I’ve been a very vocal supporter of representation in media.I’ve paneled on the importance of having one’s skin color, religion, orientation and more represented in the media they consume be it comics, movies, television and more. But when I’ve had these conversations, I’m always quick to say that we demand representation in Western media and to many, I give Asian media a pass. There are indeed methods to my madness; Japan is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries on Earth. For many of the religions that are minorities in the United States, they are minorities in Asia (hence the fetishization of Catholics and Catholicism in anime and manga). And, to be very real here, most of Asia still has incredibly conservative and strict views about homosexuality, transgender rights and more. It’s one of the reasons why yaoi is so odd as far as “representing” queer people since it’s mostly coming from a place that has strict sodomy laws and continues to fetishize and trivialize the lives of gay men.
To summarize, I just can’t hold manga and anime to the same standard I hold American media as far as representation goes. There is no excuse for an American comic book movie to have no black people in it. There is no excuse for a television show to not have queer people in it. There is no excuse for an American book to feature protagonists and characters of different body types, races and religions. I can’t ask Japan to represent me: a small black Catholic queer.
Picrew is an avatar creation generator that is Japanese and is incredibly popular. I started noticing these elaborate avatars being made by people and noticing variations on the same format. In fact, there’s a very famous Picrew template that features pride flags and has a huge variety of skin tones, pride flags and colors and gender and presentation options. Picrew is great for someone like me in that I have a great visual eye and style aesthetic but I could not draw a straight line if you threatened me. If you’ve seen some of my newer icons and branding online, those are all Picrew creations.
Picrew is full of fun generators that allow users to make icons, avatars and more. I love Picrew but there’s been something that I’m very aware of: not all generators accommodate skin tones like mine. I don’t have this issue with many of the Western avatar generators: I’ve even found some that are pretty dead on. But every once in a while, I’ll click on a auto-translated title hoping to find someone in the options for skin tone that look like me and I just can’t find them. Some have no options at all for different skin tones while others have one option for “brown” that are either way too light for me or way too dark for me.
I’ve always had an odd relationship to my skin tone: I’m not so detached that I don’t feel black but I’m lighter in tone than most of my family and in comparison to some of my friends, I’m also usually the lighter skinned one. There’s a lot of colorism within the black community that tends to favor lighter skinned black people and a resentment from darker skinned black people against folks like me. In all fairness, we’re the more represented of the entire group so I can understand the resentment while also being hurt by it.
There’s a strange dysphoria that particularly comes to finding a Picrew generator that has one or two options for brown skin tones and neither fit. I rarely feel dysphoric whether it comes down to gender or race but to see a generator that has either a tone far too dark or far too light, it’s almost painful. I had a similar moment playing Pokemon Sword when I began to question if I was truly as dark as my character is. I’ve been honest about me using skin-lightening productions for hyperpigmentation but recently, I stopped because I was spotty and far too light. I looked like a bad Monique Heart highlight job because of the bleaching agents in the cream and it caused even more pain about my race, my skin and my skin tone. After a few weeks of cocoa butter and vitamin E oil, I’ve been able to get back on track to what my tone is and now I’m even more concerned about the concealer I was matched to. What is my skin tone? What am I? How black am I?
These questions are new and are frankly distressing and recently have come about from a silly avatar generating website.
On the flip side of that, there is a euphoric bliss to finding a match to my skin tone and making an avatar or icon just like me. It’s incredibly fulfilling to look at an icon and think “Yes, this is it. This is perfect.” I’m proud of most of the icons I’ve made and I do swap them out every once in a while just because as of this time, I’ve made quite a few of them mostly just for fun. Picrew became a way to work through my desire for kawaii avatars and icons without having to commission someone. As a long time lover of anime and kawaii culture, it’s nice to have chibis and bishojo and anime-inspired icons that do in fact look like me.
So by now, you may be asking: well, what do you expect? You did just say that you can’t ask more of Asian creators. To that I say, fair point. I do maintain that I cannot ask Asia to represent me; I can also say that it’s been sad to not be seen or represented in a medium I love so much. What’s even more interesting is seeing some of the generators’ creators mentioning that they have no intention of adding new skin tones or such after people ask for them which to me goes beyond simple ignorance and moves into full on intolerance. It’s one thing to not think of darker skinned people due to a lack of exposure and another to entirely just wish to not acknowledge them at all after people ask for more options on a generator that is popular.
So what do we do? Well, Picrew is great even though it’s a little memetic at this stage to have a Picrew avatar (several even made an appearance in Contrapoint’s excellent video on Canceling). If you are of color: commission artists. There are plenty of artists all over the social internet who would be willing to accept a commission for an avatar or icon. Start drawing! Every once in a while, I’ll sketch out stuff: you’ll never see them because they’re bad but sure, I’ve done it.
It took me years to feel proud of my melanin. It took me years to reconcile my blackness while being an otaku and lover of Japanese media and culture. It took me years to feel even a little bit confident in my skin and not finding avatars that match my skin or creators that refuse to acknowledge that darker people even exist seemed to push some of that progress back to nearly the same place I was as a teen that almost delighted when my great grandmother said she was happy I wasn’t a “darkie”.
Not finding a skin tone that matches mine in Picrew seemed to bring up every moment of internalized racism I have kept in my body for the last two decades. So here is where I soft revise my statement. I do still think that, if you are a person of color, queer person, religious person or similar looking for representation in Asian media: abandon all hope, ye who do weeb stuff here. But can I also say that it is detrimental, painful and unnecessary for creators to actively and continue to ignore people of color as their media increasingly becomes global?
I sure can.