Ninjas, Kobe Bryant, and Yellow Plastic. The LEGO® Minifigure and Race

Roy T. Cook

When the modern version of the LEGO® minifigure was introduced in 1978 its bright yellow color was a conscious choice, meant to be racially and ethnically neutral. Further, all the yellow-skinned minifigures had the exact same printing on their faces—the “smiley”— obscuring any differences between minifigures. Within the original world, any minifigure could be anyone. Race (as well as gender and other differences) was erased via the creation of a uniformly bright- yellow-skinned world where minifigures could not be distinguished or discriminated against based on the color of their ABS plastic skins. Or, at least, that was the intention.

Where’s Lando?

We could, of course, argue about the desirability of a uniformly hued fictional world where differences in skin color and physical appearance don’t exist, as compared to a more pluralistic vision where such diversity exists but does not provide the foundation for systematic discrimination and marginalization. But the LEGO Group faced a much more practical challenge to their attempt at racial neutrality in 1999, when they acquired the license to produce Star Wars® themed sets. The first Star Wars sets were based on the original trilogy, but fans soon noticed that none of these sets included a Lando Calrissian minifigure. And how could they? How could or should LEGO represent Billie Dee Williams’s iconic character as a minifigure? In short,

LEGO® and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick, First Edition. Edited by Roy T. Cook and Sondra Bacharach.

© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

they faced a simple problem: How do you represent a world like Star Wars where race exists within a pre-existing framework that explicitly eliminates race?

LEGO’s solution to this dilemma was simple. In 2003 they introduced another licensed theme: a series of minifigures and sets based on famous players in the National Basketball Association (NBA). The heads and arms of black NBA players were molded in brown plastic, while the white players’ heads and arms were molded in a new, peachy-colored plastic. Race had now entered the world of the LEGO minifigure.1

Shortly after this controversial move, a brown-skinned Lando minifigure finally appeared in the Cloud City set (set #10123). Interestingly, other characters in the Cloud City set were molded in yellow, but eventually all licensed LEGO sets (Star Wars, Harry Potter®, Superheroes, etc.) included minifigures molded in an ever-widening variety of brown-, pink-, and peach-colored plastic. There are over two dozen different shades of plastic that have been used for minifigure heads and hands in licensed LEGO sets! Non-licensed themes, such as the venerable City, Farm, Space, Pirate, and Train themes, still contain the purportedly racially neutral yellow minifigures.2

In one sense this seems like an elegant solution to the problem: LEGO licensed sets take place in a world (or in a number of distinct worlds—as many as there are different licenses) where race, indicated by the color of plastic used to mold their heads and hands, exists and matters, since race, and distinctions and discriminations based on race, matter within the original films, television shows, and other media on which the licensed sets are based. Non-licensed sets such as City and Space, however, take place in the original racially idealized world of the original all-yellow LEGO minifigure, where race, and hence distinctions based on race, do not exist. More generally, any LEGO builds—official or not—that contain flesh-toned minifigures represent characters that are white, Asian, black, native American, or any of a host of other racial identities, while LEGO builds that contain yellow minifigures represent characters that have no race (or represent characters whose race is not identifiable, at the very least, and thus cannot matter to our understanding of the LEGO build in question).

It’s certainly a simple story regarding how race works in the LEGO world. But it’s also one that can’t be quite right. Race is not a fixed category that is inherent to a person and can be represented by one of a fixed number of colors of plastic, but is instead constituted by changeable, unstable social and political factors and contexts as much as, if not more than, it is determined by skin color and ancestry. And the concept of race is at least as unstable in the world of the LEGO minifigure as it is in the real world. As a result, we can use the complicated connections between the race of a minifigure and the color of the plastic in which they are molded to help us understand both how race works in the world(s) of the LEGO minifigure and how race works in our own world.

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