Kobe Bryant, Ninjas, and Race

One simple truism of the world of Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOL): If there is a way to use LEGO bricks to subvert, undermine, or circumvent whatever it is that the LEGO Group had in mind when creating particular bricks and elements, an AFOL will eventually find it. Similarly, an AFOL will also eventually find ways to subvert, undermine, or circumvent the role that the distinction between purportedly nonracial yellow minifigs and racially specific flesh-toned minifigs plays in the worlds of official LEGO sets.

Our first example is not actually a LEGO build, but rather a comic: the December 21, 2003 installment of Japanese-American Tak Toyoshima’s webcomic Secret Asian Man, titled “Old School Secret Asian Man.”10 The first panel of the comic shows a Christmas tree from above, with a caption that reads “One Magical Christmas Eve.” In the second panel we see a late 1970s-era yellow-skinned classic castle soldier minifigure (similar to, but dressed slightly differently from, the figure contained in set #6002) conversing with a version of the Kobe Bryant NBA figure released in 2003.11 Their dialogue is as follows:

soldier: Hark! Art thou not ye Kobe Bryant LEGO?

BRYANT: You a reporter?

soldier: Nay. I am Medieval LEGO. Thy hide is brown. bryant: ... yeah.

In the next panel the conversation continues in close-up:

soldier: It matcheth the hide of your people. Should not my hide too match the alabaster colour of my kindred?

bryant: Well, they only made brown people for us NBA LEGOS. Everyone

else is yellow. There’s only one group happy with the way things are now.

In the fourth and final panel we get Toyoshima’s racially charged punchline, as two yellow-skinned LEGO ninja figures (similar to those released around 2000) enter the panel from the right, pointing and laughing at the classic castle soldier and Kobe Bryant.

Toyoshima’s point couldn’t be clearer. The introduction of flesh- toned figures does not merely introduce race into the worlds of LEGO licensed sets (or, perhaps more accurately, reproduce the racial dynamics already present in the stories being licensed), but the appearance of flesh-colored minifigures also forces us to re-construe the older non-licensed minifigures produced in the supposedly racially neutral yellow. In particular, Toyoshima’s strip clearly illustrates that the yellow-skinned ninja figures are difficult to read as racially neutral, rather than as yellow-skinned-because-Asian (and possibly offensively so), when juxtaposed against the flesh-colored Kobe Bryant minifigure.12

Of course, Toyoshima has a great deal of control over how we interpret the race of the yellow-skinned minifigures in these images—in particular, he encourages us to (actually) identify them as Asian because the figures themselves (fictionally) identify themselves as Asian. With this in mind, I conducted an experiment at Brickworld 2016, the largest annual AFOL gathering in North America. I built a small vignette, titled “Seven Smiley Samurai,” that consisted of twenty- one minifigures posed on a cobblestone street. On the far left was a group of casually dressed men, constructed using brown-skinned NBA player heads and hands. On the far right were seven police officers, constructed using Caucasian flesh-toned heads and hands. In the center were seven minifigures built using bodies from LEGO ninja sets and other Asian-influenced martial arts themes (for example, Ninjago®) and yellow “smiley” heads.13

At a symposium on race and LEGO that I moderated at Brickworld, I asked participants about the race of the seven minifigures in the middle. After an extended discussion of race and LEGO, everyone in the room agreed that in this context the yellow “smiley” heads were not racially neutral, but were unambiguously Asian. Of course, the yellow plastic of the “smiley” heads used for these figures was not the only factor contributing to this judgment—in addition, the traditional Asian clothing and the fact that the other, flesh-toned minifigures were clearly racially coded were also contributing factors. Nevertheless, in this context at least, the yellow heads and hands of the central minifigures were not taken to be racially neutral.14

Thus, just as changes in our own behavior, beliefs, and rules can affect who is and who is not a member of a particular race on the constructivist account, changes in the way that race is currently portrayed within the world of LEGO can have profound effects on how we understand past representations of race (or attempts to erase race altogether) in official LEGO sets. To emphasize the point even further, we need only think about how we are likely to conceptualize the race of a yellow-skinned ninja figure prior to 2003, when we might find it in a child’s toy box surrounded by other yellow-skinned minifigures, and how we understand that same figure post-2003, when in the same toy box it might be surrounded by racially specific minifigures molded in various flesh-like shades. It is difficult not to read the yellow as racial- ized in the latter instance, regardless of the LEGO Group’s original intention.

To put the point bluntly: LEGO’s introduction of race into their products in 2003 did not just create a space for racially specific licensed sets separate from their idealized racially neutral system of play as exhibited in City, Space, Pirates, and Farm sets. In addition, it in effect erased the “erasure of race” from these non-licensed sets by forcing us to read at least some of these yellow-skinned minifigures, in at least some contexts, as racially specific.

The point, of course, is not to accuse LEGO of moral wrongdoing with respect to their original all-yellow attempt to create a non-racial world of play (one might criticize such an attempt for various reasons, but that isn’t my purpose here). The point, instead, is to show how the introduction of new ways of representing race via the introduction of racially specific minifigures can not only change the way that race currently is represented within LEGO, but can also alter our understanding of how race functioned in LEGO all along.

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