Resident Evil 5 And Black People

August 3, 2007

So the Internets are abuzz with cries of racism over Capcom’s upcoming Resident Evil 5, which appears to be set in Africa (possibly Haiti?), where our sorely-missed Chris Redfield shoots his way through mountains and mountains of black zombies. Bonnie Ruberg of the Village Voice has a piece that begins to explore a few of her own intuitions after watching the RE5 trailer:

Resident Evil 5 is already raising questions about racism (White good guys vs. black bad guys? Is this some kind of race war?), or maybe questions about Capcom’s judgment (Who okayed this for production?). As one forum commenter wrote, “Is it just me, or is there something subtly racist about gunning down mobs of angry Africans?”

But the point isn’t to smack one more label on mainstream video games (violent, sexist, racist). The point is that—for this white girl, at least—the Resident Evil 5 trailer is strangely disturbing.

The rest of her article points out the race-context that the game is happening in; race and the Other, AIDS, and a history of American oppression of people of color.  Go check it out.

Most of this discussion tends to sound really, really stupid (just check the comments section of her article!). It goes something like this:

Player 1: Hey, this looks kinda messed up. It’s a game explicitly devoted to a white man shooting black people. Given the history of black people and their apparent natural predilection to getting shot (note the sarcasm), maybe we should think about this.

Player 2: OMG are you calling me a racist. I think you are a racist! So there. Racist. Besides, all the other games were about shooting white zombies. And zombies are from Haiti!

Player 3: I’m black and I’m going to buy this game. See? No racism.

Player 4: Capcom is a Japanese game company! What would they know about racism? I don’t think they even have black people over there.

Player 2, reprise: I’m not racist! I just want to shoot black people. Is that so wrong? You racist.

The way this discussion of racism goes is not only worthless, it’s like 40 years out of date and even then it’s questionable as to how useful it actually was. Oh, I love the Internet.

Thing is, I’m not sure how much I have to say yet on the line of discussion that Bonnie’s opened. When we start deconstructing the RE5 trailer as a text, we’re left with “Wow, this could be really, really fucked up” and not a whole lot more. It just kind of slaps you in the face with it. Jason from microscopiq goes on to continue the discussion here and here, so I’ll leave you with that. Keep on fighting the good fight.

pat m.



  1. Your hypothetical discussion is why I feel like I can only discuss certain aspects of geek culture in places like this. It’s just impossible to bring up these issues in a general forum and not have them buried under dozens of moronic “I’m not racist / sexist / classist because I said so!” posts.

  2. You know, when I was a kid, I was on my way out of school one day when a group of black kids grabbed me and decided to teach me a lesson about being white. They punched me a couple times, threw me on the ground, kicked me repeatedly as a group, and finally decided to paint me the right color by grinding my face into a convenient pile left by a neighborhood dog.

    That’s what racism means to me. It means that a child gets to walk three miles home spitting blood and coughing up dog shit, because he was the wrong color.

    So when people complain that they saw fake black people getting shot on a fake island with a fake gun held by a fake white person, I simply fail to see the problem.

    The people yelling “racism” really need to put things in perspective. Even if someone playing RE5 gets the idea that it’s somehow okay to go out and kill black people, I’m far more concerned with the word “kill” than with the word “black”, and I’d suggest that perhaps – just perhaps – this person was messed up before he ever saw the game.

    • Oh, I get it, you got beat up at school by bullies who are black therefore you think all black people are bad? Try this one: an entire continent of white men kidnap, enslave, rape, kill, and torture millions of black people and there is no apology from anyone anywhere, in fact the white people who directly benefit from the actions of there truly racist forefathers actually suggest that black people whose lives have been forever affected by their history to just let it go. Did u see what i did there?

