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Why We So Loved to See Toonami Stand Up for Black Lives

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Toonami's TOM talks about Black Lives Matter.

On August 29th last year, Toonami trended worldwide after airing a special message declaring their support for Black Lives Matter that struck a chord with Black nerds, many of whom had been shaped by Toonami since childhood. The significance of Toonami’s backing of Black Lives Matter during a time in which the Black community was met with an onslaught of systemic anti-Black violence and hollow displays of allyship did not go unnoticed.

For those who are unfamiliar with Toonami, it’s a late-night programming block that primarily broadcasts dubbed Japanese anime and the occasional American action cartoon. It was created for Cartoon Network in 1997 and currently airs on Adult Swim. Toonami is credited with ushering in curated dubbed anime imports to the Western masses and cementing this once relatively obscure genre as a pop culture behemoth.

As I watched the message, I was flooded with memories of my staying up late watching Space Ghost: Coast to Coast with my mom and cracking up whenever Space Ghost’s bandleader,  Zorak, the “lone locust of the apocalypse,” got blasted. I remembered my tender-headed self grabbing a pair of hair knockers and pulling my curls back into Sailor Moon’s signature buns (odango) and pigtails combo.

Toonami was my source of escape throughout the trials and tribulations of Black girl adolescence. It was a pillar of safety and comfort. So when the spot aired, it surprised me that Toonami would take on this role in my life once again. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd left me in a state of complete and utter devastation. The spot provided a moment of reprieve; a glimmer of hope.

Watching the programming block’s animated host, TOM, denounce counterproductive colorblind ideologies and challenge his viewers to instead “think about how [they] can fight against injustice” left me speechless. But it was TOM’s affirmation that “Black lives matter and will ALWAYS matter” that ultimately moved me to tears. In watching this spot, I did not feel pandered to; I felt seen.

I felt the sincerity behind the act.

Toonami co-creator Jason DeMarco revealed in a series of tweets that the inspiration for the piece came from Toonami staff members who wanted to address the Black Lives Matter movement directly, with it being produced, co-written, and edited by Black Toonami staff members.

“We at Toonami know we can only do so much with our platform but we wanted to be clear what our little block stands for,” DeMarco wrote. “Equality, compassion, love and strength are at the core of so much of our programming and at the core of the message we want Toonami to deliver.” Toonami’s decision to publicly stand with the Black community was an act that aligned with their core values, which was in direct contrast to the widely held belief that “politics” has no place in nerd spaces. But as Black nerds, our mere existence within these white hegemonic spaces is political.

I reached out to Hilton George, the founder and con-chair of Blerdcon (a portmanteau of “Black nerd” and convention)—an intersectional and inclusive convention for the marginalized to convene, be seen, and bask in our collective geekery—to discuss the gravity of Toonami using their platform to support Black Lives Matter and how this act resonated with him. He told me,

“It was a message that was unambiguous. It was unfiltered; it was not watered down. It was blatant. It was unsolicited. Remember, we weren’t marching for this. We weren’t like, ‘Dammit Toonami! Dammit Adult Swim! We want you to come out and say something!’ So when I saw it, I initially thought it was a fan film. I thought someone just dubbed over this thing. I was waiting for the disclaimer, the threats of lawsuits, and then hearing about some guy getting sued for mimicking TOM’s voice perfectly.

“Then it finally started to set in for me that, ‘Oh, wait a minute, that was real?’ [The speech] really, really, really hit hard. It could not have come at a more timely moment. And it was beautifully said. They are really speaking to a large portion of us in the fanbase who are in pain right now. And it was the responsible thing to do. It was the kind thing to do. And to let us know that we are being seen and that we are being heard, which for the people who are suffering, people who are under assault, people who are marginalized, it’s 90 percent of the struggle isn’t it?”

Hilton George expounded on the Blerd experience within nerdom:

“The journey of the Black nerd has been for acceptance, and inclusion, and representation, and respect; How can we be both Black and be nerds and be respected as both and how can we express our Blackness or insert our Blackness as an expression into our fandom? If we have an opportunity to write or if we have an opportunity to create or if we have an opportunity to proctor dialogue, how can we bring our Blackness to the table? Can we be our whole selves and be nerds at the same time like everybody else? And unfortunately, there’s a quadrant of the geekspace that’s like, ‘No.’”

Blerds can’t just drop off our marginalization at coat check and approach nerdom with the same reckless abandon as our caucasian counterparts. For instance, the simple delight in donning a cosplay and taking on a fictional persona is marred by our knowledge of society’s ever-present criminalization of Black and brown folks. Black and brown cosplayers having to remain hyperaware of the optics of our costumes—as it can be used as a tool for our dehumanization and as justification for our murder—impedes our ability to fully immerse ourselves in the escapism that nerdom provides.

In contrast, Whiteness affords one the ability to slip away from life’s madness and into nerdom, unencumbered, like a hero in an isekai. Toonami’s spot reminded its viewers that these spaces do not exist in a vacuum, and to think as such is to be complicit in systemic racism.

As an expert on anti-Blackness in fan spaces, writer Stitch, who I also spoke to, was well aware of the virulent and often unchecked racism in nerdom, which made Toonami’s message all the more impactful:

“I remember watching the clip and asking aloud ‘Is this real?’ over and over because it was so unexpected. I grew up with Toonami as a tween and teenager and it was incredibly formative to my wee weeb self. Back then, I was all about the art and the great (but very long) story arcs for my favorite series/characters. I never thought that well… that we’d be hit with so much antiblackness out and in the open that Toonami/Adult Swim would feel compelled to not just to acknowledge its Black fans and the impact that the programming block had on us over the years, but to have Steve Blum as TOM, utilize that space to support us.

“Anime fandom spaces are notoriously hostile to Black fans – check out the hostile responses to Blacktober a few months ago – and so it meant so much to me to see a (fictional) icon in the game, show support and that we do matter in these fandoms. I also, absolutely cried a little. I couldn’t help myself!”

Hilton George, Stitch, and I first eyed the message with a healthy degree of skepticism. But when the realization hit that the spot was indeed authentic and the sentiments expressed were sincere, it resonated on a deeply emotional level. In that moment, Toonami prioritized us over ratings and public opinion. They used their platform to publicly take a bold and necessary stand against systemic racism in a stunning display of solidarity for its Black fan base; a fan base that has been Toonami faithful since 1997.

To know that our decades long loyalty was not in vain. To know that our love was not only received but reciprocated. It was profound.

Going forward, I hope to see Toonami continue to advocate for the Black community by also challenging the anime industry to evolve to reflect the richness of their Black fan base. One way this could be accomplished is by launching an initiative similar to Netflix’s Strong Black Lead that would focus on amplifying the voices of Black creators, Black talent, and the Black audience. Hilton George suggested that Toonami reach out to Black anime industry pioneers like Carl Jones, the producer of Boondocks, or Arthell Isom, the co-founder of the first major Black-owned anime studio in Japan, to diversify their anime lineup.

Moving from statements of solidarity to transformative action ensures that Toonami’s message declaring support for Black lives is carried on forevermore.

“…Because Black Lives matter and will ALWAYS matter.” -TOM

(featured image: Toonami)

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Taylor Cross is a Bay Area based freelance writer and full-time college student who loves to talk race, mental health, pop culture, and puns. When she’s not writing, you can most likely find her swaddled in a blanket, nestled into the corner of her couch, watching anime. Find her on Instagram @Freckled2z9s.