Mystical Negro Offensive Cliche - Follow Up Question in #15

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Brigid Barry

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Hope this is the right place to put this.

I am watching a documentary on Netflix about Hollywood cliches and one that came up was the Mystical Negro.

Legend of Bagger Vance and Bruce Almighty were called out specifically for the trope of POC exists for the sole purpose of helping the white MC.

In an attempt to have my second world fantasy not be completely whitewashed I am trying to build a world with diversity. A previously white character who has quite a bit of screen time with the MC in the second half is now a woman of color. She is of higher rank and further education than the MC, and has a more mature, calm personality than the MC, who doesn't always think things through and can be rash in her decision making. There is some guidance happening even though this secondary character has her own goals and makes her own decisions.

Could this be taken as the Mystical POC?

Any resources that might be helpful are greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance for your time!

ETA: There is a follow up question about a different novel in #15.

ETA: to use the appropriate name because the actual name is intended to depict how offensive the trope is.
 
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mccardey

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Hope this is the right place to put this.

I am watching a documentary on Netflix about Hollywood cliches and one that came up was the Mystical POC (it uses a different word but I don't want to offend).

Legend of Bagger Vance and Bruce Almighty were called out specifically for the trope of POC exists for the sole purpose of helping the white MC.

In an attempt to have my second world fantasy not be completely whitewashed I am trying to build a world with diversity. A previously white character who has quite a bit of screen time with the MC in the second half is now a woman of color. She is of higher rank and further education than the MC, and has a more mature, calm personality than the MC, who doesn't always think things through and can be rash in her decision making. There is some guidance happening even though this secondary character has her own goals and makes her own decisions.

Could this be taken as the Mystical POC?

Any resources that might be helpful are greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance for your time!
From memory, the PoC pages have some terrific resources on this very issue.
 

Brigid Barry

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From memory, the PoC pages have some terrific resources on this very issue.
Sorry, I'm terrible at navigating the boards. Thank you so much, I did find the board and I will go browse. Thanks!
 
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mccardey

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Sorry, I'm terrible at navigating the boards. Thank you so much, I did find the board and I will go browse. Thanks!
I'm also bad at it ;) I can't find the actual thread where it came up recently (some time in the last 6 weeks I think.) But if you do a search for the common expression, it should come up.
 
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Brigid Barry

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I'm also bad at it ;) I can't find the actual thread where it came up recently (some time in the last 6 weeks I think.) But if you do a search for the common expression, it should come up.
I even found it, and there are links to resources. Thanks!
 
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Hope this is the right place to put this.

I am watching a documentary on Netflix about Hollywood cliches and one that came up was the Mystical POC (it uses a different word but I don't want to offend).

Legend of Bagger Vance and Bruce Almighty were called out specifically for the trope of POC exists for the sole purpose of helping the white MC.

In an attempt to have my second world fantasy not be completely whitewashed I am trying to build a world with diversity. A previously white character who has quite a bit of screen time with the MC in the second half is now a woman of color. She is of higher rank and further education than the MC, and has a more mature, calm personality than the MC, who doesn't always think things through and can be rash in her decision making. There is some guidance happening even though this secondary character has her own goals and makes her own decisions.

Could this be taken as the Mystical POC?

Any resources that might be helpful are greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance for your time!
Yeah I know the trope you mean and see why you want to avoid it! I think it very much depends on how you write it. It's hard to advise without reading.

Oftentimes, these offensive 'mystical POC characters' would give advice based on folksy homsespun wisdom ('I didn't go to school much but went to the university of life etc etc) so if your character has a higher education/career than your MC, this should hopefully help you avoid the pitfalls.

And as you say, it gets very dodgy if they're only there to help the white MC. If they seem more interested in the white MC's life than their own. I've always noticed that and found it odd/offensive in books and movies. Why would any real-life character feel that way?

I'll be interested to see what others who know more about this think.

They sometimes do this with Irish characters too. Make them 'simple but wise', with a twinkle in their eye and a common way of talking which belies their wisdom. Sometimes there's a slight suggestion of magic or otherworldliness about them too.

E.g. the movie 'Wild Moutain Thyme' dubbed 'stunningly regressive stuff' by Donald Clarke of the Irish Times.:ROFLMAO:
 

Brigid Barry

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This character (her name is Mherin fwiw) took the opportunity to escape at the same time as the MC. In my head they are on parallel paths. Mherin does help the MC navigate a bit of the situation "Listen, the bad guy is really bad, don't trust him". She makes decisions for herself based on her own needs - "Not going to stay here and get murdered, k, bye".

I did find a similar thread on the POC board and the admin had a link to an article about this that I'm reading and based on this article I think I am okay. I will just be super mindful as I'm doing my edits to make sure.
 

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There are specific things that the trope needs to have to be, well, the trope, and not just a black character that has magic:
  • The character serves as a plot device just for the white MC to grow/learn something
  • The magic powers are kinda ill-defined and can loop into the whole "oooo tribal magic" thing or other gross things like that
  • The magic powers are an "exception," so not all black people have this ability
  • So, put together, the magic is used JUST to help the white character
It's an evolution of the noble savage and the happy slave tropes. A POC being a mentor isn't the same thing, since mentors tend to be developed characters and have reasons to exist besides "I gotta make sure this white person succeeds!"

Anyone, if they want to be enough of a dick, is going to point at anything and say it's offensive. I'm transgender, and there's some trans people who get mad if you say "trans woman," because that implies, oh, she's not a real woman! Because if you thought she was you'd just say "woman," the inclusion of "trans" is inherently othering and should never be said! Or if she's super-feminine, then you're being misogynistic and saying you HAVE to be that way to be a real woman. It goes on and on lol. You're never going to make 100% of people happy.

Mace Windu isn't this trope because, well, there's tons of other Jedi. Him being a Jedi isn't special. If Qui-Gon or Obi-Wan were black, they'd be a mentor character, but it still wouldn't be this trope, because tons of Jedi are out there. It sounds like you just got a mentor who's got a lot of other stuff going on, and she just so happens to be black. That's fine.

Also, the reason why that word is used in the trope name is because it is archaic and offensive. It's supposed to make you think "oh right, this is not a good thing." "Magical African American friends" is another way to say it lol. POC is too vague and, yeah, there are a ton of things where Magical Asian does something similar (looking at you, Lindsay Lohan version of Freaky Friday), but the history of how white people have treated black folx isn't the same as other poc.
 

Brigid Barry

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There are specific things that the trope needs to have to be, well, the trope, and not just a black character that has magic:
  • The character serves as a plot device just for the white MC to grow/learn something
  • The magic powers are kinda ill-defined and can loop into the whole "oooo tribal magic" thing or other gross things like that
  • The magic powers are an "exception," so not all black people have this ability
  • So, put together, the magic is used JUST to help the white character
It's an evolution of the noble savage and the happy slave tropes. A POC being a mentor isn't the same thing, since mentors tend to be developed characters and have reasons to exist besides "I gotta make sure this white person succeeds!"

Anyone, if they want to be enough of a dick, is going to point at anything and say it's offensive. I'm transgender, and there's some trans people who get mad if you say "trans woman," because that implies, oh, she's not a real woman! Because if you thought she was you'd just say "woman," the inclusion of "trans" is inherently othering and should never be said! Or if she's super-feminine, then you're being misogynistic and saying you HAVE to be that way to be a real woman. It goes on and on lol. You're never going to make 100% of people happy.

Mace Windu isn't this trope because, well, there's tons of other Jedi. Him being a Jedi isn't special. If Qui-Gon or Obi-Wan were black, they'd be a mentor character, but it still wouldn't be this trope, because tons of Jedi are out there. It sounds like you just got a mentor who's got a lot of other stuff going on, and she just so happens to be black. That's fine.

Also, the reason why that word is used in the trope name is because it is archaic and offensive. It's supposed to make you think "oh right, this is not a good thing." "Magical African American friends" is another way to say it lol. POC is too vague and, yeah, there are a ton of things where Magical Asian does something similar (looking at you, Lindsay Lohan version of Freaky Friday), but the history of how white people have treated black folx isn't the same as other poc.
This is perfect, thank you for taking the time to respond, I appreciate it.
 

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ETA: to use the appropriate name because the actual name is intended to depict how offensive the trope is.

I feel like that's probably a bad idea because the reference itself seems offensive. :censored:
 

Brigid Barry

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I feel like that's probably a bad idea because the reference itself seems offensive. :censored:
See Chasejxyz (who I defer to since they've been kicking around way longer than me): "Also, the reason why that word is used in the trope name is because it is archaic and offensive. It's supposed to make you think "oh right, this is not a good thing." "Magical African American friends" is another way to say it lol. POC is too vague and, yeah, there are a ton of things where Magical Asian does something similar (looking at you, Lindsay Lohan version of Freaky Friday), but the history of how white people have treated black folx isn't the same as other poc."

My title was incorrect so I changed it
 

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It's not just Black People either. Native Americans seem to get cast in this role a lot, as do people from other cultures popularly thought to be less educated or scientific and/or more in tune with nature or spirituality.
And magical Asians as someone else pointed out. It's all offensive and I don't want to do it, even unintentionally.

For convenience this is the super article about the roots of this trope and some recent examples:


I've had to rewrite this character's story line twice already and wanted to make sure I didn't need to do it a third time. Based on the answers I've gotten and that page I think I avoided this particular pit.
 

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Follow up question. I was pondering my MS that I have on sub right now (different from the one I was asking the original question about - it has two personalized rejects, woot!) and realized that I may have both a Mystical Negro (I hate that word, I'm so sorry for using it) and a Mystical Native American.

