Question of the Month
Racism and Pokemon
Q: Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University has listed the Pokemon character, Jynx as an example of racism in modern material. This is an obvious defamation! The following is a rebuttal against your decision. Is it really proven that Jynx is indeed a racial stereotype? When something looks like something, does it necessarily mean that it is something? Up till now, only one single person has ever complained about Pokemon's so-called racial materials, she is, Carole Boston Weatherford, an associate Professor of YOUR University.
-- Wong Nelson
A: Carole Boston Weatherford is an African American poet, children’s book author, and cultural critic. She earned a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the University of South Carolina and a Master of Arts (M.A.) in publications design from the University of Baltimore. Her books, both prose and poetry, explore historical race relations and racism from the perspective of children. She is an accomplished and well-respected writer. Her book The Sound that Jazz Makes (2000) won the Carter G. Woodson Award from National Council for the Social Studies. Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led her People to Freedom (2006), illustrated by Kadir Nelson, won a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. Birmingham, 1963 won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for 2008, and she has received other literary honors. Regrettably, she is not a professor at Ferris State University; she teaches composition and children's literature at a different FSU: Fayetteville State University, a historically Black college in North Carolina.
Pokemon is a multi-billion dollar media franchise with electronic games, animated cartoons, television shows, movies, collectible trading cards, and practically any three dimensional object that can be branded (for example, lunchboxes and toys). Moreover, the Pokemon universe is one of imagination and role-playing, with strange “Pocket Monsters” that can be, among other things, caught by humans (Pokemon Trainers) and treated as pets and companions or used to fight against other Pokémon. Children and adults spend hours playing with these imaginary, magical creatures that sometimes generate heat, employ telekinesis, use martial arts fighting techniques and display other abilities.
Pokemon was created in Japan, but enjoys incredible popularity in the United States. The Americans who enjoy the otherwise fictional Pokemon characters view them through the lens of real-life experiences, and this includes racial lens. In January 2000, Weatherford wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in The Black World Today that claimed that Jynx, a Pokemon character, reinforced negative stereotypes and caricatures of African Americans, especially Black women. She stated, “…I saw a character on the Pokémon TV cartoon that not only stripped the phenomenon of its innocence but stopped me cold. The character Jynx, Pokémon #124, has decidedly human features: jet-black skin, huge pink lips, gaping eyes, a straight blonde mane and a full figure, complete with cleavage and wiggly hips. Put another way, Jynx resembles an overweight drag queen incarnation of Little Black Sambo, a racist stereotype from a children's book long ago purged from libraries. While my 10- and 12-year olds do not find Jynx offensive, their parents and grandparents do.”1 In May 2000, Weatherford wrote an article in the Christian Science Monitor and repeated her contention that Jynx looked like an “obese drag queen.” She also described the Dragonball Z character, Mr. Popo, as “a rotund, turban-clad genie with pointy ears, jet-black skin, shiny white eyes, and, yes, big red lips.”2
In January 2001, I wrote an article for the Jim Crow Museum website titled, “New Racist Forms: Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” The major argument in that article was that racist and racially insensitive artifacts are still being produced, distributed, and purchased. I believed then—and continue to believe today—that it is important that Americans know that racism remains a part of today's culture. It is a convenient myth that racism is a relic of the past. The Jim Crow Museum has approximately 5,000 objects, and I believe that all—or nearly all—of the objects in the museum can be purchased today (think: eBay) and many are still being produced. Some are produced as honest reproductions; others are created as fake antiques. Also, many of the old, caricatured images of Blacks that were displayed on postcards and canned goods from the 1920s to the 1950s are now reproduced on mouse pads, clocks, and displayable tins. Worse yet, new caricatures of Blacks are being created, such as the Halloween mask called the “Plain Brown Rapper,” and pot-smoking, dreadlocks-wearing, big-lipped Jamaicans with oversized genitalia appearing on ashtrays and souvenirs. While doing research for the “New Racist Forms” article, I read Professor Weatherford’s harsh critique of Jynx. Intrigued, I purchased a card with the Jynx character. I have to tell you, I believe that card belongs in the Jim Crow Museum!
I agree with you that things are not always what they appear to be. I will also concede that the motivations behind creating and distributing the Jynx character may not have been racially motivated or mean-spirited in any way. That said, I believe that some actions and creations have unintended consequences that are nonetheless real and often unpleasant.
I do not share your belief that Professor Weatherford is the “one single person” who has complained. I have heard dozens of African Americans and European Americans complain about Jynx. Their complaint is that Jynx, one of the relatively few “human-noid” Pokemon characters, looks like a black-faced caricature. For much of this country’s history, the portrayal of Africans and their American descendants as ugly, googly-eyed Others, with jet-black skin, snow-white teeth, and oversized white, pink, or red lips was not only commonplace in movies, cartoons, newspaper, and magazine advertisements, but was on literally millions of three-dimensional objects.
The Jynx character mimics this darky iconography. In 2002, Nintendo, responding to criticism about Jynx, changed the character's face from black to purple.
In your e-mail message, you raised an important and useful question: Why are some objects included in the Jim Crow Museum, but others excluded? I suppose the short answer is that we collect any object (that we can afford) that helps facilitate discussions about race, race relations, and racism. The sole purpose of the museum is to be a “learning laboratory” where deep and honest discussions can occur. Trained docents accompany visitors into the museum and are there to help lead discussions. Typically, a docent will ask, “When you look at this object, what do you see?” The docent does not tell the visitor that an object is or is not racist, but rather tries to use the object to explore the many layers that both envelop and hinder discussions of race, race relations, and racism. I have used the Jynx Pokemon card in this way to try to understand what visitors view as acceptable or offensive.
Long ago, I discovered that objects that have racial slurs in them, for example, Niggerhair Tobacco, often lead to muted conversations. Visitors quickly conclude that the object is racist and little productive conversation follows. However, objects that lack this sort of explicitness often lead to great discussions. Jynx is illustrative of an object or character that lends itself to deeper discussions about racial imagery and racist imagery. By way of a parallel, some of the best discussions in the museum are about Aunt Jemima imagery, in part, because visitors have a wide range of interpretations of the meanings embedded in the imagery. Some people see Aunt Jemima as a relic of Jim Crow era stereotypical portrayals of Black women; others see Aunt Jemima as a harmless, even endearing reminder of their childhood experiences. I suppose the great promise of the museum is that it brings together people with vastly different interpretations and worldviews with the common goal of discussing race, race relations, and racism. As for me, I disagree with Weatherford’s claim that Jynx “resembles an overweight drag queen incarnation of Little Black Sambo.” To me, Jynx is a modern morphing of the Mammy and Jezebel caricatures of African American women.3
Weatherford, Carole B, “Politically Incorrect Pokémon,”Dogasu's Backpack, http://www.bulbagarden.net/~dogasu/bashing/racist_jynx_01.html, Retrieved 20 August 2009.
Weatherford, Carole B, “Japan's bigoted export to kids,” The Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/2000/0504/p9s1.html, Retrieved 20 August 2009.