My take on the RE5 racism debate

· by Steve · Read in about 5 min · (920 Words)

The debate about whether Resident Evil 5 is racist or not continues to simmer. It’s easy to coldly and calmly rationalise the scenes that RE5 depicts on the basis that since it’s set in Africa, the chances are that the majority of the zombies are going to be black - it would be pretty stupid for it to be otherwise. Makes perfect sense. But, the fact is that the depiction of a white guy striding through an African village, gunning down the local populace, even if they are zombies, cannot be taken in isolation when there is far too much painful and rather recent history involved here - RE5 may be just adhering to common sense, but it invokes imagery which has strong parallels with real-life racism and oppression. I don’t think RE5 is itself racist at all, but I do think it is insensitive, and blind to the real-world context in which it exists. Imagine if instead the game featured a set piece where in order to destroy the zombie horde, you had to blow up a skyscaper in a major US city. That isn’t advocating terrorism and is explained by a valid plot device, but I’m sure people would find the imagery hugely distasteful. This is a case of game content being perfectly reasonable in a vacuum, but the real-world context makes it inappropriate.

Yes, you can say that RE4 had the exact same issues because all the zombies were Spanish - thus RE5 is no more racist than RE4. This is entirely true - but it’s also an irrelevant argument. This isn’t about RE5 being racist, it’s about certain elements of RE5’s imagery having very stong resonance with dark moments in real-world history. The simple fact is that the same kind of recent history of oppression, dominion and enslavement doesn’t exist in connection with the Spanish, and when it comes to subjects like this, history & context is relevant, and gamers who scoff at the sensitivities RE5 disturbs, even tangentally, are blind, ignorant, or both.

You could claim that society has progressed to an extent that images like this, which are not in substance connected with that history and do have a valid plot justification, should be viable because to avoid them in fact avoids dealing with / discussing that history, and in fact making it an issue perpetuates the race arguments. I wish we were at such a cold and logical juncture, but the problem is that these issues are not really historical yet. I recently saw on TV some reactions from regular US citizens to Obama’s ascendence to the Democratic candidacy (something I personally welcomed), and was appalled to hear a few of them say that despite being democrats, they wouldn’t support Obama because he was black, or were ‘considering their position’ based on that factor. I was appalled, not only that someone should think that’s an issue, but that they were willing to say it on camera, to an international audience, and act like it’s a totally cogent argument. The 21st century didn’t feel so progressive all of a sudden.

So, no matter how much RE5 might be able to logically explain the hordes of black zombies that must be dispatched, and thus not be racist in itself, the imagery it uses has too much resonance to be taken outside of the context of our imperfect world. The fact that the designers seem to have failed to see that is quite surprising to me, although I’m aware that Japan isn’t the most racially aware of countries. Plus, their argument that simple statistics denote that most of the zombies will be black doesn’t explain why the main character is white. I realise this is probably because they’re carrying forward a character from previous titles in the series, but isn’t it actually more believable that a local, so far uninfected by the zombie virus, would be making a stand rather than waiting for some American to fly over and save the day? After all in the original Resident Evil it was a local town law enforcer who was first on the case, so why is it different here? You can’t use common sense for one thing and ignore it for another. I’m not sure the protests would have been entirely absent had that been done, but I’m certain they would have been far less acute.

I’m not trying to be politically correct for the sake of it here, and like I say I don’t believe RE5 is itself racist. You should be able to have a game about zombies in any configuration and it shouldn’t be a race issue - after all with equality should come the equal right to be turned into a zombie and then blown away (in a virtual sense). But to pretend that history never happened, that we live in an equal world already, and that sensitivities around certain types of imagery don’t exist is frankly ludicrous. At the end of the day I don’t find RE5 offensive or racist, but I can definitely see how it has the potential to be construed as such for some people, particularly those who don’t know the RE history or who aren’t gamers, and ignoring that or saying it doesn’t exist, or is only present in ‘stupid people’ is plain wrong. We should be concentrating on getting to the stage where there isn’t any reason for anyone to find such things offensive, but pretending that we’re there already is turning a blind eye to reality.