Is Being Ambiguously Black A Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

Knuckles_OVAFor the millionth time, representation matters! But unfortunately, we don’t always get to see ourselves quite so directly in human characters for various negative reasons. Maybe diverse characters were taboo at the time, maybe the author didn’t think a varied cast was necessary, or maybe the characters don’t necessarily have a racial or gender identity. But in this case, many tropes are still used to create characters that people of color can identify with.

This is sort of a personal issue for me: growing up, there weren’t a lot of Black characters outside of family sitcoms and token Black teammates. So to have a Black character who was uniquely their own person would have been a monumental thing. However, even though there weren’t very many Black characters I could identify with, there were still several racially ambiguous characters that I often thought of as Black.

My favorite go-to example of this is Knuckles the Echidna from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. In my own opinion, and through conversations with friends, we’ve come to the conclusion that Knuckles is the “Black friend” for a few reasons. First are a few physical reasons such as his dreadlock-type quills and his slightly taller build than Sonic’s. (Also that he is a different species.) More telling are his characterization attributes; all of his modern themes are hip-hop, and much of his demeanor seems to fall into “Black guy” tropes, which is unfortunately pretty stereotypical. Lastly, he’s from a dead warrior race tasked with protecting the series’ most important natural resource. In this case, a parallel of jungle themes and diamonds in Africa could be drawn. This all seems relatively harmless for the most part. If anything, it gives him a certain vibe that the audience can still relate to without having to do an overabundance of storytelling.

A lot of possibilities with this set of tropes for sure

A lot of possibilities with this set of tropes for sure.

Another common example is Piccolo from the Dragon Ball series. Again, he is also from a different race than the main character. While they are both aliens, Piccolo is a green alien, which contrasts with Goku’s more fair-skinned alien type. Furthermore, Piccolo also has a calm yet strong personality and a deep voice that is often associated with tough Black guys in media. He, like Knuckles, is also one of the last of his species tasked with protecting a sacred set of relics. Again, this can be seen as a parallel to a land often attacked for its natural resources.

And last, a more current example to prove that this type of thing still happens is Jake from Adventure Time. I haven’t seen a lot of “Black Jake” headcanons in fandom, but I have seen it occasionally. I built this idea from his slang and voice—John DiMaggio, his voice actor, is known for characters like this such as Bender from Futurama and Dr. Drakken—but also from his relaxed personality and commitment to family (Finn, Lady Rainicorn, and their children). If nothing else, his Fionna and Cake counterpart is Cake, who very much seems to be the Sassy Black Woman archetype. That, however, could lead to some possible downfalls.

Family can be important no matter who you are

Family can be important no matter who you are.

These comparisons may seem to be based on racial stereotypes, such as an enjoyment of hip-hop, but the connection I’m making is based on how a fan identifies with the traits. An important point to bring up is that any one or any combination of these traits doesn’t automatically code a character as Black. These are examples that I can personally relate to in some way. The characters represent ideas that I would consider part of Black culture; of course, this means that not all Black people will agree with the picks. This is more about a character having traits that cause members of a group to see themselves and want to adopt that character. Or in another sense, cause members of a different racial group to categorize a character that way because they sense a vibe similar to their friends. Again, this could be problematic if they are relating the characters to a negative trait from someone they know. In a sense, I identify with these characters for various reasons. All three exhibit a strong sense of pride, through family and tradition. Knuckles, specifically, along with the previously mentioned hip-hop theme, is devoted (to his job of protecting the emeralds). Piccolo is calm, cool, and collected; a style I respect and wish I could be more like. I can identify with Jake’s fast and loose use of language. His slang is off-kilter which gives me a jazzy vibe. Luckily, these aren’t necessarily racial traits or stereotypes! But they have meaning that to me feels reminiscent of Black culture.

It's not the amazing fashion sense, though

It’s not the amazing fashion sense, though.

On the one hand, being able to view a racially ambiguous character as Black can give fans a chance to see themselves represented when they aren’t anywhere else. Additionally, they can get to see a character without all the attached baggage race brings in reality. For example, with Jake I can see a character who gets to “be Black” in a way, without facing prejudice for being Black. Maybe some characters dislike dogs, but Jake’s dog-ness isn’t correlated to his inferred Blackness. But on the other hand, if these characters are thought of as Black, then their negative traits could be seen as racist stereotypes. For example, Knuckles is known for getting tricked, and Jake is often depicted as lazy. Sure, these characters aren’t explicitly written as Black, but it feels weird to cherrypick which traits you want to apply to your personal headcanons. Since I already thought of Knuckles and Jake as Black, I didn’t want them to be seen as lazy or stupid because that ties into a negative, racist stereotype about Black men. Also, while being able to see myself in characters who aren’t of the human species sometimes speaks to good writing, we do have a media problem of not having enough Black characters who are visibly Black. This coding could be a lazy tactic used to avoid creating identifiably Black characters and the representation they would bring.

And sometimes it's just kind of bad

And sometimes it’s just kind of bad…

All in all I think coding characters can be a useful and fun tool to play with in world creating; it can be used to implicitly relate a fantasy world to our own or critique it, or it can be used to create characters without specific issues, if that’s the goal. While it would definitely be good to see more actual Black characters, it’s still fun to guess which ones could be influenced by Black culture. If you can think of any characters you feel are coded to a certain group, let me know in the comments!

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5 thoughts on “Is Being Ambiguously Black A Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

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  2. While Knuckles is intentionally black and was literally designed with the color of the Jamaican flag as revealed by the character designers, I’m not so sure at all about Piccolo being intentionally designed to be foreign.

    Piccolo is introduced as the son of a demonspawn, the previous villain in DragonBall(the original), and when he was introduced had a more crazed personality before settling into the calm, collected, and strong personality in Z.

    Also even as a fan of the series, I have to say Toriyama doesn’t seem to have at all progressive views on women, or people of skin color.

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