The Accidental Racist
I am not going to start this out by saying I’m not racist. After all, according to science and popular culture, we’re all so hopelessly, subconsciously racist that there’s no point in even pretending to like ourselves.
But I try, dammit. In a previous blog, I shared an incident where a bunch of my white, liberal co-workers were all in a snit about a group of people– all of whom happened to be black– leaning against my car in the parking lot, waiting for their ride. I didn’t care in the least, but my coworkers wouldn’t rest until SOMEbody (it ended up being one of them) put a stop to it. Whatever “it” was, I still don’t know. My point is that it seemed, even to generally conservative, allegedly subconsciously racist me, that there was something wrong with assuming those people were up to no good just because of their skin color.
Amazingly, that very blog post led a liberal buffoon (I’ve referred to him before) to call me racist. He insisted that there was no acceptable way to talk about race issues, at all, ever, especially if one was a conservative, since all conservatives everywhere are totally racist hatemongers.
Anyway, whatever. The point is: I try. And while I know it’s an impossibility to feel empathy for anyone in the majority (and I am about as majority as it gets) I find myself in an increasing Catch 22. I ran into it just this morning.
I am working on a new mobile game. It’s a harmless little bowling game, set in the 1970s, with four animated opponents. As a good, responsible, socially conscious creative type, I knew I could not fashion my characters after the typical seventies era bowler (i.e. four chubby, balding white guys). Thus, I created a diversity of characters, only one of which is a chubby, balding white guy. The other three are (so far), a snarky teenage Asian girl, a geriatric beehive-haired, cig-smoking grandma, and a big secret-agent-type bald guy with sunglasses who happens to be black.
Fair enough, right? I’m representing three races, two (of the seven or so) genders, a variety of ages, and four distinct bowling shoe sizes. All my bases are covered.
And then it came time to do the voices.
As a rule, since I am very much a one-man-studio, I do all the male voices for my male characters myself. It came time to record the lines for my black character and, well, I started getting nervous. Because doing his voice required me to think about what a black secret agent character would sound like, and our culture is very sensitive about acknowledging differences between races.
In short, if I tried to sound black, I’d be acknowledging that there is a distinct timbre to a black voice. But if I just sounded like me, I would likely get criticized for having some suburban cracker voicing a black character.
And then I actually thought this: is a white man recording a voice as a black man the audio equivalent of performing in black face? Aagh!
Scoff away, but this is a legitimate concern. A few days ago, Colin Powell (the Republican who twice endorsed Barack Obama) stated that a critique of the president’s first debate performance as “lazy” was closet racism:
“Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to those of us who are African Americans, the second word is shiftless and then there’s a third word that goes along with that.”
In other words, thoughtless use of the wrong word in a critique equals racism. This isn’t just in politics, either. A sportscaster was fired for using the phrase “chink in the armor” in a discussion about basketball player (and Asian American) Jeremy Lin. Of course, “chink in the armor” is not a racist phrase; it predates the use of the word “chink” as a racial slur, referring (do I really need to explain this?) to a fracture in a bit of metal armor, thus making it vulnerable. Granted, in today’s uber-sensitive media climate, it’s a thoughtless phrase to use– not because it reveals any closet racism, but because we live in a culture of professional offense, where a certain kind of person lives only to pile onto those sorts of “gotcha” moments.
So from the start, the use of a black character represented a bit of a problem, despite my best intentions.
But it gets worse.
From the beginning, my game characters were meant to be references and homages to pop culture entities. My first character, Ernie, was secretly designed after the character named “Walter” from the film “The Big Lebowski”, a cult comedy about a pair of bowling buddies. My Asian character, “Ming”, is marginally a reference to the icy/sexy characters most often portrayed by Lucy Liu.
When it came to my black secret agent character, he was meant to be a cross between Men in Black and a boilerplate CIA character. Thus, I named him after the government agent characters that have regularly appeared in the classic and iconic (film and television) tale of “the A Team”. If you recall, it’s a running joke that all government agents have the same name: Lynch.
Just today, I was animating my secret agent character, working on the lip-synch (using my voice– nervous titter) for the bit where he says “My name is agent Lynch” and for the first time– probably because I am increasingly worried about my handling of this character– a pall of cold terror fell over me as the character on-screen spoke his lines.
“My name is agent Lynch…”
Had I really, very nearly, horrifyingly, released a video game with a black character whose name is (choke!)… Lynch?
For the first time, I asked myself this seemingly innocent, albeit somewhat desperate, question: how difficult would it be to alter the character’s texture to just make him white?
Answer: not difficult at all.
I caught myself.
Had I really considered taking the black character out of my game, reducing it to an entirely pale cast, to make the game less potentially racist?
This is the Catch-22 of modern racism. It used to mean actively hating or demeaning people based on their skin color. Now, it means accidentally stepping on any of a thousand racially-charged bombs on the minefield of popular culture.
If I don’t include a black character, I am racist. If I do, somehow, the handling of that character will make me an even worse racist.
Now seriously, I am not looking for sympathy here. Or even empathy, really. Honestly, I think I am writing this to apologize in advance, and to ask for a little grace. Somehow, inevitably, I will handle this wrong. After all, when I wrote about not judging a bunch of people leaning against my car based solely on their skin color, I still, somehow, inexplicably, ended up being called a racist.
I don’t want to give in to the pressure to just avoid any use of diverse characters. Amazingly, I like diverse characters. I like diverse people! But the pressure is pretty strong. One can get branded one of the worst things imaginable purely by accident– purely by not predicting how the most professionally offended and uber-sensitive people in the world might willfully misread an incautious word, or reference, or detail.
I almost released a game with a black character named after a heinous detail from American racial history, just because I wanted to reference an obscure joke from “The A Team”. What else am I missing? Surely something.
So I am begging your pardon, in advance, for the way I will surely offend somebody, somewhere, totally unintentionally. But I refuse to not use diverse characters for that reason. As a good friend of mine says, if I do that, they win– in this instance, “they” being the professionally offended, the willing misinterpreters, the people for whom racial “gotcha” moments are nearly a fetish.
But just to be safe, I will be extremely careful with any more A-Team references.
Anyone want to suggest a new secret agent name?