Archive for the 'Race' Category

Next Stop: First Black President

I didn’t vote. Why bother? Living in the deepest blue part of the bluest state, it’s pretty clear my vote will just be piling in with what will surely be a massive majority. As far as voting for change goes, New York’s ballot was in the box months ago.

Here’s the problem: “Dad, why didn’t you vote for the first black candidate for president?” Bit easier if I was at odds policy-wise (read Colin Powell). Lacking that, I’m left babbling electoral college math that sounds bogus even before it comes out my mouth. It’s a conversation I don’t know how to have. Okay, I voted after all.

It’s hard to believe we’re here — on the verge of electing the first black president. Our subway conductor on Halloween:

Barack Obama!
If you aren’t ready for change, get off the train
Next stop: first black president!

Let’s hope. But let’s also be clear on what it would say about the state of race in America. You need look no further than the current challenges in South Africa to see that electing a black president doesn’t magically generate the so-called post-racial society — particularly when your economy is in shambles.

Still, merely having a black presidential candidate has the nice byproduct of opening the floodgates for thoughtful reflection on race in the national press: places like The Atlantic and The Times. (Heck, even New York Magazine.) In the end, the piece that drives our continuing racial challenges home most clearly is a simple list contrasting Palin and Obama. A sample:

White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because “every family has challenges,” even as black and Latino families with similar “challenges” are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay. (more)

So, it’s important to remember what it would mean to elect the first black president: it’s a statement on race, not a solution to racism. But what a fabulous way to make that statement. It would be a dream fulfilled. And I’ll be able to tell my kid I was part of making it happen. Vote!

We previously wrote about Obama in The Last Black Senator and The Obama Upset. We think these Shamans for Obama are awesome.

Update: And it’s done.

photo taken at the hilarious and pointed Obama08

Eyes Wide in South Africa

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Greetings from South Africa! I’m here at the first ACM conference held on the continent (DIS 2008) to present my work on games in virtual worlds (paper). You know I had to come. And let me tell you, it’s been an eye opening experience.

South Africa is a fascinating place — a mix of backgrounds from African to European to Malay, and so many more. Gorgeous rural landscapes punctuated by massive cities. New ideas everywhere the eye looks: clothing, food, advertising, architecture. 11 official languages (but, thankfully, pretty much everyone speaks English).

I mean, I’ve been to Africa before but being in a place where you can easily communicate really changes your perspective. In fabulous Senegal, I could pick up affect in French and Wolof but it’s a different thing entirely to be able to have a conversation and start to find out who people really are. I got to it.

At first blush, Cape Town seems to recovered remarkably in the years since the end of apartheid in 1994. I’ve seen less job segregation here than I did in Atlanta, for example. But peak behind the scenes (or, in my case, behind the wheel of a tour van) and that painful history starts to creep back in — from a tourguide’s inadvertent and unfortunate commentary on “informal settlements” to the clear lingering class distinctions between white, colored, and black in housing as we traveled the countryside and walked through city neighborhoods. We’re told anyone can live anywhere now, but that’s clearly bound by income and the end of apartheid did not magically re-distribute the money. And it didn’t re-distribute long held prejudices, either.

It was interesting to see fear in the faces of some well traveled folks making their first trip to Africa. Would they be robbed? Would the infrastructure be falling apart? Would the plane fall out of the sky? It was nice to see those fears evaporate when we hit the ground. (I’m sure checking in to hotels like the opulent and insane Extreme Sports Hotel didn’t hurt, either.)

Somehow, though, I didn’t have the same fears coming in. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been to Africa before. It’s not the naive notion that Africa is one country but rather that, to me, simply being back on the continent — anywhere on the continent — feels a lot like coming home. Being African American can do that to you.

For more on African roots, see Are You Sure You’re Black?

Disney’s First Black Princess Takes Shape

Boy does this early shot from The Princess and the Frog make me smile. We’ve known for a while that Disney was at work on an animated film with their first black princess, but it’s another thing to see her in the flesh. And it’s nice to see them revive their fine tradition of hand animation (just four years ago they said they were permanently abandoning the technique) for this kind of first.

Of course, the road here has not been without a certain amount of controversy (Disney has been pretty responsive). And lots of questions still remain. Will voodoo be presented in a realistic or stereotypical light? Will the characters find the right balance between overly PC sterility and obnoxious caricature? How will it deal with the racial issues of the time (1920s)? This is a tough one both because it hasn’t been done before and because there are so many eyes on it.

