I Don’t Understand “This is America”: Maybe That’s the Point

I somehow managed to miss the cultural whirlwind that came with Childish Gambino releasing the music video to his song This is America in 2018. I knew about it, I knew people talked about it but I had mostly skipped over the song because to be Childish Gambino just means Donald Glover and Donald Glover means Marshall Lee the Vampire King and that one guy in Community; a show that I had never watched but knew about thanks to my inner circle. It wasn’t that the song was offensive or worrisome to me with the limited context I had for it; it just didn’t float into my usual musical sphere of French house DJs and sad music by hot Japanese men. 

When I finally did the video due to Youtube Music’s aggressive autoplay feature, I was at first watching mostly just sort of overwhelmed; nearly to the point of disliking the video. The initial act of shocking violence via a gunshot delivered to the back of a man’s head took my breath away in a way that very few pieces of media can. Thanks to a childhood and teenage years spent desensitizing myself to sex and violence; I was shocked to feel so viscerally unsettled within seconds of the video starting. 

Now, I want to cover a few things immediately. I do “understand” the message behind the song and video. The video perfectly explores the shock and fear that comes with being black in America; a version of violence that lurks around every corner. The uncertainty that comes with large gatherings and public spaces, the rightful and generational fear of the police, the loss of life and the capricious nature of existence and the utter lack of value to a black man’s death in comparison to a white man’s. I understand racism, violence, trauma and fear. 

I suppose overwhelmed is still the best word that comes to mind. I spent so much time trying to understand the video and the many influences it draws from. Glover’s moments are so exaggerated and othered that he almost feels like a Sambo stock character, the pants he wears to evoke the uniform of sharecroppers and those who worked the fields, the different guns used and the specific act of violence against a church choir. There’s an unsettling nature to the tonal dissonance that comes from following up a shooting with a dance and there’s always something uncanny and strange about that slapped on grin Glover has that can and does quickly turn steely and frightening. 

When I say I don’t understand This is America, it’s mostly rooted in that despite playing it multiple times, knowing the lyrics (and having done most of this before deciding to blog about it) and seeing the music video multiple times; I don’t know if I like the song yet. It isn’t that I don’t get the references or don’t get the fear or the message, I just don’t know how the song makes me feel yet. I’ve struggled with my place and my blackness for years and while I absolutely feel the heavy burden of generational trauma and the weight of systemic oppression, I’ve always been very open and up front about my privilege. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a neighborhood that’s constantly shot up and full of police. I don’t know what it’s like (until recently) to know what it’s like to have a neighbor raising chickens and clothes hanging outside on makeshift lines and boards on some of the windows. And while I feel the dread and fear of every single shooting that happens to an unarmed black person; because of the luxuries afforded to me, that violence is a distant boogeyman rather than an oppressive force literally and figuratively standing on my neck. 

I’m almost glad I waited to find this music video. As violence against unarmed African-Americans only grows, distrust and misinformation spread and you can’t believe what anyone says and can only rely on what you see in front of you and the lenses we all have thanks to our life experience. 

I find that I like the song most when it feels almost like the information given by a loving black grandmother. Lines like “Get your money, black man” feel like something my aunts would tell me and honestly, have told me during the days I was willing to give out my talent for free rather than know and feel my worth and ask for payment for the things I was doing to enrich the lives of others. When the tune is cheery but still with that edge of having to be careful and sly to stay safe are when I like this song most. I appreciate the choice not to have the group of children dancing with Donald Glover not be shot because the entire time the video ran I was waiting for him to turn one of the many weapons on them and my heart just wasn’t ready for that. I grew up in the shadow of Columbine and I have seen too many children die that way after being told time after time, bloodshed after bloodshed, that this would never happen again only for it to happen again. The tonal changes feel just like real life code-switching that many African-Americans have to do just to survive in this world; switching easily from how we talk “proper” to fit into the patriarchal rigors of white hegemonic society and the more informal but yet deeper way we speak to each other about our pain, our fatigue, our generational trauma and hopes that one day things will indeed be better. 

I’m rarely left wondering like this anymore. As a seasoned media critic, there are few things that have me continuing mining for meaning and more importantly, continuing to search myself and form a damn opinion. Despite how many times this song comes up in my queue, I am never sure whether to skip it or play through: again, I am not sure I even like this song. I respect it, for sure, but that sense of dread and discomfort is still present. I don’t “get” this song but I also don’t “get” racism, sexism, the patriarchy and misogyny. I don’t get how someone could kill someone else just because they look different or want to suppress an entire group. I don’t get these things and maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is to continue to examine these senseless things and figure out why they are so ingrained in society despite being so damn needless. 


An Entirely Too Complicated Discussion About Race and Picrew

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. 

An African-American Otaku’s Cosplay Requiem

“If human beings had genuine courage, they’d wear their costumes every day of the year, not just on Halloween.”  Douglas Coupland

When I was a little girl watching Sailor Moon while all the other kids wanted to be Sailor Moon, Sailor Mars or even Chibi Usa: I wanted to be Tuxedo Mask. I tell this story because I feel like it’s the best insight into who I am as a cosplayer. I was a born cosplayer. I was a theater kid, pageant baby and I love being in costume.  Being a cosplayer is one of the truest forms of self expression that I can think of. It’s my catharsis, my community and my love. I am also a small, chubby African-American woman.

