Anime Characters Don’t “Look White” and the Ridiculousness of White-as-Default

I’m actually not an incredible fan of anime, in that I’ve never really immersed myself in it, other than–of course–the obligatory elementary school obsession with Sailor Moon. But I’ve had friends who very much were, from elementary into high school. I went to a predominantly Asian and Latinx (thank God) high school rather than a predominantly White one. In fact, my high school was 5% White. Demographically speaking, it was the best. High school speaking, it was the worst, as is expected of any high school experience. Ever.

I’d never seen anime characters as White, and it wasn’t until I happened to walk past a woman I overheard complaining, “Why don’t they”—referring to the Japanese—”draw themselves the way they really look?” For some reason, she sounded annoyed, like she didn’t think a people ought to see themselves with wide eyes or multicolored hair when that’s clearly not how they look to her White gaze. I walked away thinking it was truly bizarre. To me, Japanese characters have looked nothing but Japanese.

The answer to this has everything to do with our default perceptions. After all, on American television, we have a variety of cartoon characters with humanly impossible features, but unless they have specific “markers” defining them as Other, we read them as White. Look at Charlie Brown, for instance. He’s got beady eyes and thin lips. What makes us think he’s whi—actually, never mind, bad example.

It works the same way with sex and gender. If I draw a bunny, it wouldn’t read to a large American audience as a girl unless I made it pink, or added a ribbon. (This is getting incredibly boring, and I’m glad more “modern” cartoons are evolving past it.) Even stick figures are read as male unless they have triangular dresses. The woman asserting the Japanese should draw themselves “how they really look” believes the characters should have (racist) racial markers that read “Asian.” Anime was not, however, made for her. The characters don’t need to be “read” by her, or drawn in a way she would understand. I’m guessing Japanese people in Japan don’t see their anime characters as White. They don’t need racial markers to tell them the characters they draw are Japanese.

sailor moon
Seriously, these women still all look Japanese.

After all, why do we have any reason to believe American cartoons are white? Why do we read characters on The Simpsons as white when their skin is yellow and when Marge has a blue afro? If anything, shouldn’t this read as Black hair? But she isn’t Black to the American audience, who learns quickly (as they have known all their lives) that “Others” are defined on the The Simpsons with brown skin, not yellow. Since White is default, there must be an additional marker that acts as an indicator. And unfortunately, the afro has been appropriated and won’t cut it for an American audience. Marge’s hair might not even register as an afro.

It was clear (from this and a few other sentiments) that the woman believed the Japanese had an inflated self-image, to have the audacity to imagine themselves with blue hair and wide eyes. That’s only for Americans like Marge Simpson! It’s shocking, no doubt, to come to the realization that non-white cultures don’t see themselves the same way white supremacists see them. It’s shocking to discover that the white supremacist lens is unnatural, imposing, and entitled.

It’s a great exercise, I think, to realize that non-white characters with traits we perceive to be white, don’t, in fact, look white, and those traits are not white. They do not belong to white people or white culture.

I’ve been flattered by those of you who’ve contacted me to insist that I return to writing as frequently as I used to–unfortunately, I can’t promise that, but I have decided to post at least once a week. I wish I could tell you which day, but that would too closely resemble a schedule, and I am notoriously terrible with schedules.

9 thoughts on “Anime Characters Don’t “Look White” and the Ridiculousness of White-as-Default

  1. Em

    I like Ghibli films, and it could be debatable what race they are. Some are clearly Japanese, like the people in Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and The Wind Rises. Some could be white, Japanese, or ambiguous like in Nausica or Castle in the Sky. They live in alternate universes where race and what not might be entirely different.

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        1. Yeah on her blog. xD That’s where I saw you.

          Anyway, I read something somewhere about how white characters in anime are actually the one with racial markers; their features are distinct. And of course there are worlds in alternate universes where race is different/irrelevant/undiscernable.

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  2. Em

    Oh, wow, haha. I never thought anyone read those or payed attention.

    I thought you had confused me for your friend in real life or something. “Em” could be a lot of names.

    I haven’t been reading about feminism or Islam enough recently. Or even just reading in general.

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  3. Em

    I regret my first comment. It isn’t really my place to be pondering the racial make-up of cartoon characters. They can be anything the animator wants them to be, and that can be 100% Japanese.

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  4. Have you seen the stereotypical depiction of a White person in anime? it’s hilarious. Yeah, most anime characters are not white. What’s really bizarre is when non-Japanese Asians are depicted with racially specific features like dark skin, funny accents and stereotypical clothing and customs. Like the Japanese look like generic anime characters but Chinese/ Vietnamese/ etc. look visibly more Asian. Though I admit this isn’t exactly the norm.

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