      You complain about some “racist” black children bullying you and how that has no doubt made you bitter and angry, now just magnify the beating you took by, say, a million times and realize that this has happened to millions of black men, women, and children, but they were murdered by white adults!! So,congratulations you actually have an inkling of what it is like to be a black person, to be despised by idiots for reasons beyond your control, you win 100 points of melanin!!! yay!!!!! (^_^)

      ps Realize that WHITE kids bully and harass other white kids more severely than your one instance of a group of black bullies, but guess what if those black kids were white you’d have blamed all people instead of just white people. That is a form of latent white racism, when a white person does something fucked up, that means people are bad/stupid/evil, but when a black person does something fucked up only other black people are bad/stupid/evil do see that racism? ask yourself how many times a white person has done something ultrafucked like, say, rape a child and what did you say to yourself? you probably said something like, “man people are so fucked up” but what if a black person does something fucked up like sell drugs (ironically mostly to white people who want to “party”) you probably say something like, “man, black people are fucked up” <—– that’s racist, but you can unracify it by staying consistent and either agreeing that all people are fucked up all the time or white people that commit crimes and black people that commit crimes are both fucked up…. do you see little fool?

  3. Even if someone playing RE5 gets the idea that it’s somehow okay to go out and kill black people, I’m far more concerned with the word “kill” than with the word “black”

    First things first, no matter what I say next, I’m sorry a bunch of black kids beat you up when you were young. Having been chased home daily by white kids for two years of junior high, I feel you, I really do.

    That being said, white folks already know that it’s ok for them to go out and harm or even kill black people. From the Rodney King to the guy who shot going to his own wedding, white people are not held accountable for what they do to black people.

    White kids (hell grownups too) playing this game will only have further approval that their RL intentions and actions are endorsed by larger society. Putting this into “perspective” how would you like to see a video game where the black people were masters, the white folks were slaves and the black people got points for every “slave” they whipped or killed.

    Fuck that. The premise of this “game” should be rethought and the racial imagery should be eliminated.

  4. Caliban,

    A basic premise of this blog – and, indeed, most academic work that lends media any kind of serious weight – is that the media we consume, whether they be video games or movies or books or music, teaches us something. In this case, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that from what we know of RE5 so far, it might not be teaching something very nice. 🙂 The Indigo Prophecy posts I wrote way back when do a good job of describing how games can teach racism without being explicitly racist, I think.

    Thanks for the comments!

  5. I suppose it brings up the inevitable question:

    What if the protagonist had been black?

    Would the cries of racism disappear, or merely shift to the claim that now it’s promoting the idea that blacks kill each other?

    I suppose it can be argued that it’s all about perception (eye of the beholder type stuff), but then again, that doesn’t work either. You can’t argue that it’s only racist if your perceptions make it racist, because that makes you a racist for not seeing the racism. Ad nauseum.

    Then there’s also the question of how this is perceived with contrast to the rest of the characters in-game. I haven’t seen much of RE5, but if the main character hypothetically treats non-zombie black NPCs in the game as equals, then the issue becomes a bit moot, doesn’t it?

  6. @Deborah

    While reinforcing a bad social tendency is certainly bad, so too can be the knee-jerk reacting to the implication that a bad social tendency is being reinforced merely because there is a perception of racist attitudes.

    People with inherent racist attitudes will see reinforcement no matter what you do. Getting to shoot blacks will appeal to their disapproval of blacks, but so too will seeing a black character die, being “oppressed” by a more powerful black character, or even the total lack of black characters, stereotyped or not.

    If the game were set in Haiti, we would find it completely unrealistic if all or even most of the zombies were white. We’d assume we’d stumbled into a zombie-infested tourist-only region. Unless I’ve recently failed my geography class…

    Just like it’s not racist to have a game that’s set in Mexico City be mostly starring mexican NPCs, or (in the case of RE4) filled with western europeans because the game is set in a Spanish town.

    Zero Punctuation over at the Escapist brought up an interesting observation: why is it ok for the wholesale slaughter of “greasy mainland european zombies”, but not any other kind? Is it just the race of the protagonist? Would there be cries of racism if the main character shooting the white spanish zombies was black?

  7. Sigh.

    Jabrwock, as long as we live in a world where the word “race” means something besides a contest where people compete to go from point A to point B, we’re going to have to acknowledge that the stories we tell, the interactions we have with others, the media we consume, pretty much everything we do or think has something to do with race. To talk about “racism” as something that is strictly a product of “inherent racist attitudes” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of race discussions. Talking about this game is not talking about whether you are or are not racist for seeing certain things, it’s about looking at what these games are teaching us about race. And right now, looking from the RE5 trailer, this game is telling us that white people shoot black people.

