Melanin Monday: I Am Not Your Stereotype- Racial Representation in Anime [Part I]

Hey, hey all you wonderful Heroes and Travelers out there it’s Monday, and that means another Melanin Monday post!! For those of you just joining us, Melanin Monday is a special weekly post series that I started for Black History Month (I might be persuaded to continue the series, if interest is high enough), where I talk about Black and Brown skinned characters in anime, manga, video games, etc. Last week I did a Top 5 List of My Favorite Black Female Anime Characters and this week, I’m gonna do things a little differently…

As a Black nerd, it’s hard to find strong characters that look like me in the media, more times than not people of color, especially African American people are cast as criminals, villains, or worst of all hurtful stereotypes. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen my people used as the butt of someone else’s joke and quite frankly, it pisses me off! Even my beloved anime, as progressive as it is, has some rather questionable black and brown characters… So, for this week’s post, I wanted to look at the various ways anime portrays people of color, both the negative and the positive portrayals. This post wound up being longer than I originally intended, so I decided to split it into two parts! Part I focuses on the negative stereotypes and Part II which will go up on the last Monday of the Month will focus on the more positive depictions of POC in anime.

*Disclaimer: I realize that this is a touchy subject for some people, but I want to let you all know right now, that while comments are welcome, I will not tolerate any personal attacks or overtly nasty comments. If you can’t discuss this post in a respectful and civilized manner, then keep your hands off the keyboard… I promise you I will not be very forgiving of anyone that uses my comments section as such! 😀

Umm… So are They Black or Just Really Tan?

I think the title pretty much sums up my thoughts on black and brown skinned characters in anime… I don’t know about you guys, but there are times when I’ve had a hard time telling whether or not a character is supposed to be Black or if they’ve been in the oven a little too long. Now, I don’t say this to undermine the relevance of characters with darker complexions in anime, (the more the merrier) I just would like to know for sure whether I’m looking at a Black character or just a very tan Japanese character.


Perfect example being Yoruichi from Bleach, who I included in my previous Melanin Monday post… She’s a brown skinned badass, and one of the coolest female anime characters around, but there has been some debate about whether or not Yoruichi is really a black woman. Now, I can hear you guys sharpening your pitchforks and lighting your torches, but hear me out. Tite Kubo has a very distinctive artistic style that he uses for each of his characters, whether they are POC or not, however, like most artists, he depicts non-Japanese characters with slightly different facial features (ie. fuller lips, more prominent noses, etc.). But when it comes to Yoruichi, there is a distinct lack of traditionally Black features, now I realize people come in all shapes and sizes, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds… but, you have to remember that Kubo went out of his way to depict Kaname Tosen, another POC character in the series with fuller lips and locs!

I know that Yoruichi is a woman and Tosen is a man, but gender differences aside, there are some noticeable differences in the way they are animated. What do you guys think?

This isn’t just an isolated case either, the question of whether a character is Black or not comes up just about every time a darker skinned character appears in a series! Personally, I tend to defer on the side of Blackness, but without any definite say so from the author, it can be a bit difficult to figure out…

So Why Do They Look like That?!

So, before I start my mini-tirade, I will say that anime has come a long way in it’s portrayals of non-Japanese characters as a whole, however, some still look a little rough. I can honestly say that animators have toned down some of the more “traditional” (and by traditional, I really mean PROBLEMATIC AS HELL) features common to POC in anime. I’m talking about those big lips, not the reasonably fuller lips some characters like Kaname Tosen from Bleach or Takenori Akagi from Slam Dunk… I mean those unnaturally full, face eating lips, that you used to see in those old racist cartoons…

The first pic is from the 1943 animated musical, Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs. The second pic is of Chocolove McDonell (Joco in the English dub) from Shamen King (1998- 2004). 

