The Other Kind of Dark
Last week, Mic’s Xavier Harding posted a compelling article examining the connection between dark skin and malicious intent with regard to the recently-released Switch game, Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers. This isn’t an entirely new concept. It’s actually something you can see in almost every genre, past and present. You’ve seen it in Disney movies with villains like Jafar, Scar, and Ursula, for example. It has also had a presence historically, represented through house slaves, or, even long before then, in the form of yin and yang. The idea that lighter colors represent goodness or purity and darker ones represent evil or corruption is commonly referred to as colorism.
To summarize Harding’s piece on Mic, Ultra SFII has evil versions of Ryu and Ken: Evil Ryu and Violent Ken. Despite Ryu being Japanese and Ken being Caucasian, their evil counterparts have darker skin than their default versions. Harding argues that it’s possible to represent villainous tendencies of a character without having to darken their skin (which is of course true) and asks, “When can we retire this trope?”
The article was shared by a good friend of mine in the Facebook group BlakList Gaming, prompting a conversation about this trope amongst a group of adult video game fans from a variety of cultural backgrounds, including myself. The major arguments can be broken down into a few different angles: positive portrayals, cultural oddities, “and it ain’t that serious.”
Marc McKinney, creator of the group, introduced the idea that the colorism trope doesn’t successfully demonize people of color because there are so many positive representations of non-white people in entertainment media. He cites characters like Bishop of the X-Men as having helped instill in him a pride in his own skin color from a young age. That logic is expanded upon by DeAndre Woodruff who posits that we should pay attention to nationalities of the Street Fighter cast rather than their skin tones. The series has historically included characters from just about every background as both good and evil. When it comes to identifying a character as being African-American, the Street Fighter games do give them the same morality as Caucasian, Latino, or Asian characters. The story has villains and heroes from every background. In short, when it comes to Street Fighter, dark people are inherently evil, but not black people. Applied specifically to this controversy, the characters Evil Ryu and Violent Ken being darker skinned is likely not a racially-motivated decision on the part of Capcom since those characters aren’t of African-American decent.
That isn’t to say that there’s no such thing as a racist portrayal in media. Blackface, for example, was a real part of our history that still lingers today. Being able to recognize the intention behind that concept and the intent of this Ultra SFII one as two very different ideas is an important skill and it can be developed in a multitude of ways. Both Marc and DeAndre bring up how powerful, positive people of color in fiction help balance our perspectives against things that are actually created to somehow ridicule people for being different. That empowerment through representation is a key part of other stories like Moana, Firefly, and even Harry Potter. It does matter that stories show people like you, whether that’s through race, sexuality, personality, religion, hobbies, finances – whatever, portrayed as something other than the villain.
My personal take, until these conversations came up, was always that Japanese culture is just different from ours. Street Fighter is made by Capcom, a Japanese company, and it’s not too crazy to think American racial intricacies are just lost on people in that country. I think back to Final Fantasy VII’s Barret, a black character who checks off several stereotypes associated with black people. He has dark skin, an afro (and later, cornrows), and, most memorably, speaks terrible English. For me, it was always easy to imagine someone from Japan, who possibly only knows black people from television, deciding that the black guy in their game would say something like “Don’ give a damn ‘bout none ‘o dat.” I’m aware that saying they don’t know any better is giving them a pass for their ignorance. I’m also aware that I grew up around black people who talk like Barret, and that most of the black people I’ve seen on TV talk like Barret. Perhaps that’s a separate issue, but either way, if I saw it on TV all the time and I live here, what do you think people who only caught a glimpse of black America, through a language barrier, across an ocean saw?
I feel like FFVII’s Barret was the developer’s honest idea of one trait a black person could realistically have. People forget that sometimes stereotypes are built on deduction, not racism. African-American men who have dark skin, cornrows, and bad grammar do actually exist and are just as likely to be awesome people as anyone else. On that note, it should be said, Barret was a phenomenal human being. He’s absolutely one of the heroes of the game’s story and, aside from how he talks, his race is never highlighted as a negative. There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant about another culture as long as you have a willingness to admit that ignorance and correct it given the opportunity.
It Ain’t That Serious
The response in our online discussion to my comment that maybe “dark means evil” is an innocuous Japanese cultural thing changed my mind in some ways. While I looked at it as the game developers not knowing that people over here could see Evil Ryu being darker-skinned than Ryu as racist, DeAndre points out that it could just be simple colors:
Darkness is negative by association with a million different things that have nothing to skin tones. It’s the opposite of daylight, for instance, which leads to people being afraid of the dark. So when a game like The Darkness uses monsters made of some weird, esoteric “dark energy”, it has nothing to do with skin color. At some point these are just words.
Color tones also play a role. Darker shades of all colors are literally color tones comprised of less light. Reduced to just the visuals we see, it’s obviously benign. So it’s very likely artists use the idea of showing less light, alongside the connotations that a lack of light (darkness) would carry, to portray villainy. It’s extremely unlikely that yin and yang are supposed to imply that white people are good and black people are bad.
Travis Nicholson adds a point to our discussion that highlights the path from “dark is scary” to “dark is racist”: bad = dark = black = black people. It’s funny how the connotations of certain words can subconsciously change how we feel about simple colors. By the same token, more connotation progressions can lead to completely different ideas: bad = dark = black = subdued = intriguing. That’s how we get to things like Mountain Dew Black Label or the general concept of something black being mysterious or smooth or sexy. Same color, completely different meanings.
Xavier Harding’s fantastic article posed the question “When can we retire this trope?” I’m not sure that we can, but I’m also not convinced we need to. He does point out that there are other ways to signify evil in a character, and he’s certainly right. But ultimately, we have to take the totality of a product into account before we decide it’s trying to promote racial inequality. Racism does exist whether it goes acknowledged or not, but it’s also a whole lot deeper than a Japanese video game character getting a tan and red eyes. Ultra Street Fighter II literally has green people in it. I believe labeling a game based on the color of a character, in isolation of everything else about said game or character says more about us and the connotations we bring to the table than the game.
Besides, if we’re going to label Street Fighter with an –ism, it should probably be sexism. I’m really tired of having to explain to people that I main Laura because of her cool jiu-jitsu-inspired attacks, funny lines of dialog, ambitious spirit, and fun gameplay…
and not because of …