Inhumans vs. X-Men
Race, Class, and the Right to Have a Story
By Matthew William Brake
Ever since Disney bought Marvel, there has been a noticeable shift in the latter’s storytelling. By all appearances, Marvel has been promoting and elevating its lesser-known properties (like Guardians of the Galaxy) while seemingly giving characters who have been mainstays in the Marvel Universe (like the Fantastic Four) a far more reduced role.
Many (rightly?) paranoid fans believe this is a shrewd business move by Disney to monopolize the characters whose movie rights it owns over those owned by other studios. The X-Men are a casualty of this tendency. Believe it or not, it was the X-Men, not the Avengers, who were the money-makers for Marvel back in the 90s before the company went bankrupt. Marvel sold the movie rights to its most popular properties to various movie studios, with the X-Men and all related titles and characters going to Fox. Marvel is not able to use the X-Men or even the term “mutant” in any of its own movies. In response to this reality, Marvel has elevated the Inhumans and sought to make them the stand-in for mutants.
In many ways, this makes sense. Both groups have experienced oppression and discrimination because of their superhuman abilities. Mutants are born with the X-gene, which causes them to manifest special abilities around puberty. Inhumans were experimented on by an alien race known as the Kree, who altered the DNA of a group of humans whom they intended to use as weapons against their enemies. The X-Men have faced their fair share of genicidal threats, persecution, and slavery at the hands of humans, while the Inhumans faced similar problems at the hands of the Kree.
The current status of these two groups is such that each poses an existential threat to the other. After Black Bolt, the king of the Inhumans, set off a bomb during the 2013 Infinity storyline that released a cloud of Terrigen gas, activating any dormant Inhuman genes in ordinary humans. However, mutants who are exposed to the cloud contract M-Pox, a disease that either kills or sterilizes them. While the destruction of the Terrigen cloud would save the mutant race, it would also effectively mean the inevitable extinction of the Inhuman race.
Which side deserves our sympathies?
Matters of Privilege
As much as these two groups are alike, there are significant differences between them. (In pointing out these differences, I am indebted in part to Jack Fisher, whose article on this subject I have given a link for below.) The X-Men, as Fisher points out, are “and always have been, a metaphor for minority struggles. They came about in the early 1960s, just as the Civil Rights Movement was taking hold in America. They embody the traits of the marginalized, the denigrated, and the persecuted” (Fisher, paragraph 8). Even the two primary mutant leaders, Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto, are often compared to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. By contrast, the Inhumans’ society is often portrayed as xenophobic, having a rigid caste system, and allowing the slavery of a group with low intelligence called the Alpha Primitives.
It is worth mentioning that one more distinction between mutants and Inhumans that Fisher points out is how their genetic differences manifest. Whereas mutants are “born that way” (even if their powers often don’t reveal themselves until puberty), Inhumans require an outside force in order for their powers to emerge. By making these two groups equivalent, Fisher indicates that Marvel is taking a group that has always represented marginalized people (black, LGTBQ, the disabled, etc.) and placing them on equal footing with a group of privileged, xenophobic bigots who can choose whether or not they want powers to begin with. The conflict is one between a minority who can’t help being the way they are, and a privileged people group who have the luxury of gaining superpowers if they so choose.
Contrary, however, to Fisher’s genetics vs. choice argument, there is an entire debate about minority/marginalized identities, particularly regarding sexuality that revolves around the questions about whether such minority identities are genetic or socially constructed. If one keeps in mind Foucault’s understanding of how structures of power (not just genetics) shape sexuality, then Fisher’s criticism about genetics becomes moot. Race, too, is an artificial construct. This doesn’t mean these identities are “voluntary,” but that they are shaped by power relations beyond mere genetics. In my case, I assume the social construction model of identity, so even in the case of the Inhumans, their superpowered identities are still shaped by social relationships and power dynamics beyond mere choice. Likewise, mutant identity should not be understood through a purely genetic model.