    This, by itself, is not that meaningful. If “white people” and “black people” were as innocuous terms as “Siberian Husky” and “Welsh Corgi”, then no one would worry. But, because we live in a world where people of color have been historically colonized, oppressed, repressed, and subjugated by white people, the meanings behind the images of white and black in RE5 are deeper than talking about breeds of dogs.

    Earlier RE games featured mostly white zombies, and they didn’t spark a whole lot of interesting race-discussion, because it didn’t resonate with any particular race-based dynamics – if Leon was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and all the zombies were also wearing yarmulkes or exchanging Chanukah presents, then I imagine things would have played out a little differently. In fact, the most interesting race-based stuff I read about the RE series before RE5 had to do with the conspicuous ABSENCE of black zombies or characters, leading some readers to conclude that black people are simply better at escaping zombies. Which was essentialist, but kind of funny nonetheless.

    So you are right, the commentary would change if the protagonist were black – probably something about black-on-black crime would be closer, and certain games like GTA: San Andreas have in fact sparked those kinds of discussions.

    The point of all of this is not that making certain characters certain colors is “racist” and making them other colors is NOT, but that the story the game is telling us CHANGES when the colors of the characters change. You’re right, if the game is set in Haiti, it would be even more ridiculous to see only white zombies – and RE5 would probably get even more attention for being obnoxiously white in a setting like that. But as it is, they’re choosing to set it in a predominantly black country, and they can’t escape the racialized implications that come with that kind of design decision.

  8. Capcom (a Japanese company) has a long history of racism in their games. SF3’s Elena, M. Bison of SF2, Blanka of SF2, Birdie of SFA. I never spent $.01 on any of their games. And if you’re nescient enough to believe the racism doesn’t exist in these games and dumb enough to spend your money on it, then you’re the reason the creators continue to embed it. The #1 issue is not white racism (though it’s a very close 2nd), it’s the Japanese playing on the stereotypes of other minorities and young white males in the United States not caring and buying the garbage anyway. the young white male is by far Capcom’s (and many other video game & anime developers) target buyer and largest consumer group.

  9. I didn’t read all the comments, so perhaps somebody already said something to this effect. If so, forgive me.

    Why does something have to be seen as racially hateful if it isn’t tied explicitly to racial hatred? Let me explain what I see here:

    Resident Evil 1 through 4 deal mostly with shooting disgusting-looking zombie type beings who happen to be constructed from the bodies of fair-skinned people. Shooting these zombies is not about hatred for humans, or hatred for the fair skin of these creatures; it’s about killing these threatening creatures before they kill you. The killing here is not racially motivated; it is based on survival and the fear that the zombies will overpower the non-zombies.

    Flash forward to a new setting, where the vast majority of people are black. I say that the same thing applies: the killing of black zombies is not motivated by their being black, but by the desire to neutralize the threat of the zombies.

    On the one hand, I can see where certain people would be motivated to play this game because killing black people appeals to them. However, I think that the idea that this demographic is anything but a tiny underground minority is silly. On a related note, I think that the fact that many people only complain about racial inequality when it involves a particular race (in this case, Africans) being brutalized is in fact a certain sort of racial inequality; it is okay for massive number of fair-skinned zombies to be killed but not for massive numbers of dark-skinned ones?

    Let’s focus on the zombie aspect. Disgusting, reeking, brains-seeking, hungry. These transcend racial issues and cut right to a core pan-human fear: that there is something unsavory about our society that will be unleashed and consume us.

  10. welcome to 1964 young people.this is what it’s all about,and not what they lied to you during you’r educationnal tour through diversity training!you’r white education starts now!

  11. Late to this party, sorry.

    Is it “racist”? I guess that depends on how you define the term. At one end of the spectrum, you have people who define racism as actions: you discriminate, you persecute, you defame – that’s racism. At the other extreme, just using imagery or words that echo traditional power imbalances in a race based setting is racism. Certainly, by the latter standards, the RA5 trailer is racist; by the former standards, a harder call.

    But people get hung up on the term racism. Maybe we should be focusing more on whether it is wrong or harmful, rather than merely racist. A joke can be racist, but also be funny and harmless, or even helpful (there are some that would disagree with me; those people are wrong).

    I’m a 41 year old white guy. I’ll be honest: seeing that zombie action featuring (we’ll assume) Africans (not merely blacks), had a powerful, visceral effect on me. I’d be lying if I denied that that the racial component had nothing to do with it – it was certainly scarier than any of the other RE images I’ve seen (I’ve only played RE4 on the GameCube).