I know you know what I’m talking about, those exaggerated pink lips that seem to always find there way onto the faces of POC the world over! And before any of you say, that it’s just the artistic style, you can stop right there… I have seen anime where black and brown characters have been drawn with more natural looking full lips (past and present), it can and has been done, so why keep doing it? Is it for comedic effect? Because, let me tell you I’m not laughing. Those “comical” lips are a remnant of the old blackface routines of the early 19th Century, where non-Back performers would paint themselves black in order to perpetuate the ideal of the carefree negro, as a form of comedy! Blackface characters were traditionally portrayed as harmless fools or happy idiots, so, when I see those lips, it’s not funny, it’s a slap in the face, it’s a reminder that to this day we are still seen as the butt of someone else’s joke, whether it was their intention or not.

Is That Really How You Think We Talk?!

Storytime: Now while I may not have been born in the South, I sure as hell was raised there, and as a woman of color in the South… *sigh* you see and hear things that make you want to punch a hole in the wall. But, there is one thing that to this day I will never forget, and that’s the day when a girl in my Sunday school class told me I “talked white”. I was six or seven, and I had no idea there was anything wrong with the way I was talking or that I was supposed to talk any other way but the way my mother taught me to. So when that girl said that I “talked white,” I hadn’t the foggiest idea what she was talking about, however, it was the insulting way she said it that made little me cry, rather than what she had said. Of course I asked my mom what she meant, which only made me cry harder, because why was it so bad to talk proper American English?! To say the least, the incident left a huge impression on me and even now I’m careful about how I speak, all because one ignorant little girl implied that there was something wrong with the way that I talked…

So, why am I telling you this? Because it explains why I absolutely hate it when black characters in anime rap or use excessive amounts of slang! I don’t talk like that and no one that I know speaks like that, so why the hell do the shining examples of diversity in Japanese anime have to talk like that? I get it Black folks have always had a special musical way of speaking, a soulful lilt to our verbal expressions… but, GOD DAMNIT, we aren’t all rappers! So, I’d appreciate it if Black anime characters didn’t talk like they’re ready to spit the sickest rhyme I’d ever heard… can we not do that? Please? I know a part of this trend is thanks to the underground Hip Hop culture in Japan, so, it doesn’t necessarily come from a bad place… but, that doesn’t mean I have to like it!

Yeah, that’s Killer Bee from Naruto I should clarify that I don’t hate Killer Bee, in fact I love the fact that Kishimoto created a village full of ninjas of color and that their leader is a badass. However, the whole thing is kind of undermined by the fact that homeboy raps all the time… *sigh* Really?! We couldn’t just let well enough alone? This is like two steps forward just to take one step back! And he’s not the only character with some questionable dialogue * takes a deep breath* there’s also Killa from Dragon Ball Z

I don’t know what they were thinking when they created Killa and his rather unique way of speaking, but, I have some choice words for whoever gave the okay, because this is just unacceptable! HE’S NOT EVEN SAYING REAL WORDS! It’s stuff like this that really get’s my blood boiling, even if it was meant to be a joke or even worse a parody of some kind, this is just disgusting! I don’t know anyone that talks like this, sure there are some older TV shows that have characters that speak this way occasionally, emphasis on OCCASIONALLY, but it seems that this is the only way Killa communicates with other people… Why?! Just Why?!

final thoughts

I have nothing but love for anime, sure, there have been times when I thought I’d out grown it, and yeah, I’m not the best at keeping up with seasonal anime trends, but I still find myself coming back to it. However, my love of anime has not blinded me to some of the more questionable aspects of the genre, namely the portrayal of black and brown skinned characters. Now, I’m no authority on anime, nor do I have this vast knowledge bank to dig through for the arguments I brought up in this post. I’m just a Black nerd that’s tired of seeing the same stereotypes being paraded around as progress… when they’re clearly just reinforcing the same outdated ideals.

A lot of that has to do with Japan’s limited experience with people of color (POC). Most of their knowledge of westerners, particularly people of color come from our own media, which sad to say is full of deep rooted biases, but that’s a discussion for another day… So let’s just say it does a poor job of showing the world what people of color are really like… So, I understand why Japanese animators, writers, directors, etc. portray POC the way that they do, not saying I agree with it, just that I understand it. Now, I will say that there are some positive portrayals of POC in anime, but more times than not that progress is undermined by much more prevalent negative stereotypes.

