Content Warning: Racism, online harassment, whitewashing; several links used for documentation contain hate speech
If you were on Twitter anytime during the tail end of 2020, you probably saw this picture:
This is one of many pieces of fan art featuring popular anime, manga, and video game characters depicted with dark skin created in response to a troll from the #anitwt Twitter hashtag. Racebending, or drawing characters as races other than what they were intended as, is not new to fandom; however, this particular iteration was to counter the fact that the person took it upon themself to aggressively white out the existence of canonically Black and brown characters in anime.
These edits could have been quickly dismissed as the everyday racism that, although painful and annoying, I have come to expect from anonymity of the internet—but their obsession with specifically editing these characters to be white with blue eyes and blond hair screamed Neo-Nazi white supremacist. Also, they first started posting these edits in the Twitter reply sections of posts highlighting the awesome black anime characters that did exist or posts of fan art that featured racebent anime characters. Even if this person was not intending to cause harm, they ended up inciting racists with an agenda to further that harm.
Just for the record, someone saying that they’re trying to make a character ‘cuter’ by lightening their skin color speaks to the insidious racism and permeating colorism that claims whiteness is superior by implying that dark skin is inherently uglier and lesser than lighter skin.
Of course, when anti-racist fans take issue with this practice, we get told that these are just jokes and we should “ignore it.” Trolls on the internet have long framed systemic issues voiced by BIPOC and other marginalized groups as oversensitive exaggeration of minor problems, (willfully) ignoring the difference between being disliked as an individual and the draining trauma of bigoted online harassment. There is a difference between someone not being liked because “we don’t live in a utopia” and a mob of people who have decided they will focus their energy on turning life into a waking nightmare for you and others who look like you, bearing down with the intensity of the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass. Saying that online harassment isn’t that bad because “you can just log off” negates the way that society has evolved so that online life is just as important and real to most people as so-called “reality”.
tTe ongoing pandemic has shown us just how much we rely on the internet for every aspect of daily life, from work to socialization to commerce. While fandom has existed for centuries, the internet revolutionized the ways it functioned and has made it increasingly accessible to a wider variety of people. When a whole group of people is being targeted and tiptoeing around shards of glass while trying to navigate their fandom space, that is the larger fandom saying that they are not welcome. Since the inception of the internet, fandom has been a gatekept space, whether it be the expense of a computer and web access in to early ‘90s, to the time and money required to travel to conventions. Even now that “everyone is online,” a willingness to tolerate copious vitriol seems to be the price of entry for marginalized fans.
Racists have put in extra effort to harassing racebending fan artists , going out of their way to seek out their work,whitewash them, and repost them – often in the original Twitter thread, plainly visible to the artist – – with aggressively nonchalant captions such as “fixed it” or “made it normal again.” One artist received so much harassment on their own blackwashed edit that they opted to delete their art to preserve their mental health.
This sort of trolling is a form of “punching down” humor employed by those in the social majority to simultaneously maintain and disguise their social power and privilege. Humor that punches downward will always be the lowest and most readily accessible form of comedy for people both complicit in and complacent with bigotry. When marginalized people object to their “jokes,” and name it for what it is – racism – they become part of the joke as well. bell hooks calls this type of laughter, “a weapon of patriarchal terrorism [which] functions as a disclaimer, discounting the significance of what is being named. It suggests that the words themselves [i.e. calling something racist] are problematic and not the system they describe.”
Issues with Representation
Representation matters. Media is a reflection of us, as it mirrors what is considered normal within society and in turn is informed by our own perceptions (which have been socialized by what we’ve seen in media). Culture shapes us with the same readiness with which we shape it. If media routinely refuses to acknowledge the existence of whole groups of people, what does that mean about their value within a society?
Racebending and whitewashing will never be equivalent—racebending was created by underrepresented people desiring to finally see themselves in spaces that have routinely pushed them out, whitewashing was created by an overrepresented group upset about the small presence of underrepresented people. In Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” social experiment, she notes the rage privileged white people feel when the systems that uphold their power are reversed. This ties into the same narrative where white supremacists claim that diversity is “white genocide” – the idea that representation, even existence, is a zero-sum game where every brown or Black person represents a loss to white people. Those who decry racebending as “white erasure” often cite the concepts represented in this image. However, the artist who created the image has since recanted and confirmed that racebending and whitewashing are not parallels.
