Steven Universe: Art & Origins …and Racism

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Over the weekend of July 15-16, Twitter came alive with more concerns about the Steven Universe team’s racial sensitivity/awareness.

The show has already encountered critique from the viewership and blogosphere over previous instances in the show’s history where racial issues were not handled as well as they could have been:

  • The fact that the diverse voice actresses are for characters who are the caretakers for a white-coded child.
  • Multiple problematic examples in the episode “Bismuth,” which we at WWAC explored in detail here.
  • The fact that the voice actress for Connie Maheswaran, an Asian character, is a white person.
  • There is a zoo full of humans appearing in “The Zoo.” Black people were placed in zoos as a chapter of world history with racism. The trope of  humans in a zoo is an old sci-fi standby, however, and is not usually employed with a view to its connection to racism in real life.
  • The Thanksgiving episode introducing Greg’s bigoted cousin was perceived by some as a ham-handed attempt to crash course dealing with racist relatives over the holidays, and allowed the bigoted character too much leeway.

Some of the above racially insensitive missteps have been deal breakers for former fans, and have lost the show viewers.

The instance in this case comes from the Steven Universe: Art & Origins Art Book which came out on July 11 and was, up until now, eagerly anticipated. It included this image of a character named Concrete.

She is dark skinned, with much lighter lips, which brought to mind minstrelsy/blackface to many. Among the notes beside the character is the phrase “can’t read” with a sadface emoticon, which seems to add insult to injury. The perception of the image as not only racist but allowed to be placed in a prominent spot in the art book is perceived as not only extremely insensitive, but possibly intentionally racist.

Lamar Abrams, an African-American storyboard artist for the show, and the person who drew the sketch in question has offered an explanation as to how the image and notes came to exist in the first place:  the sketch was part of a team exercise for brainstorming ideas. It was then passed around for others to comment on. The character is not even going to appear in the show. Abrams offered his apology without implicating the person who wrote the notes out of concern that person would then be harassed by the wrath of those who found the image offensive.

Rebecca Sugar, the show’s creator and executive producer, also offered this apology:

“Bismuth” was widely critiqued for racial insensitivity and Sugar made no apology for the episode at the time of its first airing or since. Such a large misstep appearing in the art book after such a large blowback can give the perception to many that the show’s commitment to intersectional diversity is only lip service with no genuine follow through, as the queer content seems to be carefully combed over far more than the race-related content. On the other hand, an apology may indicate Sugar is aware of the weakness in her team’s storytelling and oversight, which is ultimately a good thing.

There are sites rushing to Sugar’s defense in response to contentions by viewers that Sugar, her staff and her show are racist. It is important to remind viewers and readers alike that a person can have the best intentions, they can try their best to avoid racial bias, but racism is a centuries-old systemic problem, so people can do racist things without intent, or completely by accident.  Intent is not magic, and intent does not negate racism when it appears.

Further, while it is frustrating and disappointing that an African-American staffer missed a comment that put his quick sketch in a bad light – it is also very important to remember that someone else making the remark on his art qualifies as a microaggression. It is a form of self-defense and cope method for Black people to intentionally ignore, miss or fail to catch such microaggressions and call them out because they can encounter many in a given day.

Sugar is correct to take the responsibility as executive producer, since there had to be multiple staff members between Abrams and herself who saw and missed this troubling example. She has no such reason to overlook a microagression against one of her staff, and against the Black people who watch her show, read her comics, and buy Steven Universe merchandise.

Steven Universe: Art & Origins is already listed as an Best Seller in its as-is form with the art that Sugar admits calls racial stereotypes to mind. As always, it remains our responsibility as viewers, consumers, and reviewers to continue keeping our eyes open and to call out such missteps whenever we encounter them. This is the only way to keep creative teams on their toes when it comes to keeping their word about promised diversity.

Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.