Happy Black History Month, dear readers! This month has always meant a lot to me on a personal level. Being a Black person, I’ve witnessed erasure of our achievements, dismissal of our problems, and omissions of us from opportunities. These types of slights often expand into nerd media, where representation is already scant. In that spirit, I want to discuss an issue that makes the existing representation troubling. We need to stop giving non-human characters Black traits to code them as “other”, as alien from the protagonist and audience. These characters, rather than just being another character in a group, are specifically different or strange.
This phenomenon goes back a fairly long way, at least back to the Predator from the Predator movies. The Predator, who is described as quite ugly, sports what are clearly dreadlocks. Even before he takes off his mask to reveal the alien face, the dreads are clearly there and contribute to his otherworldly look: we aren’t automatically sure if they are hair, machine tubes, or another alien feature. Dreadlocks and various types of braids are commonly associated with Black culture, often connected to the Rastafari movement, and are often used as a sign of pride or political protest for Black people. Even though other cultures can style their hair into similar hairstyles, a negative stigma (dirty, ghetto, violent, or weird) usually isn’t attached when the wearer isn’t Black. Going back to Predator, his dread-like hair is supposed to add to how different he is from the humans he’s fighting, which is made obvious when he is in opposition to the protagonist played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The fact that he is an alien purposely trying to hurt humans only worsens this.
Media aimed at younger audiences isn’t safe from similar tropes either. The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise contains Knuckles, a character I’ve previously written about as heavily-coded-as-Black. Knuckles makes his first appearance as an antagonist to Sonic due to misinformation from Eggman, and is immediately established as “other” due to his dreadlike hair, hip-hop musical theme, and ability to cancel Sonic’s powered-up state. These are all traits the series hadn’t shown yet, and they are things that make Knuckles look different, suspicious, and violent. These qualities are unfortunately linked with Black qualities. This early in the story, we don’t know that Knuckles was tricked, but that revelation doesn’t make the situation much better in terms of Black coding.
More recent examples of Black coding being used to “other” characters are Bismuth and Garnet from Steven Universe, both of whom have Black features and are voiced by Black actresses. They both have problematic elements; Bismuth’s are worse, but both have issues. Garnet, sporting an afro and R&B/jazz musical motifs, has one of the more alien sets of characteristics of the original Crystal Gem trio: she is initially characterized as cold/distant, she’s wildly more powerful than the other two, and her body has shoulder pads built in. She also has three eyes, unlike the other Gems’ more humanoid features. Even compared to the other aliens, she still stands out. Again, this creates the sense that Blackness is linked with being different. Bismuth has similar problems. In addition to her voice, she has dreadlocks, which leads to her seeming Black-coded. (Additionally, many pieces have been written about her racist implications.) Unfortunately, Bismuth is very different from the Crystal Gems in that she is written as more violent, less “refined”, and less moral in her fighting tactics. Add to this that she is part of a physical labor servant class and is the only non-corrupted Gem to be locked away, and quite obviously, there is a lot of racial coding being linked to negative traits.
This is where the problem lies. When Black traits are commonly paired with and used to represent otherness in non-human species while other cultures’ features are used to represent the norm, this adds to poor stereotypes and misrepresentation. When the majority of someone’s interactions with another group are in fiction (as many people don’t live in vastly diverse areas), it is dangerous for those interactions to be negative. When a child meets someone with dreadlocks, their first interpretation shouldn’t be “I hope this person isn’t dangerous like Knuckles or Bismuth was” or “I wonder if this person with an afro will be cold like Garnet”. And when we look at the more adult Predator example, we see that these beliefs won’t even be challenged in adulthood.
Overall, I don’t think this is an intentional issue in modern fiction. But it does reflect the internal biases of creative teams. Media doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it shows what creative teams may create when they are careless or lack diversity. It would be fairly simple to do anthropomorphizing right: non-human characters could have hairstyles from many groups, not just singling out one. For instance, a species could have mohawks, dreadlocks, bowl-cuts, and any other possibility. A different species could either have different musical motifs for each character, or if there was a singular theme for the whole race, have both positive and negative characters represented on screen. As with all representation, problems mostly occur when only one viewpoint is displayed. I think if more fiction follows a similar method of being inclusive, we’ll be less likely to fall into unfortunate situations.
Hear more from BrothaDom on Character Reveal, the podcast he cohosts with Lady Saika!