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Pokémon-ing While Black—Asking for Accurate Skin Color in Fan Art Is Not an Attack

Water Pokémon trainer Nessa in the upcoming Sword & Shield Games

While I would be reluctant to call myself a “gamer,” there are franchises I have been loyal to, and been a dedicated player of, for years. One of those franchises is Pokémon. I have played Nintendo’s massively popular series since 1999 with Gold Version, and there are two moments in my life as a Pokémon player that have meant a lot to me: getting to play as a girl, and getting to play as a dark-skinned character.

In Pokémon Crystal (still my favorite installment in the Pokémon games) you got the chance to choose the gender of the main character, which was exciting for me, as someone who only ever liked playing games as girls. Then, in Pokémon X and Y, you were able to pick not only your gender, but also skin tone and hair color at the start of the game. It might seem like a small thing, but even watching the E3 trailers for the upcoming games, the whiteness in them is still overwhelming.

The ability to pick an avatar that looks like you, even a little bit, is meaningful, and the games have been getting more diverse, with the latest versions, Sword and Shield, featuring even more darker-skinned female characters, including Nessa, the new Water-type gym leader.

Nessa has been super popular online, already inspiring a ton of fan art, which isn’t surprising because she’s a regulation hottie. However, some of that fan art has given her significantly lighter skin. This launched an entire new chapter in the conversation about colorism and whitewashing in fan art, part … ugh, let’s just say 1000 for good measure. Every time this issue comes up, a million excuses are provided as to why the whitewashing is okay: “it’s only fan-art,” “why is this a problem and not this other thing that could be seen as problematic,” or my personal favorite, “what’s the difference between whitewashing and race-bending?”

For the sake of being fair, let’s actually address these issues, because I’m sure there are some who legitimately don’t know, and for those who think that people who complain about it are just “whiny SJWs,” well … you already thought that, and I wasn’t going to change your mind, so have a lovely day.

So, first of all, “Why does colorism matter?” Short answer: Lighter skin tones are seen as superior in many countries in Africa, Asia, and North and South America, a.k.a. most of the world.

While conversations about colorism have taken place largely in the Black community, it’s a global issue that, from Latinx to Asian communities. Western culture has elevated lighter complexions through its dehumanization of non-white people. Darker skin has been associated with savagery and unnaturalness for centuries, and that has left an impact, according to sociologists, on how society treats people with darker skin tones. This is especially the case when it comes to Black women and other women of color.

What about a tan skin being fashionable? Being tan is different from being dark. Tanning is mostly connected with leisure, so it indicates in naturally pale complexions that they have enough economic security to do things like have weekends off for beach trips. Additionally, the “ambiguously brown” and “exotic” look is not one that elevates non-European features or darker skin tones. In a society that has historically framed beauty as historically closer to whiteness, you can’t get two shades darker than white and then say that’s inclusive. Also, it’s one thing to be a tan white person, and quite another to be a darker-skinned Black person in this modern era, and trying to pretend that’s not true is just being dishonest.

People bring it up, but there is a reason they darkened O.J. Simpson’s mug shot in magazines: making him darker made him seem like more of an “other.”

The reason it’s problematic is that, no matter what anyone’s personal views are, anti-blackness exists, colorism exists, and it is a worldwide issue that has negatively impacted the lives of many women—being told to stay out of the sun, being told you “look pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” and the negative stereotypes that have long been associated with being darker.

So yes, you, as an artist, may not mean to be tapping into those things, but the art we create doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is in response to what we have been told is beautiful. If you intentionally lighten the skin of a character because you don’t know how to deal with the color palette then that is a comment on your skills as an artist. Should you be harassed for making a mistake? No. Should you double down and act as though colorism and whitewashing isn’t an issue? No, because any dark-skinned fan of literally any medium can tell you otherwise.

As for the question “What about racebending?” to give it a serious answer, the issue is more complicated. It’s not a direct equivalence. Despite more inclusion of non-white bodies in fiction, there is still not enough of it that there are often characters that reflect different groups. For Black fans of anime, for example, I’ve personally enjoyed seeing Black race-bent Sailor Moon art and I understand the appeal of working within that medium especially because it’s a narrative by non-white creators.

Not to mention there are not many Black anime characters, and there have been a lot of problematic depictions of Blackness in anime (shoutout to you, Mr. Popo). There has even been manga, like Peach Girl, that touch on the fact that Japanese girls with tanned skin and bleached-out hair became a big thing in the mid-’90s, and it was associated with being sexually promiscuous. The main character, who is tan and blond from swimming, uses bleaches and skin-lightening creams so that she can be more attractive to her love interest.

Even in Sailor Moon, the reason why Sailor Pluto has a slightly darker skin tone than the other characters is that Sailor Moon creator Naoko Takeuchi wanted her to look a little more mysterious and be a “darker” character, so she reflected that in her literal coloring. That has led some people to wonder if she’s even Japanese, as if you can’t be a slightly darker complexion and still be Japanese, but again … colorism. It is real.

If there were more good, non-ambiguous Black characters across the genre, then it’s likely that it wouldn’t be as much of a thing, being more just “I want to see this character like this.” But we’re still working within the realm of creating visible representation in a space where that is not always present, which matters for context.

At the same time, I personally have started to buy fan art that depicts the Sailor Scouts as more visibly Asian, because I recently saw art by Julia Reck and Jen Bartel of the Scouts and other anime characters as more visibly Japanese, and I was like, “Oh, yes, this is awesome.” It’s awesome because often, due to the design and aesthetic of anime, we in the Western world tend to forget that the majority of these characters are meant to be read as Japanese unless stated otherwise.

I understand that some fan artists want to just work within an aesthetic and don’t mean anything by it, but the reality is that being ignorant of that context shouldn’t be used as an excuse, but an opportunity to learn and treat people better when it comes to historical depictions of certain skin colors and body types in media. We don’t live in a bubble. When you take one of the fun canonically fat characters and make them skinny it’s a problem, when you take a character that has visibly ethnic features and remove them it’s a problem, and when you take a dark-skinned character and make their skin lighter it’s a problem.

Part of the reason I can’t wait to play Sword/Shield is because of seeing dark-skinned characters like Nessa in the game. It means something to me and many other fans who want to be able to play games with more diverse rosters of characters, so when fan art removes Nessa’s color, even if you didn’t mean it to, it reinforces a lot of messages that say darker women aren’t as beautiful. Because, don’t misunderstand it … that is the message we have been told for literal generations. If you didn’t know, now you do, and how you choose to use that knowledge is on you.

(image: Nintendo/Screengrab)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.