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“Why are they all white?”

April 28, 2008

There’s this interesting question I hear a lot of times in regards to manga and anime- “Why are all the characters white?”

This question always fascinated me, because there’s so much anime with POC characters in it. Oh, sure, there’s Sailor Moon and a disproportionate amount of blonde haired, blue eyed characters in both manga and anime, but definitely not much different than what I’d expect from Japan post WW2 and occupation (see also…oh, Latin America?!?). No, what always gets me about the question is that the people asking it are almost always coding ALL the characters -as white-.

The usual point most of these folks like to bring to the table is that all the characters have big eyes. At the same time, none of these people turn and ask of American comics, “Why are they all steroid/silicone breast enlargement junkies?” Oh, that’s right, they’re able to parse and comprehend that this is a style factor of the genre, not a literal representation.

But why is that?

When I look at American comics and cartoons, I see the fact is that all POC are very clearly defined, both in appearance and role. Panthro, Barbecue, Roadblock, Jazz, Blaster, Quickkick, Power Man, Black Panther, Shaman, Warpath, The Mandarin, etc. All simplifications, all filling easy to identify roles- “The black one”, “The asian guy”, tokenized in concept from the get go. (Pixar’s Cars had shown even in 2006 we were going to fall back on easy stereotypes.)

Certainly, though, cartoons and comics are built on the idea of simplified roles- good guys and bad guys are clearly marked, characters are generally as they are portrayed, though it’s interesting to see genre conventions and ethnic markers are put in the same category. This is, in part, because in America, the story being told is from a white perspective- of course the other ethnicities are “roles”, they are spokes added onto the hub of the white narrative which is the assumed heart of the story. The whole affair basically says, “There’s a place for you (in these narrowly defined roles)”.

Coming back to manga and anime, naturally the roles aren’t going to fit, because the Japanese aren’t exactly coming from the same place (though certainly they’re informed a lot based on the white narrative, as keeps cropping up with their images of black and NDN folks). I mean, for step one, very few characters actually fit the asian stereotype of the quiet submissive character. Yet, in many stories, the majority (or entirety) of characters are Japanese, appearances notwithstanding.

Second, it became clear to me over these conversations that for many of these people, if a character wasn’t brown, and otherwise wasn’t clearly marked “asian” (via stereotypical images), they defaulted to white. Nevermind that asian people DO dye their hair “these days” (these days being a couple generations now).

Even with the really fucked up throwback images coming out of Japan, they still produce even non-Japanese POC characters who exceed American standards for breaking stereotypes. The case was, basically that manga and anime remains one of the few places you can find a brown character who is brown NOT to fulfill a stereotype, but simply as a character. In other words, the characters either fall into the worst of stereotypes or not at all, and the latter is so rare in US media I find it nearly impossible to find.

For example, Robotech remains one of the few cartoons (or shows in American television period) in which you had interracial dating AND a relationship of equal power. Many stations cut scenes between Claudia and Roy Fokker, because, in 1985, clearly we couldn’t have our kids minds tainted with the idea of miscegenation. The Japanese would do us one better in 1989 and embrace a brown Egyptian heroine as a beloved tv series icon in Nadia, Secret of Blue Water… While it’s 2008 and Disney is finally getting around to having a black princess.

For me and a lot of my friends, it was a great time to grow up- anime and manga just hit while we were in our teens, and suddenly we had a wealth of stories that involved asian folks who existed outside of sex fetishes, submissive workers, nerds, or martial arts masters. We actually had characters who, like us, came in all types. By the time the later 90’s hit, more and more anime and manga started including brown characters, not enough for sure, but at least they existed outside of being defined by physicality, “sassy” attitude, or violence.

It is sad and pretty damning that foreign media can provide better options in terms of coding than our “melting pot” which only seems to put the heat on one way. Maybe part of the boom is that white folks can code the characters as white, while asian kids can code the characters as asian.

Are the characters all white? Maybe that depends on who you ask. Sort of like this country, maybe it’s not as white as you think.

Update:

This article from Nichi Bei Times echoes the issue re: the Speed Racer movie.

