Racially deconstructing Dragon Ball Z

For those of you who don’t know, Dragon Ball Z is a long-running popular anime series, heralded by some as the “the greatest action cartoon ever made.” Written and drawn by Japanese manga artist, Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball Z became insanely popular in the United States during the late 90s, early 2000s. If you haven’t heard of it, do a little digging. You’d be hard pressed to find a little sister, brother, niece or nephew of yours who wasn’t into that show. But Dragon Ball Z raises some very important cultural and racial issues I think we need to address. Let me set the context.

The main characters in Dragonball Z are a race of people called Saiyans. Physically, they don’t look different from any other Japanese characters on the show. However, Saiyans have the ability of reaching a superior state called “Super Saiyan.” As Super Saiyans, their physical appearance changes as they are grow exponentially more powerful than their previous saiyan state. How, you ask, does their physical appearance change to goku1.jpggogo.jpgrepresent this transcendence to a truly superior state of being? They turn from Japanese men (black hair, brown eyes, tan skin) to white men (blonde hair, green eyes, white skin).

This veiled perpetuation of white superiority has serious implications. Imagine the Japanese girls and boys who grow up associating whiteness with power, strength and success. How do they internalize a defeated Sayian who, crushed by his opponent, reverts back to merely - being Japanese. How could that effect their sense of identity and self-worth? One only needs to look to American media to see some of the negative consequences of this type of conditioning.

Like DBZ, many American cartoons including Disney, Looney Toons and others, have a long history of portraying darker characters in a negative light. This has startling influence on children today. Look back to Danielle’s post where she talks about Kiri Davis’ new film, Girl Like Me. In this film, Davis reproduced Dr. Kenneth Clark’s controversial “doll” experiments, where Black girls were asked to choose, between a white doll and a black doll, which is the “better”, “prettier” or “nicer” doll. Over 70 years after Clark’s initial experiment in the 1930s, black girls are still suffering from internalized racism - still rejecting black dolls for white ones. The media plays a role here.

Just the other day at Circuit City, a black girl told me that my name - Pierce (a European name) sounded like royalty. In response I queried, “what about the name “Kwame?” She replied, “Umm… no. That’s a slave name.” The glorification of white names, culture and skin as “royal”, or “super” while African and Japanese culture is regarded as “average” or even “sub standard” is arguably as strong today as it was 50 years ago. Dragonball Z reveals that this phenomenon is international in scope.

Anime has particular significance in the Black community because so many African Americans are anime fans. Asian popular culture has resonated with Black people for years. If you mine a relative’s VHS collection, you’re sure to find some Bruce Lee, Shaolin and Wu Tang, Shogun Assassin, Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D or Akira tapes. When Black children watch Dragonball Z they internalize the racial dynamics at play, even though Japanese characters are the primary victims.

As far as Black characters go, there is only one in the entire DBZ universe (though some like to claim Piccolo). He is short and pudgy with coal black skin, thick red lips and bulging eyes reminiscent of the most derogatory minstrel show caricatures. He has absolutely no powers, save the power to be an excellent servant - Mr. Po-Po.
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Good old Mr. Po-Po.

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Published on September 20, 2006 at 10:09 pm. 11 Comments.
Filed under racism, mainstream culture, television.