    But it could have been other factors as well – the unfamiliar setting, the novelty of seeing black faces in a game/horror setting. I’ve done charity work in Africa, and I’ll admit that the first time you arrive there, you get an idea of what a black person feels in the U.S., being surrounded by people “different” from you. It’s an irrational feeling, but still a real one. Add to that the emotions one gets from being in a poverty stricken area when you’ve spent your whole life in a wealthy country.

    Now, take those feelings of unease, and make those irrationalities come to life by making the populace ferocious and “hateful” (at least in the zombified sense). It’s tapping a powerful fear that lies in people – basic xenophobia. That’s what effective horror is all about. Of course, the weakness of the RE games has always been that the horror wears off once you get your hands on the ironmongery, and start blowing all those zombies away; it’s far more scary when you’re relatively helpless.

    So, is it harmful to tap this xenophobia to make a scary game? Honestly, I can’t say. I grew up in the 70’s & early 80’s, and I think this was a kind of “sweet spot” when it came to race relations as far as popular culture went. We had left behind the blinders of the whitewashed 50’s & 60’s, and had not yet hit hip-hop’s in-your-face aggression and the white backlash of the 90’s & beyond.

    Media was still controlled by a few large corporations, and what I consumed as a kid was still pretty sanitized, often to the point of ridiculousness. Outside of low-rent exploitation movies, blacks were always portrayed as noble; multi-ethnic “teams” were ridiculously balanced, with the token black often put in roles such as “inventor” or “science guy” in a desperate attempt to create role models for young people. Villains in movies could NEVER be black – always some kind of vague European, and the hero cop’s superior officer always was black. Of course, black guys rarely got the starring role, relegated as the sidekick who dies to give the hero a reason to fight (which became such a cliche it’s satirized everywhere now).

    It didn’t work – it didn’t stick. And it wasn’t just the white people who weren’t interested. The leading perpatrators of black racial stereotypes today are black comedians & filmmakers, and are enthusiastically consumed by black (and white) audiences.

    The reason, of course, is because racism sells. We have all that baggage that allows a crowd of wild-eyed Africans to have such visceral appeal; we like our world to be easily divided into categories and understood in simple models. “Blacks are tough” “Whites are smart” “Asians are weird (or cool)”.

    Stereotyping and typecasting are valuable tools in making popular entertainment; A failure to use them often makes for a confusing, annoying cast. The SF channel seems particularly guilty of this, in their attempt to staff their shows with generically handsome, unknown white actors (the Dune miniseries seemed to feature an army of clones). It is possible to create excellent works of art without resorting to stereotypes, but those are few & far between. Given the level of writing that most games & shows employ, once you take away the stereotypes, all you’re going to be left with is bland gruel.

  12. […] of Newsweek’s Level Up, again, this time on the Resident Evil 5 controversy that I posted on way back when.  This piece, and the subsequent trainwreck of a discussion that ensues in the comments field, is […]

  13. People who are saying this video game is racist need to get a life. It is set in an African village. What color are villagers in Africa? They are black. GET A LIFE. You people need to stop crying wolf when it comes to racism. When it really happens people wont believe you if you keep making stupid claims that video games are racist. No one cried when resident evil 1 killed white zombies. No one bitched when spanish zombies were killed in resident evil 4. Now that an RE game tries to be fair and give black zombies their turn, you pathetic people start your moaning. Stop playing the race card every ten seconds. I grew up in an all black school and was picked on everyday for being white. Stop acting like blacks aren’t just as guilty of racism as every other race on the planet. Stop playing the victim when no crime has been committed. Get a life.

  14. Wow wow wow lol.

    You can sit here with your super smart dialogue and declare racism all you want.

    Im gonna sit around and say all the white zombies through RE1-3 that were killed is racist and it makes black people more comfortable to go out and kill white people (@deborah -_-) How come no one complained about the spanish zombies in RE4?

    Sounds like you guys are all blacks trying to play the never ending race card again.

    Are you trying to gain a carrer out of it such as Al Sharpton?

    We like to call you people professional Race peddlers.

  15. […] Resident Evil series […]

  16. OMG Snake, just fuck off and die (I can’t let trolls get the final say in these discussions~!!!).

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