BLACK LIGHTNING has been an amazing show so far. It lets you have your cake and eat it too: it’s a bit cheesy, but it’s also thoughtful and has a lot of heart. Something that really helps make the experience of the show is a marvelous villain. Tobias Whale already shines as a villain. With the politics that BLACK LIGHTING is currently covering, Tobias represents a threat that content about superheroes of color and activism typical ignores.

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Internalized racism and respectability politics are these seldom-discussed threats. There’s a troubling pattern when it comes to villains that are people of color — especially black villains. It’s common to portray black villains as radicals who “go too far” or use rhetoric that others find scary.

These villains typically rely on tired tropes and a misunderstanding of activism.

Villains of Color and “Scary” Radicals

BLACK LIGHTNING could have easily had a villain that was an over-the-top radical. Someone outfitted with weapons calling for revolution in Freeland at any cost. In fact, it seems like the expected response to Jefferson Pierce’s balanced, peaceful approach to things. I’m so grateful they didn’t go that route. Instead, activism and revolution are in the hands of our protagonists.

The issue of making villains of color the “scary” radicals has existed for a long time. In fact, this narrative has even twisted real history. Many people seem to thrive off espousing a narrative of “peaceful” activists versus “violent” activists. People have been treating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as opposing forces for years, despite the fact that reducing these men to “opposites” also reduces quite a bit of Civil Rights history.

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People love to make stories where a villain of an oppressed class supposedly emulates Malcolm X, and the leader of the heroes emulates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There’s obviously tons of issues with this — the implications that Malcolm X was a dangerous or even villainous man is built into these stories. Every time people say Magneto is Malcolm X while Professor X is Dr. King, for example, they’re enforcing a false, racist narrative.

Every time people fall back on this idea for villains of color, they’re spreading a message. Specifically, a message that revolution and radical thought is inherently evil. They’re pressing people of color to have only the option to do things “peacefully”—and that’s peaceful by the standards of people who don’t want PoC to protest at all. In a world where simply taking a knee isn’t peaceful enough, but being anything but peaceful is evil, what are people of color to do?

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It’s very clear that BLACK LIGHTNING is aware of this stereotype. While Jefferson Pierce wants to center peaceful organization — and quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often — he clearly believes in taking radical action as well. BLACK LIGHTNING takes us a step further than stepping away from comic book stereotypes of people of color, though. It introduces a villain who represents real, nuanced threats to the community.

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BLACK LIGHTNING isn’t concerned with threats to activism that fall along the lines of things becoming “too radical.” Instead, BLACK LIGHTNING tries to center very real threats that activists today constantly face. Within the first few episodes, we see that people struggling to manage the issues with the 100 in Freeland lack resources. These people lack the power to do anything — and authority figures in Freeland, like the police department, aren’t moved to use their power to help.

Tobias Whale

Beyond that, there’s Tobias Whale. Tobias is a combination of many things. His feelings of being exceptional because he’s albino because he’s “different” from how he views other black people, harken to both colorism and internalized racism. Tobias is a threat that causes a visceral reaction in audiences because he is a threat people — especially activists — are used to, simply amplified.

The “White Whale”

Tobias Whale is a villain that could have been ridiculous. A man who owns piranhas and shoots people with harpoons sounds like one of the whackier DC rogues. It’s easy to play Tobias as over the top…and sometimes BLACK LIGHTNING does do that. However, the show has brought a lot of nuance to the villain as well.

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Tobias is eccentric to the point of it feeling bizarre, but he’s more than that. His fixations and his rage make him a compelling character from the get-go. He’s not only eye-catching in design — a well-dressed albino man that cuts an intimidating figure with his size — but also in how these things are taken advantage of by the narrative.

Tobias Whale

The focus on his status as an albino black man allows BLACK LIGHTNING to cover a lot of ground. Tobias’ self-hatred, his hatred of the community, and the backstory of his abuse revolve around him being albino. BLACK LIGHTNING has elevated Tobias Whale’s status as albino past being a novelty or something eye-catching. Instead, Tobias represents real threats to the community.

Tobias Whale is a black man in power who wants to police and control other black people. He’s very vocal in his distaste for what he sees other black people as. Tobias is a walking, talking example of internalized racism. In many ways, he’s a perfect juxtaposition to the protagonists of BLACK LIGHTNING.

He stands as a real threat to a community that thrives off black people’s love and success.

Internalized Racism

BLACK LIGHTNING is clear about Tobias’ feelings about his community. It’s asserted that he “really [does] hate black people” by one of his subordinates, prompting a rant from Tobias that boils down to him hating “certain types” of black people. This kind of behavior is familiar to people of color — the purposeful distancing from your own race, especially the most “unfavorable” examples.

Internalized racism is an insidious threat to communities of color. Tobias Whale feels like a palpable, familiar threat. In juxtaposition to the strong, connected community of Freeland with its outpouring of pride in black history, black activism, and black achievement, Tobias stands as a man who reduces black people other than him to stereotypes.

Tobias Whale

Respectability politics and the myth of exceptionalism fuels Tobias’ internalized racism. Respectability politics rely on the idea the behavior of oppressed people is what causes racism. It’s the argument that if gay people didn’t act “so flamboyant,” homophobia wouldn’t exist or the idea that if people of color weren’t so “loud” (or “ghetto,” or “lazy,” etc), racism wouldn’t exist. Oppressed people who fall for this rhetoric try to hold themselves as an exception and stake their success on that.

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On top of that, there’s the aspect of colorism. The history of light-skinned black people being favored by white beauty standards over dark-skinned black people dates back to slavery. The Brown Paper Bag Test is still regularly cited. Tobias’ presence as an albino black man who hates other black people seems to have heavy roots in this as well.

What Tobias Whale Means for BLACK LIGHTNING

BLACK LIGHTNING has a lot of levels to it. It stays grounded in the politics of activism, staying conscious about both historical black politics and what’s happening in current politics. The show also uses its knowledge of the superhero genre to use tropes in its favor, and subvert them when need be. It only makes sense their villain would have so many levels.

Tobias Whale being a stand-in for colorism and internalized racism makes perfect sense for a show like BLACK LIGHTNING. Tobias is representative of toxicity affecting Freeland. If our heroes — both Black Lightning and Thunder — represent what can save oppressed communities, Tobias is the things that can doom them.

Tobias Whale

Tobias has so much to give as a villain. He has a bit of that DC rogue ridiculous but also real, meaningful writing. Tobias Whale is still a goof on Moby Dick, after all. The “Great White Whale” who uses harpoons and piranhas simply for the dramatic flair. At the same time, Tobias Whale represents how internalized racism and respectability politics can poison a community and challenge activists.

BLACK LIGHTNING excels as a show, and Tobias Whale stands out as a villain because we get to have the best of both worlds.


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