The Invisible Underdogs: The relationship between Black folks and anime

By: Channler Twyman February 8, 20190 Comments
a brown-skinned warrior crossing her arms looking amused next to a redheaded boy. subtitle: I'll take responsibility. let these kids in

CONTENT WARNING for discussion of racism.

Black people love anime. This is an undeniable, non-negotiable, indisputable fact. My own introduction to anime was via my cousin’s large Dragon Ball Z VHS collection. I went to a predominately Black school for nearly four years, and if you didn’t watch Naruto on Saturday evenings prior to school on Monday, you would ultimately be left out of lunchroom conversation for the first half of the week.

If you go to conventions like MomoCon in major urban cities like Atlanta, Black people are there in abundance! Now, stars like Michael B. Jordan are voicing their love for the medium, YouTubers such as AfroSenju and RDC World1 have amassed huge subscriber counts for their anime-related content, and a multitude of Black influencers tweet gifs and constantly make references towards their favorite shows.

One would think that Black people would have much more of a significant presence in Western anime communities and fandoms. But if you look on any black- or brown-skinned cosplayer’s Instagram posts, you will see loads of positive and encouraging comments, and also a slew of racist ones.

Piccolo from DBZ in a shirt and backwards baseball cap, a smiling woman beside him. subtitle: Then you must be Piccolo-san

When discussions about racial depictions and/or coding of certain characters are brought up, they are almost always diminished by people arguing about how said character’s race “doesn’t matter,” or “Japanese people don’t have the same concept of race,” or my personal favorite “there are no Black people in Japan.”

I can’t count how many times me or my friends were made to feel as though we were the odd ones out in Anime Club, of all places, and constantly challenged on our knowledge of the medium. I don’t think I have to tell you the high school I attended was predominately white.

Like many various art forms, the contributions, participation, and involvement of Black people in Western fandom culture seems to be largely erased. I decided to write this piece to help further this dialogue about erasure in Western anime culture as a way to help the voices of people of color—specifically Black, as I cannot write about the experiences of other communities—be heard and our feelings seen and validated.

However, I felt as though solely speaking on the subject through my own personal experiences would not be fair, so I reached out to close peers of mine to speak as Black people who love anime. My first question to my group of friends was how they got into anime, and the answer was pretty unanimous: Many, including myself, started when they were really young, with shows like Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, and Sailor Moon on Cartoon Network and WB Kids! It was super casual, and they weren’t aware that what they were watching was actually classified as anime.

A man sitting in the grass with Spike Spiegel watching him from afar. subtitle: I dunno if I get it or not

However, what was once a casual piece of enjoyment from our childhood turned into deep obsession in middle and high school. We fell into the endless pit of best girls, best boys, and never-ending angst. One friend got into it because a boy she was crushing on was into it, another said their friend from South Korea got him hooked, and another attributed her love for the medium to family.

I followed this question by asking what exactly has kept them enthralled all these years. The answers were surprisingly similar there, too: A lot of the intrigue centered around anime’s versatility.

They loved how no two shows necessarily looked the same. They loved the subbed voice acting and appreciated the art and intricate plot lines, as well as the dynamic characters. Bird Jackson, a writer, elaborated on this statement by saying:

Anime takes a lot of pride in having heroes that represent the underdog. And Black people are always the underdog. The idea that someone was meant for more… Black people are dehumanized; meanwhile Black culture is lifted up and consumed. Being able to rise up against expectations of a dominant culture [and] achieving things people thought they couldn’t. Black people always have to go up and beyond.

I found this idea of feeling represented through the medium very telling of Black folks’ interest in anime. Writer and cosplayer Ronnie Wright, also known as “Wreck-It-Ronnie” to her thousands of followers, told me: “What’s more ‘hood’ than the rivalry between Goku and Vegeta. That’s the definition of ‘On Sight.’ Many aspects of nerd and anime culture do take from Black culture through its usage of music and aesthetics.”

close up of a woman smirking slightly. subtitle: have you ever once beaten me at "tag"?

After asking them about how they discovered what anime was, I went on to inquire about how their love for anime has translated into other parts of their lives. Scholar Andrew Aldridge shared an anecdote from his high school days: “I own an Akatsuki jacket. It has brought my friend group so much closer. We’d get mad at each other for taking too long to watch episodes. I got my family into it. I’ve used it to connect with so many loved ones.  I used to dress like Kakashi and even had a headband.”

He also told me his love of the medium shone through in his writing. He continued: “Character arcs are always extremely interesting! I find a lot of inspiration. It’s so easy to get lost in all the different worlds. The longevity of some shows allows for them to have a cast of characters where all of them can get their proper dues.”

