swearing, violence, politics, financial problems, drugs, friendship, family problems, death, crime, weapons, killing, boys showing off, and forgetting keys at home. The list was pretty inclusive. The students were also very good at coming up with solutions. As a large group we chose racism for an in-depth look. I gave the students this scenario: what if you were applying for a job and you didn’t get the job, and afterwards you did some investigating and found out there aren’t many people of colour working at this particular place. What could you do? Here were some of the responses: go back and talk to the people, tell your city councillor or MPP, get a lawyer and sue the company, tell your friends, tell people not to buy the company’s products or services, get people to carry signs out in front of the company (picket), or tell your problem to the newspaper. As people were making suggestions other students would debate the pros and cons of each one. The most heated debate came when taking your problem to the newspaper was suggested. Mohamed, who is Black, said that newspapers lie and that they would not get the story correct, and he said the company would pay the newspaper off. I asked him what if many people went to the newspaper with the same story, and his response was that the white people who read the newspapers wouldn’t care about a story like that. I told Mohamed that I think many white people care about racism and want to see its demise. I am amazed that Mohamed has already received messages from and about the media that cause him to be so cynical at such an early age.

Viewing Assignment

Choose a program on TV about a super hero. Watch two episodes, and then answer the following questions.

  1. Describe your super hero. What are his/her characteristics?
  2. What makes your super hero a super hero? Why is he/she a super hero?
  3. Do you think a small child should watch this show? Why or why not?
  4. If aliens watched this show what would they think about our society?
  5. What kind of person would like to watch this show?

Creative Activities

There are many activities that students can do. In these activities I stress that students should create super heroes that are reflective of their race, culture, and gender. I also say I want to see super heroes solving real problems, in real ways. (It is really difficult for some students to resist the beat-up-the-criminals scenario, but we work on it.)

  1. Students can create their own comic books. Students learn how to create panels, and how to show what the characters are thinking and saying (thought bubbles and dialogue bubbles), and where to put the narration. I have books on how to draw super heroes, and we talk about how to make characters look Black or Asian. We discuss whether or not their super heroes have to be big with bulging muscles.
  2. Students can create life-size posters with mural paper. The same points from the previous activity apply here, too.
  3. Students can create a play about their super hero, and if time and resources permit students can create a story board and have their play made into a live action video.
  4. In stop-motion animation, students create super heroes on paper and with a popsicle stick and plasticene make these characters stand up. They then create a scene, video tape {the scene for 2 or 3 seconds, stop the camera, move the characters and film it again. This is an excellent activity for students to learn that animation is an illusion, as they learn about things such as perspective (the closer the camera, the bigger the figure appears). They also learn about creating story boards, building sets and using props, and setting up shots. The students need to work cooperatively in groups for this activity, and they really have fun.

(These ideas can be adapted to both secondary and elementary classrooms – ed.)

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