This doesn’t entirely blunt Fisher’s criticism of the entire Inhumans v. X-Men event. He is still right in noting that these two groups are not on equal terms. Mutants have faced an excessive amount of persecution and near-extinction level events, while the Inhumans and their “royal family” (how’s that for an economic class distinction) have largely lived a life of luxury and privilege mostly in isolation from the rest of the world. This doesn’t negate the Inhumans’ own story and history of persecution, but it is still a factor in the conflict between the two groups. Both have suffered hardship, but one group was historically buffered by a certain amount of privilege.
The Poor, White Story
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, much has been made of the role of the “poor white working class” in securing his win. This has sparked a debate on the political Left that has splintered into roughly two camps: 1) those who advocate expanding Democratic outreach to poor working whites, and 2) those who think invoking the white working class is rubbish.
I think an analysis that focuses only on the identity politics of race ignores the role of class in defining what it means to be privileged. It is true that poor whites are “buffered” by their racial identity in a way that poor blacks aren’t, but both groups share a class identity that gives them common ground. (Saturday Night Live recently did a “Black Jeopardy” sketch that exemplifies this point.) Arguably, even poor whites in Appalachia suffer from a form of neo-colonialism on the part of outside companies who come into the region to exploit its natural resources. Meanwhile, what do polite, well-educated, and enlightened progressives do? They make fun of the poor white class, blaming the hardships of people of color on another lower class group who don’t understand how their economically depressed circumstances reflect the privilege upper class progressive whites tell them they have and should be grateful for.
Two years ago, I read Dennis Covington’s exposé on Appalachian snake handlers entitled Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. He made a comment in his prologue that didn’t sit right with me at the time, but does now. He talks about the mishandling of Southern reconstruction after the Civil War and the exploitation of the South by northern businessmen, and points to “the scorn and ridicule the nation has heaped on poor Southern whites,” describing this group as “the only ethnic group in America not permitted to have a history [or story]” (Covington, xviii).
I met a new friend the other day, who recently had dinner with the famous theologian Dr. Stanley Hauerwas. While she and three other young United Methodist Church ministers believed that a Clinton win was a sure thing, Hauerwas warned them, “Be careful of a poor white America that doesn’t have a story. Black America has a story, but poor white America doesn’t.” The only story white America has now is racial antagonism, that is, the negation of “Other stories.”
But it need not be this way.
I have always liked the X-Men, but I have also had a soft spot in my heart for the Inhumans. I like them both, and there is so much common ground in their stories. The X-Men need not prevent the Inhumans from having a story or from furthering their story. They can even acknowledge some of their shared experiences and struggles; however, the Inhumans do need to recognize that they have been buffered by a certain amount of privilege. They have not lived in the thick of human society as long as the X-Men and other mutants have. Mutants have endured a harsh persecution within human society of which Inhumans are just now getting a taste.
That doesn’t mean that poor whites—I mean, Inhumans—shouldn’t have a story. Their struggles are real, and their story is worth telling. The silencing of their story shouldn’t be an option.
It just means that their story shouldn’t negate the stories of Others.
I don’t know what the poor white story will become in the future. I do know that whatever it becomes it needs to be more than an antagonism toward Other stories.
Bernie Sanders was able to convince a Trump voter that she voted for the wrong guy.
A black man, Daryl Davis, has been able to befriend and persuade 200 members of the KKK to leave that organization. Surely, progress in advancing the rights of marginalized peoples can be advanced without denying poor whites a story and the acknowledgement of their hardships.
Those who want to deny this possibility are merely stoking the fires of conflict.
Jack Fisher, “The Problem with Inhumans vs. X-Men,” Comicsverse. https://comicsverse.com/problem-inhumans-vs-x-men/.
(A view of the Inhumans that differs from Fisher’s) Draven Katayama, “Review: All-New Inhumans #1,” Comicosity. http://www.comicosity.com/review-all-new-inhumans-1/.
Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 1995.
“Bernie Sanders Tries to Convince a Trump Voter She Voted for the Wrong Person!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iVnVBCQhCs.
Caroline Praderio, “One man has spent years befriending KKK members and persuaded 200 of them to leave the hate group,” Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/daryl-davis-making-friends-with-kkk-documentary-2016-12.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.