Now, it’s important to mention a very important to mention that there are plenty of absolutely amazing black cosplayers and this is not a rant about diversity. This is just to provide some of my thoughts and experiences about being a tiny black otaku. I personally almost never let being black or a woman hold me down from attempting a costume or character. Roy Mustang? Sure, lemme polish my boots. Deidara? Let’s pick up a verbal tick, un! Castiel? I’ll go grab my wings. It’s never really bothered me that my skin tone didn’t match the characters.

When I was young in my cosplay career the issue of race and cosplay did bother me a lot. I hated being that one black insert name of character. I wanted to be judged based on my work. Not how good I looked for someone who was the wrong color for that character. I took a break from cosplay. From the somewhat institutionalized racism. From the somewhat misogyny and when I picked cosplay back up I had even fewer worries or concern about my race, height or gender.  I didn’t care that I was a tiny chocolate girl cosplaying a Doctor or the Riddler or Princess Unikitty. I was just me. I picked characters I liked and I had fun being them and I looked damn good: that’s what matters when it comes to cosplay.

I can count the times on my hand that race and gender have held me back from cosplaying a character. What goes into this choice? Mostly series canon. For instance I adore Scandinavia and the World and the rest of Humon’s work but if a character looks a certain way; it’s for a reason so it just seems somewhat inappropriate to me to fudge that. Axis Powers: Hetalia is another example: I love the series but I won’t cosplay it out in public outside of an event just because these are meant to be caricatures: the characters look this way for a reason and I despite being a very lovely lady do not look like France or Austria.

Now you may be asking by now: Amanda, why don’t you care about race, height and gender when it comes to character depictions? Well, that’s a good and fair question. I do care. A lot. I’m a writer. If I make a character look a certain way; it’s for a reason. But I tend not to fret over things I can’t change. Costume work is amazing and make up has come a long way but I’m not going to suddenly become a fair-skinned male without a great deal of work done. I can augment aspects of myself but when they are too much I simply rather not. Now I don’t mind a hidden heel to make me somewhat taller than 5’1’’ and I’ll use shapewear to slim my profile but nothing’s changing the cafe color of my skin or the fact that once the shoes come off I am very very petite. And above all I mostly just don’t see an issue with it. Yes, Superman is a white male but if I put on that cape I can become Superman and not just a chocolate-colored Superman marauder. I put a lot of work into my costumes and I want people to see that work, that passion, that excitement; I don’t want people to just ask me why I chose a character that wasn’t of color.

In the early days of anime and comics: diversity was a legit concern. All heroes looked the same and there wasn’t much room for a female yet alone a female of color that wasn’t an exotic princess of a made up land or just an alternate darker-colored carbon copy of a classic hero. Diversity has absolutely changed for American comics and it’s never been easier to be LGBT, young, tall, short, out of shape or anything and still be a valid member of a recognizable franchise.

I am, however, primarily an otaku. Japan has not quite ridden the wave of diversity and it’s still somewhat difficult finding characters that well…look like me. But this goes beyond just looks: most characters I encountered didn’t sound like me, either. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post: I didn’t exactly have a very African-American upbringing. For instance when watching Static Shock as a young girl, I couldn’t relate to Virgil (Static Shock) and his urban, single-parent upbringing. I was a young girl living with two very loving and protective parents in a mostly upper-middle class fairly white but also very Vietnamese suburb of a large North Texas city. When it comes to cosplaying various anime and Japanese videos games my attitude has been mostly not to let it bother me as above mentioned: I can count the times on my hand where I’ve looked at my skin and said I probably shouldn’t cosplay that character. This also comes to mind in the question of “race-bending”. It’s a big thing in the cosplay and fandom world. What if Hermonie was black? What if Castiel was Hispanic? This has come out of the fandom world in direct response to the lack of diversity in cosplay and it’s sometimes still a contentious topic: it’s technically a non-canon depiction but amazing fan art and costumes have come out of different races being well-known characters so even if someone does a hell of a good job, it’s still to the fan world a non-canon outfit. I bring up race-bending because I have been asked more than once if any of my costumes are race-bent insert name of character here. And most of the time I’ll say no. Again, I’m not aiming to be a darker skinned version of a character: that character is who I am trying to be

Another key part of this little conversation is the backlash so many receive when it comes to bringing up questions of diversity in casting. Oh well that side character or other universe’s character is of some vague ethnicity. And to that I have one thing to say: I am a drama queen. If I cosplay someone. When I cosplay someone: I want to be recognized. I want to walk out onto the convention floor and immediately someone knows who I am. Not an alternate version of or a side character from. And not to say there aren’t some great side and alternate characters: (Young Avengers, anyone? ) but I personally don’t struggle much with looking at my skin and looking at a character on page or screen and recognizing and admitting the difference but still deciding to cosplay that character.

So now you may be asking Amanda, this is all lovely, but why rant on like this? Well, here’s why: I am a passionate cosplayer. I am also of color. Those two things should not hinder the other. Being black doesn’t mean I can’t be a nerd and being a cosplayer shouldn’t mean ignoring that I’m the wrong Pantone shade in comparison to most of the characters on the screen or page. 

Diversity matters and one of the first steps to making it a logical and real part of the world: we have to step up our game. Cosplayers of all size, gender, creed and race: we all have to step up. So don’t be afraid of what you look like. You might not look just like the character you want but that shouldn’t stop you. Cosplay is art. Cosplay is magic. Cosplay is what you make of it. So be unafraid. Look good. Show the world how wonderful you can be. Let me be your battle cry. And if you see me in costume: comment on my stitches not my skin color.