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21 comments

  1. Do you think that part of this effect stems from the use of highly “iconic” characters in manga/anime? In Scott McCloud’s book “Understanding Comics”, he points to this as one of the strengths of manga style – it creates heavy reader identification with the characters, because the characters have such iconic/non-photorealistic faces.

    an excerpt from his book: http://www.scottmccloud.com/inventions/triangle/triangle.html


  2. There’s an aspect of that, but there’s also the fact that after just reading/watching a few series, it quickly becomes apparent that much of the time, the way in which characters are illustrated has very little to do with their actual ethnicity. More often, you’re better off looking at the character’s names or mannerism in order to determine that.


  3. Hey C,

    Have you ever read this article about the face of the other — it talk about a lot of the same stuff.


  4. Hey Brand, I haven’t read that article, but that was completely awesome and on point with what I’m talking about.


  5. C,

    I think it also dovetails, though not as directly, with what this article has to say about racism. Because what we’re talking about is a structural issue (a “language of signs”) rather than just a personal preference issue.


  6. I think it all has to do with context. Notice that for my post, in order even talk about how anime and manga is perceived in our country, that I have to talk about how the US deals with it’s own comics and cartoons?

    I think the biggest issue with media analysis and race is trying to get people to just GRASP the basic concept that no phrase, image, or idea exists outside of context. There’s an incredible level of intellectual dishonesty when it comes to dodging around words (“articulate for a black man” isn’t a compliment to one person as much as an insult to every other black person, etc.).

    The idea of talking about coding to characters, or the problems with assuming yourself as the core narrative of all things, you can’t even get there when most folks are stumbling over poor defenses like that.


  7. Chris,

    Exactly.

    Mo and I were talking about that this weekend with sexism rather than racism as the core issue. (Amazing how similarly they work out on that one.) When the default “protagonist” is male, what does that do to the status of women in games where we make stories?


  8. Chris,

    It’s a sad example of some of the issues you’re talking about, but I need a glossary when I read some of your articles. I took me a few hours to work out what “POC” meant when I read it in one of your earlier articles, and I’m still drawing a blank on “NDN”.


  9. Hi Chris,

    The shift in my blog also includes a shift in target audience- which happens to be a set of friends and folks whom I’ve dealt with on other forums and communities where these terms are pretty common.

    As much as my writing about gaming generally required some kind of previous context, my writing about media analysis and larger issues also is aimed at folks with previous context.


  10. I’ve already worrying about the casting of The Last Airbender movies, even with Shyamalan directing (most of his movies feature majority white casts). They’re filming in Greenland, so you’d think they could find some Inuit kids to play Sokka and Katara. I also feel like Aang is basically depicted as white in the cartoon (despite the other Air Nomads clearly being Central Asian), as are many of the other kids they encounter, even if their parents aren’t. Let’s hope it’s not a repeat of the Earthsea movie debacle.


  11. […] my good friend bankuei has busted out some deconstruction of these issues in his post: Why Are They All White? over at Deeper In The Game: From Geekdom To Freedom. Head over and check it out, here’s a […]


  12. Great post, reminds me of the time I heard someone say they liked Avatar but wondered why all the charactyers were white. Unfortunately she was gone before I could question her but the idea that people were reading all those characters as white bothers me especially in light of the movie coming out.

    Linked here, hope that’s cool.


  13. Good points! I remember reading a Time Magazine article on how anime characters symbolized the Japanese people’s (never mind that there is no one Japanese people) to be white — larger eyes, blonde hair, etc. And while I think that’s partially the case because of how white-washed the “international” fashion industry and beauty standards are, and how manga/anime character designs changed drastically when Tezuka was exposed to Disney, it’s also rather simplistic.


  14. Clicked on the link in one of Naamenblog’s articles here and thought I’d just repost my comment from there.

    So are the”big eyes” or “every character is drawn alike so your mind creates a domino effect of indentification” the only thing brought to the table?

    Where does that leave a person of color like myself?

    I come across seeing a number of natural blonde hair (green or blue eyed if they go for natural human ranges) or red hair (and sometimes brown) characters that my mind continually codes as white. Even when these characters are supposed to be (ethnic unless their backstory is display/stated otherwise?) Japanese or Asian. Even in spite of some of them having a Japanese name (full, surname or otherwise).

    Its just seems a touch of stretch to not code them as just white.

    As for Avatar, I never really came across that sort of thing in the fandom much per se. Though a lot of people tend to code Aang as white–mostly citing that one of the creators in an interview states himself as being like Aang or something. Fan art of the characters are usually bleached/whitened to some extent if not fully outright. Which feels more than a little disturbing when it’s done to characters like Sokka and Katara. Not sure if I wanna touch the part of most RPers and fanficcers who write and/or draw their self-created/original Avatar-based characters on what feels like the identifiably white side of the spectrum.