There are people who have been deflecting by saying that these anime characters are not white but Japanese as a possible way of deterring racebending. Kiana Mai calls this out perfectly in her tweet:
White America’s obsession with Japanese popular culture will always be an interesting phenomenon to me because there is something darkly humorous about nerds screaming random Japanese words and using Japanese honorifics when, not even a hundred years ago, their grandparents and great-grandparents watched and did nothing as Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps.
The overarching theme in all of this is the desperate need the social majority feels to police anime fandom and calls to a more insidious aspect that permeates all of geek culture: what the social majority says, goes. The lack of Black characters in anime leads to an automatic deficit of canonically Black characters for Black and brown people of color to cosplay, and you best believe that racist anime fans will remind them of this.
Last year, cosplayer Vaelniel_ posted a photo of herself on Twitter dressed as Nezuko from Demon Slayer. She explicitly stated that it was her first time cosplaying and she was nervous, possibly because she’d seen all the hate new and inexperienced cosplayers get online.It may have been compounded by the uniquely racialized criticisms Black cosplayers often receive. There was nothing wrong with her cosplay–she looked adorable–but it wasn’t long before she was assaulted by a barrage of comments saying her cosplay wasn’t authentic because the skin color didn’t match the character’s, and that it didn’t fit her. The harassment turned so severe that she made her account private to escape it.
The people who fling this harassment, in my experience, will be the same ones claiming to defend “free speech” But free speech for whom? My essay on racist dub casting dissolved into a game of telephone as it circulated through and was dissected and interpreted by unsavory corners of the internet.
Eventually, the article’s comments section had to be turned off because these people had migrated from their own fandom space to infiltrate Anime Feminist. This entitlement is not mutual. You’d be hard pressed to find someone from the socially conscious section of fandom willingly going to post anything on a “keep politics outta muh fandom” forum because we know that:
- That is not our audience
- We will be bullied
- We will be harassed
- We will be suppressed
They told us to make our own spaces and that’s what we did, but that was never really what they wanted—they didn’t want us to exist in the first place. I see this when they celebrate marginalized creators being pushed out of content creation – go read the comments section for the PBS Game/Show’s final video or check the responses to SYFY Fangrrl’s exit tweet.
Kat Blaque said it well when she stated:
I have seen Rarity from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, outfitted in full Reich regalia and used to promote Nazism on Tumblr but they called it ‘hate speech’ when Pinkie Pie was used as an outlet to stand up against rape jokes. Princess Peach is a Rule34 staple and has been sexualized beyond recognition, but someone reimagining her as a person of color? Cardinal sin.
In all these instances, it’s about who gets control. Who gets to hold the politics of language and claim authority within a space. In Jacob Geller’s video essay, Who’s Afraid of Modern Art: Vandalism, Video Games, and Fascism, he says:
“Fascism… make[s] strong efforts to bring art under a rigidly bordered, ‘culturally appropriate’ definition. There’s this pursuit, in fascism, to make everything of ‘an aesthetic’ and that aesthetic is simultaneously mythologized, made into the history of a culture. Once that culture is appropriately mythologized, the art that feeds back into it is seen as ‘contribution’ to the created society. When, for instance, every artist that the dominant ideology values for the last thousand years has been a white guy ( or portrayed as such) and creates things that glorify white and colonialist ideals, there’s something that starts to feel ‘natural’ about that. It creates a fundamental hierarchy. And any art that pushes back, or simply pursues a different aesthetic, isn’t contributing to anything to that mythology anymore. And in fact, when the artists pushing the different aesthetic are members of groups that have been historically oppressed by the dominant culture, the art they’re making may feel like an attack on that mythology.”
“Challenging our preconceived notions of art means challenging our preconceived notions of institutions [and] of society. This kind of art doesn’t fit into the cultural narrative, and because of that, it becomes a target. And ultimately, the crime that these artists commit is the right’s biggest fear – they are upsetting the hierarchy. They are taking themes, experiences, and emotions that don’t fit into our nation’s narrative, and they are expressing them in a way that is impossible to ignore. And thus, the rejection of non-traditional forms of art so often boils down to a rejection of oppressed people within those mediums.” (Timestamp)
Racebending was meant to make space for Black and brown people within fandom. If you think there is something wrong with seeing a person whose identity doesn’t match yours, are you not the hypothetical triggered snowflake that you so despise? As Alisha B. Wormsley said, “there are Black people in the future.” Deal with it.