Sorry you guys, I really intended for this to be less ranty and much more uplifting, but once I started writing, I couldn’t help myself! I promise that Part II will highlight positive POC portrayals in anime, and next week’s post will be another Top 5 list, so look forward to that.

So what do you guys think about the depiction of Black characters in anime?  Are there some stereotypes that I left out? Let me know what you think in the comments section. If you like what you see, like this post or follow Nice Job Breaking It, Hero! As always THANK YOU FOR READING!!

23 thoughts on “Melanin Monday: I Am Not Your Stereotype- Racial Representation in Anime [Part I]

  1. Great post, dear! Whenever I watch anime with my mother (like Dragon Ball Z, for example) we like to point out and discuss the representation of colored people in the shows we watch. Honestly, I think it’s a damn shame that many manga and anime creators show a lack of creativity in their portrayal of black characters. Anyway, you did an awesome job on this post! Can’t wait to see more!

    1. Awww thank you Pink, there are just two more posts left till the end!! 😀

      YES!! I couldn’t agree more, I wish there were more accurate portrayals of Black characters in media. *sigh* That is awesome that you and your mom can have discussions like that, that’s definitely something more parents should do with their kids…

  2. Team Talk White high five! Ughhhh, you just pretty much described my life experience. I used to be teased by certain members of my family for “talking white,” and when I got older friends would say I was the “whitest black girl” ever. It took me YEARS to figure out how insulting that was. It always made me uncomfortable, but it wasn’t until I became more aware that I had the language to explain why. You also have to love the “You speak English so well!” like it’s a goddamn surprise. Yeah, I do. I studied it, and I write. Of course I speak the language well! I also sound valley girlish in some instances and almost English in others (right now my voice sounds like crap though because I have a sore throat, and it’s not even the hot, husky kind. I’d be okay with that).

    The portrayal of Black and POC in anime is such a tricky subject. Either you’re getting rampant stereotypes or people like Yoruichi above whom you’re not sure of (I say she’s a woman of color. We’re claiming her lol). My favorite game and story of all time is Final Fantasy VII, and there’s the stereotypical factor there that I REALLY hope they fix in the Remake. I’ve come to peace with the concept that your favs are problematic. It doesn’t mean you can’t love them, but you call them out because you do.

    I love this feature so hard btw ♥

    1. *high five* YES GURL YES!! I agree 110% with everything you just said! It drives me nuts when people say that and then act like they don’t know how problematic it is! I’ve definitely had to educate a few friends from back home… smh

      OMG yes! I’ll see something or play a game, and something questionable comes and I immediately stop what I’m doing… process what just happened. It can be a huge mood killer. Absolutely!!

      I am so glad that this post series is opening up a discussion about Black characters in anime, and I really appreciate your comments every week! I love connecting with my Black nerds!!

      1. Ughhhh it’s so annoying being aware of stuff, because while you can enjoy it, you’re automatically picking things apart to critique, but it’s important to do it! And I still enjoy things. I’m not robbed of my entertainment just because a fave can be problematic, because if it is, it’s more of a symptom of what’s going on in society at large. Honestly, I feel being aware and critiquing enriches my experience.

        I’m so happy that I’m finding more Black nerds, because I used to feel so weird and alone with my dorkiness. This is not to take away the love I have for all my nerd friends, because I connect with people more than just on race, but there is a definite black, nerd experience, and sometimes you don’t even know it until the person mentions it! I’ve used pictures of characters before because some sites are hostile (YouTube ugh). WordPress has been one of my most positive experiences. I think the way blogging works on here is more conducive to open minded people or I just haven’t run into many assholes hehe. It’s also pretty easy to block people, which makes the experience more controllable and better.

        Have you ever heard of Pretty, Brown, and Nerdy? There these three black ladies who are literally what it says on the tin. I love them so hard ♥

  3. “I just would like to know for sure whether I’m looking at a Black character or just a very tan Japanese character.”
    Or neither.
    I think at least half the anime characters who have Asian features, dark skin, and known ethnicity are from India.