  15. Realize I am not excusing all anime- the context of colonization is a short sentence but a crucial one.

    Just the same- when people see Speed Racer, or Goku from DBZ as white? Hmm.

    Also though- have you seen J-pop stars? Just as much as our comics reflect certain levels of unrealness attached to our stars, so does theirs.

    Another part is this- I’m asian american, most people I know have had dyed hair at some point. Is that so uncommon in Japan? Maybe, but if we’re projecting to stars, I don’t see how that’d be much different.

    (though, if you’d like to get into the conversation about how dyed hair and colored contacts play into the whole issue of colorism and internalized racism, I’m down for that).


  16. “Realize I am not excusing all anime- the context of colonization is a short sentence but a crucial one.”

    Gotcha. And are you meaning colonization in the sense of the viewer’s gaze upon the work or work itself? Or are you referring to both forms–which is what it feels like to me.

    Heh, to be honest Speed and Goku (and their supporting case) are among the cases of anime characters I can’t percieve as white (even after the latter’s transformation into a blonde hair superbeing). Not sure if I know others who do. Internet or otherwise.

    And I don’t recall if I’ve seen (or maybe just really took note) of a J-pop star. So my mind is drawing a blank at the moment.

    I’m not all that clear on where you going with dyed hair–it’s just for some anime characters it seems that their red or blonde hair is supposed to be natural as opposed to a dye job.

    Don’t know what I could say, but we could discuss good hair, dyed hair, colored contacts, etc. and its place in colorism and internalized racism if I can figure out how to put it in context with the article subject and not veer off it.


  17. “Realize I am not excusing all anime- the context of colonization is a short sentence but a crucial one.”

    Gotcha. And are you meaning colonization in the sense of the viewer’s gaze upon the work or work itself? Or are you referring to both forms–which is what it feels like to me.

    Heh, to be honest Speed and Goku (and their supporting case) are among the cases of anime characters I can’t percieve as white (even after the latter’s transformation into a blonde hair superbeing). Not sure if I know others who do. Internet or otherwise.

    And I don’t recall if I’ve seen (or maybe just really took note) of a J-pop star. So my mind is drawing a blank at the moment.

    I’m not all that clear on where you going with dyed hair–it’s just for some anime characters it seems that their red or blonde hair is supposed to be natural as opposed to a dye job.

    Don’t know what I could say, but we could discuss good hair, dyed hair, colored contacts, etc. and its place in colorism and internalized racism if I can figure out how to put it in context with the article subject and not veer off it.


  18. What I’m saying is that the idea that colored hair = white is a false thing to necessarily draw from. Most j-pop stars have dyed hair, and a lot of the youth do.

    It seems strange to me that people can believe a skinny model actress in the US can portray a hardcore-ass-kicking character, that they can’t roll with the manga/anime idea of asian folks with differently colored hair.

    That’s what I mean. Applying the local cultural context to a non-local place, for a different interpretation.

    Tying that to the other issue of colorism overall- for where you do see Japanese white fetish in manga/anime, it is not more/worse than what you see in Latin America or even in black American media…

    So the idea “why are they all white?” is not just based in applying a pretty closed minded view of coding characters (and, as I said earlier today in Naamen’s blog “Not enough Othering = MUST BE WHITE”), but also a pretty ignorant place in terms of colorism worldwide.


  19. I may not be able to roll with it all but I’m understanding your point a lot better now.

    Just one thing I want clarified. When you said “Not enough Othering = MUST BE WHITE” do you mean in the sense that when a western media mindset is not given enough… ‘ethnic cues?’ that we’re generally taught to assimilate, we label it as the default? The default generally being white.


  20. Yes, I mean that the western media mind set is the default is white, and unless characters fall into stereotypical and clearly labeled “othering” cues, they are labeled white.

    I’ve had this discussion a lot with folks especially in regard to, say, Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, in which the characters are not Othered, and people tend to say, “Oh, I thought the characters were all white”, skipping over all the clear descriptiosn of skin color.

    I feel like the belief that Avatar characters are white follows the same logic- because the characters are reduced to the anime-norm, but they’re not given much in terms of ethnic othered cues (other than, the swamp benders, Aang’s master, and Iroh).


  21. Ah, thanks. I wanted to make sure I was reading that right. =)



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