Still, you have to applaud the Mouse House for taking the risk. After all, when you’re designing new characters, the easy road is to stick with what works culturally. We know white characters work. And it sure seems like Disney hasn’t exactly been comfortable with black characters. (I mean how else could you explain Lion King spending an entire film in Africa without ever encountering a person?) Under Disney’s new stewardship (read Pixar), that’s changing. Who better than the folks who gave us the Incredibles’ fabulous Frozone?

Considering Princess and the Frog is set in New Orleans, I hope Disney does it right. Those folks deserve it. I mentioned that Disney is returning to its old animation technique for this film. One could read that as the studio saying: “we wish we had given you a black princess sooner.” If that’s their frame of mind, I imagine things will turn out all right.

Find more Princess and the Frog at Wikipedia and FirstShowing.

Holidays in Cambodia

I’m going to Cambodia and Vietnam for the holidays, and in some ways it’s like going home. You see, growing up black in a largely white suburb of DC can be isolating. If anything makes differences plain, it’s gotta be the cliquish culture of junior high and high school. And it turns out the groups I fell in with were immigrant kids: Mexican, Ethiopian, Paraguayan, Korean, Vietnamese, more. I never wondered much about why I was so comfortable with them, I just was. But a recent story on Barack Obama got me thinking:

And there are also times when Obama’s experience feels more like an immigrant story than a black memoir. His autobiography navigates a new and strange world of an American racial legacy that never quite defined him at his core. He therefore speaks to a complicated and mixed identity — not a simple and alienated one. This may hurt him among some African Americans, who may fail to identify with this fellow with an odd name. Black conservatives, like Shelby Steele, fear he is too deferential to the black establishment. Black leftists worry that he is not beholden at all. But there is no reason why African Americans cannot see the logic of Americanism that Obama also represents, a legacy that is ultimately theirs as well. To be black and white, to have belonged to a nonreligious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything — this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities. (atlantic)

Then it hit me: spending time in immigrant communities was a way for me to escape (in some small way) the racial confines of America — to be with people who haven’t been quite so fully indoctrinated with the racial expectations we in the US have been taught generation over generation. It gave me the opportunity to define myself as more than one thing. Maybe this poster says it best.

After my African American family at home, then, my second family is Vietnamese and Cambodian, my oldest friend is Vietnamese, my wife is Vietnamese. The sights, sounds, and smells (mmmm… pho, bánh mì) of Southeast Asia have been part of my life for so long it honestly seems a bit strange I’ve never been there. That’s about to change.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be off the grid; traveling mostly in Cambodia and Vietnam, with stopovers in Tokyo and Bangkok. We’ll be back in 2008 with more art, games, change, and everything else. Happy holidays and see you on the other side. Peace!

P.S.: Comments are closed site-wide (damn spammers!) but they’ll be back when we are. Until then, reach us via the contact page.

Update: Comments are open again — more soon!

images via stuckincustoms and infrangible; with apologies to dk

Race and Rockettes


Since the first black Rockette in 1987, it seems little has changed — a special commentary by guest contributor Judy Scales-Trent:

As a professor of employment discrimination law, when I see a picture of a group of workers I automatically start thinking about statistics and probability. So when I saw the photo of nineteen Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, I noticed that there were no brown or black faces. And I wondered how likely it was that, in New York City, the selection of only dancers with white skin was random.

Perhaps noting this strange phenomenon, the author of the article stated that “…Uniform anonymity is a laudatory achievement on the Rockette line.”

Well, perhaps artistic “uniformity” is the reason that the employer selected only dancers with white skin. But here’s an idea. Next year, since the employer obviously isn’t concerned about violating state and federal employment discrimination law, why not meet the goal of artistic “uniformity” by creating a Rockette line of only dancers with brown and black skin.

Race in Games: Culture, Context, and Controversy

First off, I want to thank everyone who posted thoughtful comments in response to my discussion of Resident Evil 5. A lot of fascinating points have been raised, and a central one is the question of guilt. There’s a reason I chose not to call Capcom racist, but instead focused on the images presented in the recent 3 minute trailer. That reason (aside from not wanting to use the word loosely) is that I suspected there might be something cultural at play. Wired blogger and author Chris Kohler provides some insight:

The problem as I see it is that the game’s Japanese designers don’t have the history that would lead them to understand how this might be read in American cultural context. (more)

In an email message, he went a bit further:

I’ve been going to Japan for seven years, and I’ve seen lots of race-based caricatures used in products or in advertising. They don’t have any history of race-based conflict like America does, and so I think they just don’t have that feeling that it’s inappropriate. By and large there is no malice behind it — I imagine they just feel that race is like any other visual concept, open to use in any creative way they see fit.

I’m fully prepared to accept the possibility that Capcom is not intentionally drawing on painful stereotypes, but that does not mean they’re allowed to be oblivious to them or their impact. To the contrary, as a company that sells into many markets worldwide, it is very important for them to be aware of cultural issues. If they fell down anywhere, it seems likely to be here — understanding stateside racial sensitivities.

Of course, a trailer is not a full, playable game. But trailers are a way for game companies to manage impressions of their games. If a game is presented in a troubling way in a trailer, folks can and should react to that presentation. As has been pointed out in the comments, a number of interpretations are possible, but I would still argue that certain images in the RE5 trailer are problematic as they are expressed presently.

We will have to wait until the final game ships to see what Capcom truly has in store. My hope is that they do something empowering and humanizing for Africa (or Haiti or wherever the game is set). Until then, we can only react to what Capcom gives us. (And, no, I haven’t written off buying the game.)

But here’s the broader point: The videogame is the most powerful medium yet devised, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what it can do. Games need to be taken seriously. In a private communication, Karsh Kincaid put it this way:

People may say “oh, it’s just a video game”, but video games are a big part of American pop culture. Moreso than that, these days pop culture serves a huge impact as the popular pedagogy for masses of people in this country and all over the world as they look to understand people of color through the politics of difference.

One commenter referred to Africa as a “fantastic blank canvas for gaming history to write on.” That’s precisely the concern. Research has shown that those in the West have many misconceptions about Africa and other black countries. (Authors like Charlayne Hunter-Gault have worked to dispel them, but there’s a lot more work to do.) So, while it is good that game companies are taking note of black nations, we can’t ignore what the games they make are (and aren’t) contributing to the process of helping the world better understand those places and peoples.

Perhaps (as some have suggested in comments) this is all part of a difficult growing process that will lead to real parity. I, for one, certainly hope so. But that does not mean the impact of games on black people should not be interrogated, discussed, and criticized. And I’m happy to add my voice to that conversation.

Blackface Goes HD? The Case of Resident Evil 5

OK, we all know zombies gotta die. And I loved Resident Evil 4. So why do these early images from the next installment of the Resident Evil franchise make me so queasy?

After all, in RE4, you spend the game shooting equally out-of-their-mind Spaniards. But, then, the Spanish haven’t been so egregiously misrepresented as blacks through the ages, have they? Not even close.

From Birth of a Nation to Black Hawk Down, black folk are apparently responsible for some of the most mindless and evil activities you got. Rape, murder, satanic voodoo. With bulging eyes, simian super strength, and a room temperature IQ, we’ve been portrayed as savages beyond redemption. So, when we see images like these, it doesn’t just resonate with the long lived zombie genre, it also triggers memories of so many awful stereotypes — and what those stereotypes have been used to justify past and present. Put down the crazed negroes before they take the white women! And so on…

But perhaps the most troubling part is that these scenes seem to be set in Africa; the “dark continent.” With all the positive steps being taken of late to raise awareness of the good things happening in Africa as well as the urgent need in some parts of the continent, we really can’t afford this kind of step back. We need to find ways to humanize Africans, not dehumanize them.

George Romero’s genre-defining 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is often read as a black empowerment tale. It’s ironic, then, that 40 years later, the preeminent zombie franchise appears poised to give us just the opposite. If LocoRoco’s Mojas were a kind of high tech blackface, Resident Evil 5 takes blackface into the HD era. It’s horror alright, just not the kind Capcom intended.

Find more history of black characters in games at The First 11 Black Videogame Stars. And the full trailer for RE5 at Gamersyde.

 Follow-up post Race in Games: Culture, Context, and Controversy

Thanks to those who have posted thoughtful responses. My main concern here is really for the perception of black countries. Over the years, many of them have been portrayed as uncivilized and recently a good deal has been done to change that thinking (particularly in Africa). But there’s still a lot more work to do.

I do understand the characters presented in the trailer are zombies. Still, I find the proximity of those zombies to old school long lived black stereotypes alarming. And that’s what my post is about.

So, perhaps the deeper question is: How are black countries and those who live in them portrayed in games now? How have they been portrayed in the popular media and movies? Is it on par with other peoples and places in the world? If so, maybe it is time for a game like this. If not, then how do we respond?

Note to commenters: I will delete your comment for name calling or generally being obnoxious. I will not delete your comment for disagreeing with me.

Black Women Got Game?: Why Alyx Matters

Yesterday, Valve founder Gabe Newell dropped a not-so-subtle hint that Half-Life sidekick Alyx Vance might get her own game. Props for sticking that neck out.

While she wouldn’t be the first black woman to star in a videogame (that honor falls to Jade or Catwoman depending), it would be a landmark nonetheless — the first black woman to head up a AAA franchise, and one of the most loved franchises in videogame history no less. Not to mention the first black female to appear as a central character in of the testosterone fueled first person shooter genre. (She didn’t even have to double her cup size to do it.) That’s saying something. And, oh yeah, she’d be only the second (or third?) black woman main character ever.

The biggest reason Alyx is important, though, is that both Catwoman and Jade’s Beyond Good & Evil bombed. While there are many possible explanations (a poor license and a poor title, for instance), what’s really important now is for the industry to show that, with the right content, gamers can get excited about playing these kinds of characters — characters that fall outside typical stereotypes. I can’t think of a better company to make it happen than the ever-inventive Valve, particularly since their bread and butter is the hardcore gamer.

Videogames need the diversity. Do it, Valve. Please.

For more, see Race in Games: The Unanswered Question

Are You Sure You’re Black?

Am I black? It’s the subject of some debate.

At least once a month, someone somewhere will ask me what my ethnicity is. “African American” is the answer. And then comes the follow-up question: “You’re not mixed?” I don’t mind answering so much as what happens after. My answer goes something like this:

Well, slave-holders kept no records, so it’s really impossible to know the ancestry of many African Americans in any detail beyond the fact that their ancestors were slaves. But it is a fact that slave masters raped female slaves, producing mixed-race children, so who knows?

Awkward silence. But if it’s awkward for the asker, imagine what it’s like to know your great-great-grandfather was considered property under United States law and be reminded of that fact every time you write your last name. Al Sharpton (of all people) said it well. The point is that many black people in the Americas may be multi-ethnic by some definition, but that history was discarded. And in that history lies the double-edged sword that our ethnicity is at once defined and obscured by the horrors of slavery.

So, it’s particularly ironic that, once I made up the list of The First 11 Black Videogame Stars, I realized that I had become the judge of who is black. (It’s not like I could ask.) Some folks were in, others out, some “borderline” cases were fudged. (A few folks mentioned Torque from The Suffering, but he sure doesn’t look black.) And then there was the Jade debate. “Hey, Jade. Are you sure you’re black?”

The experience of determining blackness (with a few hundred of my closest friends) really got me thinking about the nature of race in a way I hadn’t before. As someone who grew up in the United States keenly aware of my racial identity, I never considered the fact that, well, being black means something quite different around the world. Here it’s governed by one drop rule and all the awful history that goes with it. Alternate definitions abound elsewhere. But it always seems that the darker your skin, the lower your social status. Is there a place that’s an exception? I’d love to hear about it.

It makes me smile to imagine a colorblind America, but bits like Sentencing Project and Kiri Davis’ Girl Like Me remind us of how far we have to go. Failing that, I at least hope some future Genographic Project will tell me where my ancestors came from. The next time someone asks me my ethnicity, I’d love to say “I’m Ghanaian and Dutch. Now let me tell you about my great-great-great grandparents…”

For more on the worldwide definitions of blackness, see black people.

Race in Games: The Unanswered Question

Full disclosure. My goal in writing The First 11 Black Videogame Stars was to get people to think, during Black History Month, about the representation of black characters in videogames. Are there enough? Is there enough breadth? Does it matter?

And I love the variety of responses it generated as well as the additional characters folks listed, some of which I totally should have remembered and some of which I’d never known. To paraphrase the lovely LAist, that’s why the web is wonderful.

One thing I heard over and over in the comments is that the ethnicity of the character you play doesn’t matter. (In fact, I don’t remember anyone saying that it did.) I was happy to hear that because it means that there should be no penalty if developers make games with more diverse protagonists. I am convinced that diversity is at the core of the future of gaming because that’s how we reach out beyond the existing audience — diversity of play styles, diversity of subject matter, and diversity of representation. The high definition era becomes the high diversity era.

But a question crept in: If players don’t care what color the protagonist is, then why are such an overwhelming number of game protagonists white?

Have developers simply not caught up with the market’s (lack of) preference? Is market research telling developers that players really do want to play white characters in spite of the responses I’ve seen? Are developers designing characters that look like themselves or their perceived ideals? Or is it something else entirely?

I’ll go out on a ledge and say I think game developers make games with white protagonists because they think their audience relates to them most easily. But I don’t think that belief is entirely unfounded, either. White is safe and relatable. Anything else is risky. And that speaks volumes about our perception of race, even today.

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