  4. Great post, Naja. I’m firmly in the camp that would like to see these posts continued.

    Anime is great and all but it is rife with stereotypes of all kinds. Black characters also get treated callously in that aspect. The discussion of the blurred line caused by tan skin makes me think that such a design is more typical of anime Indians. Hollywood and anime both likes to give us dark skin and North Indian characteristics, diversity be damned.

    1. Awww thank you D! I’m happy to see that this series has been getting such a positive response from you guys and I’m still trying to figure out how I can keep this up… so we’ll see.

      Yes, it breaks my heart when I see black and brown skinned characters thrown under the bus time and time again. *sigh*

      Yes! Another blogger brought up a similar argument in an earlier comment. Folks tend to use that ambiguous tan complexion as a catch all for diversity and while I appreciate all the POCs we can get, I’d really love it more if creators would put a bit more thought into their decisions.

  5. Where do I even begin!?

    First off, I grew up in a predominately black area so most of the influential elements of my life came from black culture. It wasn’t until I went to a middle school in a white/hispanic area that my views started to shift. Fast forward to me going to a mostly black high school where I was labeled a “reverse OREO” for liking rock music, anime and other things deemed “not Black”.

    Stereotypes suck and are extremely annoying to deal with, especially when they are use din things I like. I mean come on! Tenjho Tenge had a black character named Bob who not onyl had dreads, but who’s fighting style was Capoeira. WHAT THE HECK, MAN?! XD

    1. ooooh the dreaded OREO comments… I always hated those beyond words and to this day I’m not very fond of Oreo cookies because of that!

      I get that all the time, “Why don’t you like black stuff?” or “You always liked weird stuff like that.” I actually thought there was something wrong with me for liking that stuff, so I just got used to not talking about it at all with ppl, unless they asked.

      I’ve tried capoeria and I quite liked it, it definitely helped with my Taekwondo technique LOL I’ll have to look at Tenjho Tenge one of these days and give this Bob guy the once over.

  6. I HATE when black characters in anime speak in that weird way. I hate it even more when an English localisation goes out of its way to keep that. You had a chance to fix it AND YOU MADE IT WORSE. I can’t remember which manga it was, but I remember reading some with almost “Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs” level of language in English. How do you do that as a translator? You could just have given the character a Southern accent, or something you know. I’ve never heard anyone in my life speak like that, except in films and so.

    I know this isn’t on the same level, but the story of being told you “talk white” really reminds me of how much my language was policed in college by the boys in my class. Because I was the only girl they’d groan and tell me not to use certain words because they were “too girly”. Like I wasn’t allowed to say we were “chatting”, we were “talking” (offline all of this).

    It’s ridiculous how heavily policed these stereotypes are in speech, but when you suggest people stop using slurs and offensive language suddenly it’s too much effort, the PC police is overreacting and all that crap.

    1. Cas, I am just frustrated that this is still happening in 2017, but it won’t change unless we make them change it! Writing these posts has definitely reminded me that there is still a ways to go for accurate racial representation….

      Language is such nuanced thing, but I hate it when people go out of their way to point out what’s “wrong” with the way ppl speak. SMH.

      1. Yeah, it’s beyond messed up that we’re still dealing with this shit in the 21st century. And I believe you are absolutely right that we need to keep on calling people out on this and demanding better representation. It can be changed. We’ve already seen some positive changes, just need to make sure people realise we still have ways to go.

  7. Excellent post as always, Naja. I adore Killer Bee from Naruto, but I cringe whenever he starts rapping. Sigh. Keep up the great work. Cheers!

  8. Pretty dope post. Personally I never really cared for how we’re represented in anime because it’s not that big of a deal to me and because it’s all fiction anyways. The only thing that really annoys me is the whold exaggeration of facial features.

    1. Aww thank you for sharing your perspective! I wrote this post so that folks could feel comfortable sharing their opinions on the topic, especially those that are different from my own.

      Oh my gosh, yes, exaggerated features in general drive me nuts, but thankfully they are getting better about that.

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