My novel is based on a true story. I am less concerned with the Native American Shaman (who is of French and Abenaki descent, and there's a registration rabbit hole that I don't go down in the novel and would prefer not to go into here) than I am about my Black character, who is a psychic. Her real life counterpart is white. My setting is exceptionally homogeneous (Maine is, according to World Population Review, the whitest state in the US, more so 20 years ago when this was set) but I didn't want the story to be completely white so I changed the psychic - a prominent secondary character - into a Black woman. I didn't go for the whole religious part of the trope (the article I read called out Oda Mae Brown in Ghost and the entire set up of her being very Christian and religious) but she's someone who comes out to help the white FMC with her ghosts, because that's what happened IRL.

I don't know which is worse, having an entirely white cast or partly falling into this trope.

Thoughts on handling this properly are appreciated.
 

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You may have already included this, but just to be sure: Does your Black character have family members or close friends? People don't tend to exist in isolation, so including friends she grew up with who moved to Maine around the same time as her (if she didn't grow up there), or an extended family, among your minor characters might be one way of increasing representation while also giving them a range of interests and personalities (so you don't have your only Black character partly falling into this trope).
 
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Is there a mystical 'Old White Angry Man' trope? That might be fun to swap into the manuscript. ;)

More seriously, if you are working with an agent, obviously their thoughts are the ones to take into consideration.

If you are querying... I mean, you could do a dozen different things to get around offending people. Spread out the magic. Add more color. Hang a lampshade on the trope (That'd be my first attempt, only b/c I always like lampshades, but it wouldn't be my final attempt). Remove the magic and make the mystical folks simply ... educated and competent. Etc.
 
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Is there a mystical 'Old White Angry Man' trope? That might be fun to swap into the manuscript. ;)

More seriously, if you are working with an agent, obviously their thoughts are the ones to take into consideration.

If you are querying... I mean, you could do a dozen different things to get around offending people. Spread out the magic. Add more color. Hang a lampshade on the trope (That'd be my first attempt, only b/c I always like lampshades, but it wouldn't be my final attempt). Remove the magic and make the mystical folks simply ... educated and competent. Etc.
She is certainly competent and authoritative, and (imho) I didn't slip into the "sassy Black woman" cliche.

Should this actually get to an agent or an editor I will absolutely take their suggestions, I just didn't know if there was something I could do ahead of time! lol.
 
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she's someone who comes out to help the white FMC with her ghosts, because that's what happened IRL.
If she helps the white FMC for her own reasons, to serve her own purposes, she's not a Mystical Negro. You have to make extra sure she has her own arc, her own goal and motivation, and that these aren't tied to the white character. Also, adding other (white) psychics in the background would help.

Things to consider:
  • Why does she help the FMC? What does she gain from it?
  • Why does she help the ghosts? This is especially important, because the main issue with the Magical Negro is that they exist to do "what's right" from a white (religious) perspective. Originally, they served God/Jesus. Nowadays, ghosts can be an extension of that. Serving ghosts because "it's the right thing to do" brings to mind black characters whose priority was to serve God, and who were depicted as a parangon of morality because of that. Of course having the ghosts be white make things worse.
  • Is her help taken for granted, or does the FMC understand they have a moral debt for the time she spends helping her?
  • Do their priorities clash at times, and does she follow her own priorities rather than the FMC's?
It's fine for her to have psychic powers and to help the FMC. It's not fine for her to serve, or worse, exist to serve, the FMC. She has to have a life of her own.
 

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If she helps the white FMC for her own reasons, to serve her own purposes, she's not a Mystical Negro. You have to make extra sure she has her own arc, her own goal and motivation, and that these aren't tied to the white character. Also, adding other (white) psychics in the background would help.

Things to consider:
  • Why does she help the FMC? What does she gain from it?
  • Why does she help the ghosts? This is especially important, because the main issue with the Magical Negro is that they exist to do "what's right" from a white (religious) perspective. Originally, they served God/Jesus. Nowadays, ghosts can be an extension of that. Serving ghosts because "it's the right thing to do" brings to mind black characters whose priority was to serve God, and who were depicted as a parangon of morality because of that. Of course having the ghosts be white make things worse.
  • Is her help taken for granted, or does the FMC understand they have a moral debt for the time she spends helping her?
  • Do their priorities clash at times, and does she follow her own priorities rather than the FMC's?
It's fine for her to have psychic powers and to help the FMC. It's not fine for her to serve, or worse, exist to serve, the FMC. She has to have a life of her own.
So reiterating that this is a real person (whose name and likeness have been changed),

Caroline (the character) was attached to a ghost hunting group with Alan (the Shaman) and it was a hobby for her, and she would sometimes get paid clientele out of it (she also had a business where she did readings and things). There's no reference to God or Jesus, she references Spirit (not the horse) and the Archangels.

She doesn't specifically do anything for the ghosts (Alan does that). Caroline more or less is trying to explain the whole haunting things to the FMC, who tries to challenge her with science. So Caroline tells the FMC to pull her head out of her ass and stop trying to explain away things. Not sure if that's a mentor relationship or not.

There are no conflicts of desires, and I need to look and see how my FMC responds to the help. She doesn't just absorb it, I'm sure she says thank you (she'd better, I raised her better than that).

:/
 
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