As a child, I learned a lot about racism from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
They were my favorite superheroes, and still rank top 5 today. For anthropomorphizing one of the lamest animals in the kingdom, the ’80s iteration possessed just the right amount of heroism topped with attitude to keep me hungry for green (now my hunger for “green” manifests itself differently). The show’s pizza-cheeziness and trite slang, however, belied a theme surprisingly relevant to race relations in America today. The Ninja Turtles were often treated like minorities.
Not unlike the Turtles, non-whites in America are frequently ostracized for foreign appearance before character. Peculiar look, taste and attitude make the majority uncomfortable merely for lack of familiarity, as a child feels when meeting a harmless stranger. Yet the Turtles are harmless and just as capable as anyone else.
Leonardo’s leadership consistently thwarted everything from the Rat King to Pizza Monsters. Donatello was a hyper intelligent teenager, impressive regardless of species. Michelangelo is a party dude, like Seth Rogen in a shell. Physically, they’re exactly the same shape. But despite worthy talent the brothers were forced into a segregate, shitty neighborhood below everyone else. So when Raphael lost his cool it was easy to understand why, but also to foresee that outcome if you’d been watching and paying attention.
The Ninja Turtles rarely received fair publicity. When they did, it was lone April O’ Neil speaking in their defense, although she was frequently squelched by her own organization, Channel 6 News. If there’d been fair coverage of her mysterious companions, the Turtles would’ve been welcomed with open arms.
Instead, whenever a minority community wants to communicate with the media, they require a calm, credentialed figurehead in order to receive airtime, otherwise context will likely be stripped for negative effect. By this I mean minority opinion must be filtered through some Master Splinter-type representing any particular movement, whether or not they actually speak for a majority.
And while the day of the aggressive “Shredder” bigot assaulting people on the street may be nearly gone, it’s being replaced with a more strategic Krangian regime. Racists in power act “in the public interest” to covertly protect their own, frequently executing nefarious plans of corruption, collusion, gerrymandering, irresponsible waste disposal, war. But their oozing lack of foresight has mutated into a young, passionate offensive that’s come for justice. Unfortunately, to counter, the police have been re-educated into Rock Soldiers from Dimension X, militaristic stone-hearted warriors mindlessly killing whoever they’re directed at.
Notoriously, the villains prefer to use mutated characterizations of minorities, especially blacks. Rocksteady and Bebop, an obvious allusion, are portrayed as “thugs”, “uneducated” and lacking the “proper family structure” to learn civility, per the standard talking points of hate. The closest approximation of the Turtles as minorities overgeneralized is Slash, a spiky, grossly distorted turtle malformed to the (Foot) Clan’s intent, not unlike a fascist propaganda poster at a pet store.
Those who step out in support of the Turtles essentially don the mask of Casey Jones, the ultimate social justice warrior. They take it upon themselves to pounce from the bushes and unleash hockey justice on anyone generally being a dick. It’s as much for fun as morality, but deep down they do seem to truly care. I imagine it’s because they have what every bad guy lacks: empathy.
Shredder and Krang worked to take over the world for ages, but the Turtles trained unceasingly to combat their injustices. The Foot were consistently terrified of every encounter because they knew what the outcome would be: an end to their awful deeds, their stolen superiority redistributed, their crooked pride in a creeping empire shattered.
Racism, like the hatred of the TMNT, always comes down to fear; of the unknown, of fate arcing inevitably towards justice. Fear makes people stupid, plain and simple. That is why not just in our mythology but in reality too, eventually, the good guys outsmart the bad. Because righteousness emboldens one with purpose whereas fear only stupefies, like Krang any time he falls out of the shelter of his giant baby suit.