Bird shared a similar sentiment, stating that she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t been influenced by shoujo manga and anime. Ronnie’s answer was definitely more apparent due to her line of work:

I’m a nerd and I make costumes to show my love for nerd stuff! It’s the biggest part of my life outside of work. I’ve been going to conventions for the past 8 years. This is where I’ve met most of my friends. I didn’t have many friends and was really weird. Anime gave me a really awesome hobby! It gave me an excuse to dress up.

A white woman and Black man dressed in cowboy gear--he looks shocked. subtitle: what? is that for real?

Through these conversations, I was able to see just how much joy and inspiration anime brought to my friends and myself. We had found a haven in the worlds brought to us through Japanese animation. We saw ourselves, even if our influence or appearance was rarely explicit.

Unfortunately, Black people can never truly enjoy anything without a few drawbacks. When I asked about feeling exclusion and discrimination within fandoms, the answers I got back were not surprising. Andrew isn’t too involved with fandom culture but has seen scenes of racism without even intentionally seeking it out, saying, “I have seen so many Black cosplayers get a bunch of unnecessary comments about their portrayal of a character.”

Ronnie seconded the sentiment by giving me a brief rundown of what POC cosplayers, specifically brown and Black cosplayers, endure regularly:

As a Black woman, yeah. Most cons are white dominated. I get many racist and sexist remarks because of skin color on my pics. Which sucks because I have to deal with it in every other aspect in my life, so why do I have to put up with it in a space with all the things I love. But it also made way for black nerds to create their own spaces and become more visible. Seeing myself reflected in these spaces is important and also seeing more black- and brown-skinned characters, too.

Bird shared similar frustrations:

A reason why I don’t participate in fandom culture is because of the arguments about whether or not characters are coded as Black or not. Why is it such an issue if I can see myself in certain characters? Same goes for queer characters. But it sucks when people bring in their own anger and resentment [from] their own lives to a story that is meant to be joyful and relatable.

It’s hard for Black people and other marginalized groups to ever enjoy anything without scrutiny from more privileged groups. Every time underrepresented groups take a step towards making both physical and online spaces more welcoming and inclusive, that step forward is also met with a wave voices who attempt to silence us and diminish our extremely valid concerns and struggles. However, the constant attempts at erasure have never and will never stop our fight for inclusivity, even in niche spaces such as fandom culture.

When I asked about what more privileged people can do to make Western anime fandom culture more inclusive, Ronnie said:

Marginalized folks can inform you of their struggle, but it isn’t up to us to end the oppressions we endure. It’s up to those in privileged positions to end it. I can tell someone to stop doing blackface, but they don’t really care what I think. They care more about what you think.

Give proper recognition to these marginalized groups. POC cosplayers talk about how many con photographers only shoot white and pale Asian cosplayers. We need to uplift aspiring younger and darker-skinned POC cosplayers.

Promote fellow POC and marginalized artists!

A young boy winking and grinning at a teenager. subtitle: Hey, Eiji, Let me buy you a drink

Even though anime fandoms and culture can seem unwelcoming at times, Black people have found community and so much love through the medium. Regardless of what other people have to say about representation of Black people in anime, implicitly or explicitly, we will always have a connection to the genre—even if others think otherwise. Bird helped me come up with this answer when she said, “Even when certain characters are claimed to be Black. I find it validating when other countries can see the beauty in Blackness.”

Bird’s words could not be closer to the truth. If you look back on shows such as Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and even more recently DEVILMAN crybaby, the influence of Black culture and music is undeniable. Characters such as Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z, Yoruichi from Bleach, and The Hidden Village in the Clouds from Naruto, are all clearly based off Black people. It is no secret that many different cultures have adopted a lot of their modern-day aesthetics, music, and style from Black American culture, and Japan is no exception.

Piccolo from DBZ with his arms crossed. subtitle: My training for you ends here

Anime has made itself digestible to Black people because it is so familiar, even if it seems unrecognizable on the surface. The way that the creators of anime have continually merged the sounds and aesthetics of Black culture into the medium over time has made it clear to me that that we always find ourselves attracted to media that explicitly or implicitly allows us to see ourselves in a way that appreciates our cultural and physical presence.

After examining the impact anime has had on Black people, I feel a much greater appreciation of the medium for allowing me to see myself, even when me and many of my close friends didn’t realize it. We didn’t know how much we needed to be seen.

About the Author : Channler Twyman

Channler Twyman is an emerging queer writer from Atlanta, GA in the U.S. He currently interns for his alma mater’s center for diversity and inclusion where he works tirelessly to make the world a more inclusive and equitable place one student at a time. When he’s not writing you can find him reading, playing video games, and of course watching anime! You can check out more of his work on Follow him on Instagram and Twitter on @channwrites.

Read more articles from Channler Twyman

We Need Your Help!

We’re dedicated to paying our contributors and staff members fairly for their work—but we can’t do it alone.

You can become a patron for as little as $1 a month, and every single penny goes to the people and services that keep Anime Feminist running. Please help us pay more people to make great content!

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

%d bloggers like this: