Come on admit it — you love Pokémon. Everyone loves Pokémon. After all, it’s the second biggest-selling franchise in video game history, coming in just behind that eternally popular gang of mustachioed plumbers. Pokémon Go broke all kinds of records for apps when it was released a little over a year ago precisely because everyone loves the franchise and its characters. Little kids in schoolyards around the world obsess over the trading cards, grown men cruise back alleys searching for Legendaries (now that’s not creepy at all!), and even your grandma thinks that little Pikachu is just the cutest thing she’s ever seen.
So how could Pokémon possibly be considered racist? Pokémon is innocent. Pokémon is popular with people of all walks of life. Pokémon is universally adored. And even if there are racist elements to some aspects of the Pokémon franchise, does anyone even care? If a bunch of imaginary creatures are possibly, perhaps, maybe racist, does it matter? After all, it’s not like they actually exist or affect our everyday reality. Or do they?
Well, that’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself as you read through the following examples of potential racism in the Pokémon universe. At the very least, it’s obvious that many people have put a lot of thought into this question and have come up with some pretty intriguing answers. But go ahead and give it a look for yourself and see if you agree with any of these theories and observations. We’ll do our best to make this exercise as inoffensive as possible but be warned, there are some strong, powerful, and perhaps hurtful themes explored in this article. Here then are 15 Pokémon creations that might actually be considered racist.
15. Pokémon Itself Is Inherently Wrong
Why don’t we start off with one of the strangest controversies to have surrounded the world of Pokémon over the years. While this controversy isn’t particularly racist per se, it deserves the opening slot here because it shows just how far people are willing to go with their theories. I’m talking, of course, about the charges of “speciesism” Pokémon has had to endure. Speciesism is, in many ways, an even more dangerous idea than your plain old, garden-variety racism. Essentially, it’s the premise that humans are “better” than all other species and therefore can do whatever they want to the natural world order. It’s human supremacy at work, a supremacy that affects all life, not just one ethnic or cultural group. I’m sure you can see how this applies to Pokémon. After all, the whole point of the game is to capture and train wild creatures to fight each other for one’s own benefit. Speciesism in action? You betcha.
14. Black Jynx
The use of blackface as a racially insensitive attempt to portray black people dates back centuries. In fact, Al Jolson, among others, created a wildly successful Vaudeville career for himself performing in blackface. That sort of behavior seems wildly inappropriate to modern audiences, which is why it’s so sad that Nintendo chose to release the Jynx Pokémon as blackface. That’s right; the first iteration of Jynx was not the purple that everyone associates this Pokémon with. Rather, Jynx looks like it’s had multiple layers of brown/black foundation added to its face. The end result is a rather striking example of racist portraiture. To Nintendo’s credit, the character was changed after the backlash over its original appearance but if you’re going to release a character to Western audiences, at least think about how that character will be received!
13. Poor Porygon
So personally, I think the Porygon Pokémon is pretty cool. After all, how often do you meet a giant bird that is actually made out of programming code? The character’s appearance is also really neat, since it’s made up entirely of different geometric planes and shapes. So where’s the controversy, you might ask. Well, it’s a well-known racist trope that people of Asian descent often have trouble pronouncing the letter “L.” I’m not one to personally endorse that statement but nonetheless, the idea has been around for a long time. If one takes that to the extreme, then naming a character that is made up of geometric shapes “Porygon” rather than “Polygon” struck some people as just a touch racially insensitive. Since Nintendo is a Japanese company, though, it’s hard to lend much credence to this theory.
12. Gengar: A Reach Or A Breach?
Sometimes, the racism we find in Pokémon isn’t necessarily created by Nintendo itself, but rather by fans of the game. That’s right, I’m talking about actual people who have decided, for whatever reason, to mess with the game for their own personally twisted reasons. This appeared to be the case in the infamous Gengar incident. Way back when the “Shiny” Gengar was first launched, players received a gift for earning a Gengar. That gift was Black Sludge. Note the word “black” in the name. That’s important because Black Sludge is classified as a “truant” creature with the major asset of being able to steal and “snatch” its foe’s items. Yup, some loser of a hacker went in and created a dark-skinned character that is a thief. Obviously, in this instance, the game designers themselves had nothing to do with creating a racist Pokémon, but there it was anyway.
11. Mob Boss Honchkrow
I’ll admit this, one seems a bit of a stretch but hey, if enough people notice something and complain about it, there’s got to be at least a little bit of truth to a controversy. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, after all. The perceived racism in Honchkrow’s appearance begins with the fact that the character appears to be wearing a fedora. No big deal, right Well, some people apparently thought this made Honchkrow look like an Italian mobster. Because, you know, only mobsters wear fedoras apparently. The fact that Honchkrow ’s plumage made it look like the character is wearing a tuxedo only added fuel to the fire because, as everyone who’s ever seen The Godfather knows, only Italian mobsters wear tuxedoes apparently. I told you, this one was a bit of a stretch, but apparently not to some people.
10. Nazi Registeel
Sometimes, you can’t win for trying, something even Nintendo has had to cope with. A case in point would be the history of the legendary Golem Pokémon Registeel. You see, the Golem, in old Easter European Jewish folklore, is a creature made of inanimate mud and clay that can be brought to life. The creature can symbolize dark forces, like war, despair, and famine, or light forces such as joy — think of it as a blank slate upon which the creator and community can work out their greatest fears and hopes. Unfortunately, Nintendo took this creature of Jewish origin and made its default pose one that looks suspiciously like a Nazi salute. You know what I’m talking about, right? Perhaps was not the best way to represent an ancient Jewish folk story.
9. Ludicolo: Ludicrous Or Legitimate?
This guy definitely looks like some game designer’s bad idea of a Mexican mariachi singer. I tend to doubt that the intent was to be horribly racist with the introduction of Ludicolo, but the end result sure appears to be. Here we have a character that is supposedly named after the Mexican word “loco” (crazy) and appears to have a sombrero and poncho for clothing. To make matters worse, its original trainer was a man with a moustache and vaguely Mexican accent. Did I mention that Ludicolo is a good dancer who loves music? Whoops, Nintendo, you may have just struck the racist jackpot with this creature! Perhaps designers shouldn’t try to “honor” cultures whose stereotypes they actually perpetuate.
8. Probopass In Poor Taste
Racist, or at the very least offensive, imagery isn’t always created on purpose. It doesn’t mean that the inherent racism of a poor choice shouldn’t be pointed out, but it does mean that sometimes these things are the result of a subconscious cultural attitude rather than a conscious attempt to offend. Such is the case with poor Probopass. You see, Probopass has the unfortunate distinction to bear a giant honker of a nose — it is a bird after all — a bushy black moustache, and a little hat that looks a bit like the hats Eastern European Jews sometimes wear. Now none of these things on their own would be cause for alarm, but when you put them all together, well, you get controversy. Personally I like the idea that Probopass is a nod to Mario but hey, that opens up a whole other world of racist dialogue now, doesn’t it?
7. Pikachu Protests
How, you ask, could there be any controversy surrounding the beloved Pikachu, the universally-adored mascot of the entire Pokémon franchise? Well, it’s not Pikachu itself that came under fire, but rather what Nintendo decided to do with Pikachu and other Pokémons in Hong Kong last year. In an attempt to tap into the growing Chinese market, the company announced that it was changing the names of multiple Pokémon, including Pikachu, to Mandarin Chinese equivalents. This set off a storm of protests (yes, it really did) by Hong Kong residents who feared that their own Cantonese language and culture was being appropriated and repressed by “mainland” China. Multiple news outlets reported this story, which actually has its roots in the British withdrawal from Hong Kong a few years back and China’s ascendancy in that region — ascendancy not everyone wished for. So a seemingly innocuous character in a children’s game has become a symbol of racial injustice.
6. Lose Lenora’s Apron
Lenora, the gym leader character in Pokémon Black and White is pretty cool. She’s smart, tough, and put together. Unfortunately, her original appearance also led to charges of racism against Nintendo. You see, in her first incarnation, Lenora wore what looked like an apron. Given her dark skin and rather “busty” nature, it occurred to more than one observer that the character was perpetuating the “mammy” stereotype of the American South. If you don’t know what the mammy stereotype is, a quick Google search would show you a picture of Aunt Jemima. Apparently Nintendo took this allegation seriously and got rid of the apron.
5. Tricky Koga Imagery
So, is it racist or not to use a symbol that, although historically inoffensive, was appropriated by the one group to the detriment of all groups? That’s the question one has to ask about Koga’s ninja trick, a trainer card in the Gym Challenge Expansion set. The card in question, in its original release, appeared to have a reverse swastika in the upper left corner of its design. The swastika is, of course, one of the most hated symbols of racial oppression the world has ever seen. However, the swastika is also a very ancient Indian symbol of hope and peace. The Nazis just appropriated it to try to “legitimize” their Aryan roots. There was virtually no controversy in Asia over this card, but in the West, people went nuts. Nintendo re-released the card to Western audiences with an innocuous design to replace it.
4. Offensive Nicknames
So the real issue for most people is what we name our Pokémon after we catch them. That’s right, you can give your little (or large for that matter) creatures custom-built nicknames. Some people name them after their kids or pets, some people come up with witty wordplay nicknames, and some people think it’s funny to give their Pokémon offensive nicknames, whether they be inappropriate, sexist, or outright racist. I’m not going to share any of them here, but unfortunately, as anyone who has ever tried voice-to-text on their phone knows, word recognition software, which is designed to block inappropriate and offensive language, isn’t very good at recognizing words or phrases in context. So there will always be a minority out there who get around any text-blocking program.
3. This One Is Not Nintendo’s Fault
Here’s another example of real-world racism impacting the Pokémon world. There’s a rather controversial Australian Muslim leader named Yassmin Abdel-Magied who has managed to inspire a fair amount of racism around her rhetoric — which unfortunately, often revolves around the racist behavior of her fellow Australians. Far right opponents of Abdel-Magied decided it would be great fun to create posters that looked like Pokémon cards featuring and mocking Abdel-Magied and her supporters. Now I don’t know enough about Abdel-Magied or the other side of any of her issue to make any claims about who is right or wrong, but this is kind of ridiculous. Using a children’s game for racist propaganda is not cool. Abdel-Magied denounced the posters as evidence of “systematic racism” in Australia.
2. Where Are The Dark-Skinned Trainers?
A lot of people have noticed a fairly unsettling occurrence — or coincidence — in the first four generations of Pokémon. Namely, there were no dark-skinned trainers. Of the hundreds and hundreds of trainers out there, there wasn’t much diversity. Unfortunately, when Nintendo took apparent attempts to rectify this mistake, they kind of made it even worse. You see, they did add dark-skinned trainers to the fifth generation, which takes place in a sort of mirror New York City. However, all of the dark-skinned trainers were athletes or “break-dancers” — not quite what people were looking for. You might want to rethink your attempts at diversity.
1. Is Pokémon Go Virtually Racist?
And finally we get to the great, giant beast of an app that is Pokémon Go. If you don’t know what Pokémon Go is, leave now, you’re in the wrong place. Anyway, the reason we’re talking about Pokémon Go now has nothing to do with stories of silly people getting lost, scouring random city blocks for Pokémon to capture. No, it’s actually far more nefarious. You see, there have been numerous allegations that the game is set up in an extremely racist manner. The allegations involve the idea that the vast majority of PokeStops tend to be in predominantly white neighborhoods. In just one example from a USA Today article about this phenomenon, independent researchers from the Urban Institute found an average of 55 PokeStops in largely white neighborhoods in Oakland and only 19 in largely black neighborhoods. Other news organizations reported similar findings in cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Miami. No one is actually saying that Nintendo meant to design Pokémon Go this way, but the real-world outcome surely looks racist to many people.
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