It’s a foundational element of social and evolutionary psychology that we sort ourselves into in-groups and out-groups. We’re more likely to ascribe positive traits to “ours,” and see the “other” as not only more negative, but more homogenous, “all the same.” Psychologists suggest that it’s entirely natural, and adaptive, if we’re living in the Stone Age. We take care of our own first, and if an outside tribe threatens ours, we can be savage. These days, this othering feeds into racial, gendered, national, and ideological hate. It’s the switch, that humankind sometimes flips, which allows individuals to condone war, torture, genocide, and apathy during disaster, famine and economic downturn.
Understanding this holdover, in our common human wiring, has become central to the laudable goal of not being a tremendous asshole.
Sometimes, when a culture enjoys a little bit of memory loss about the imagery and language it’s used to dehumanize and other, pushback can be a surprise. As when the Japanese-made game Resident Evil 5 released an early gameplay trailer at the E3 convention, featuring a burly white man shooting down crazy mobs of black men and women (as they threw whatever weapons were handy: hatchets, spear-like pitchforks).
After seeing the trailer, an African American journalist working for Newsweek, N’Gai Croal, wrote, “What was not funny, but sort of interesting, was that there were so many gamers who could not at all see it. Like literally couldn't see it. So how could you have a conversation with people who don't understand what you're talking about and think that you're sort of seeing race where nothing exists?” Across the internet, Croal was being called racist, for simply seeing race. Yet, the imagery framed in the RE5 trailer did bear almost uncanny resemblance to two specific stereotypical images used to dehumanize blacks during slavery and segregation: the pickaninny and savage.
We see one black male, presumably a child or young adult, stare up from the shadows with no small quantity of malice. He could be a reference shot for the “pickaninny,” a common depiction of black children often shown looking up from shadows, eating a presumably stolen watermelon. In the first few minutes of the actual game, the comically muscled white character, Chris Redfield, walks by blacks savagely beating one another, blacks beating flailing hemp sacks, and blacks dragging struggling bodies out of view. They aren’t exactly zombies. They stare either dimly or violently as he passes, matching historical imagery of the “brute,” or black man as savage.
Croal writes that the Resident Evil 5 villagers are othered, “They're hidden in shadows, you can barely see their eyes, and the perspective of the trailer is not even someone who's coming to help the people. It's like they're all dangerous; they all need to be killed.”
The media theorist Henry Jenkins would later analyze the exchanges between critics and an upset internet. For one, the game was Japanese. What did the Japanese know about American racism? Maybe not much, answers Jenkins, but then reminds us, “as if Japan has no history of its own racial and ethnic constructions.” Ignorance isn’t bliss for the person who personally experiences dehumanization, and Japan should know enough about race hate to anticipate that a white guy shooting a bunch of “infected” blacks might be worth researching. Especially if they wanted to, you know, sell a few copies.
Jenkins writes that “The discussion is itself an example of a great deal of discussions about race in the U.S. - people mostly talking past each other with a distinct lack of empathy.”
Because on the internet, you can’t see who is listening.
People who’ve been privileged enough to never have to deal with race, they sometimes take that invisibility to mean that we’re living in a post-race wonderland where even the crudest jokes are A-OK.
The internet only vanishes race for people who couldn’t see it in the first place.
It may seem inconvenient, or unnecessary, but those who really care about things like being “post-race,” will recognize that othering is something that human beings do all too automatically. It’s a nice, safe defense mechanism. One that a fellow gamer may have had been on the receiving end of, earlier that day. They might really want not to think about it, as their teammates drop racial epithets with merry abandon. But it’s rare that they’ll bring it up, since the reactions are typically on the order of what Croal encountered.