Bleaching the Kool-Aid
Examining Black Stereotypes Appropriated in Fiction
Representation matters, and how People of Color are represented in speculative fiction and pop culture matters even more. Join a former U.S Navy electrician, father, cosplayer and African American public speaker as we take a look at African American Stereotypes Appropriated in Fiction: Cowboy Bebop, Space Dandy, and The Lone Ranger.
What is it about black people that makes white people say, “Dude, I gotta have that?” Going backwards in time they have stolen our dance moves, our clothing sense, our slang, our hairstyles, and heck if you go back far enough, they even stole our people. But why? One might think it in their very nature, as they do have a history of stealing things from other cultures. Gunpowder, silkworms, coffee, the compass, pasta, architecture, tobacco, countries, tattoos, people—the list goes on and on. So, it really should come as no surprise that they also stole the look, the feel, and the attitude of those who have let their color define them (what I will call the Black Affect).
When you think of individuals who are the embodiment of black culture, specifically black male culture, several names come to mind. Richard Roundtree, Samuel L. Jackson, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, James Baldwin, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, Gregory Hines, Jim Brown—to name just a few. Each one black, each one bringing to their area of expertise something uniquely them but also uniquely black.
Which brings us to the point in time where white people began to start acting like us. At first it was less noticeable. When we were young, we couldn’t see it because young eyes tend to miss so much. But once we become older and more aware—woke up, if you will—we were able to look back and realize that there was a huge shift between the 1960s and ’70s in the way white men in the movies acted. White guys in the ’60s were suave and debonair, hard and professional, taciturn and stoic, wise and understanding. Most of the leads had a combination of those traits. Afterwards came the ’70s, in which white guys suddenly became cool, aloof, sneaky, and ruthless. I first noticed it in Starsky and Hutch. They were very “street” for the time and acted nothing like the shows with cops I had seen before [ 1 ][ 2 ]. The officers in Adam 12, Dragnet, or even Barney Miller hadn’t acted like them. They acted like they were from the street and, even more so, belonged there. This trend continued until well into the 1990s, at which point white guys weren’t even subtle about it. White guys were rapping about how hard it was growing up and shooting people. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter was they didn’t have the street cred to pull off such a lie. However, the audacity to try was all part and parcel of the “People of No Color” and their historical tactic of stealing the best of other cultures and then castigating that group for doing the very things whites had stolen from them.
This isn’t limited to white males, not by a long shot. For example, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian have both “invented” hair styles that have been in the black community for literal centuries. None of the Kardashian (or Jenner) sisters have ever acknowledged the history or significance behind either one of these hairstyles. Cornrows and Bantu knots originated in Africa and have always been a hairstyle predominantly worn by black women for ease or elegance [ 3 ][ 4 ][ 5 ].
Theft of the black look isn’t uncommon across the cultural divide and it continues to happen—sometimes literally overnight. A dance, song, or look will come out in a new video and before the end of the week it will be stolen and turn up in another video by some talentless flash in the pan. History is rife with white people hating or ignoring all things black until a white guy (like Eminem or Mozart) does it, whether you are talking the Beach Boys theft from Chuck Berry or the obvious theft of Hound Dog from Big Mama Thornton that Elvis used to make million [ 6 ]. It seems white people only like “black” music when white people sang it. There are several articles about the Rolling Stones and other groups that only got big in America for that reason. You have to wonder: can they take it any further?
See You, Space Cowboy
Enter my man Spike. I love Cowboy Bebop. I started watching it by accident and couldn’t get enough of it. Given the ’60s sound of the theme song and the very grim and dirty street feel, you would have probably assumed it to be a cop or detective show from the ’60s or early ’70s. But imagine my surprise when I found myself in space with a bounty hunter. It still had a little cop show edge, but minus the rules. I loved it at the time, but later in life a second look turned up something else: the signs and hints of a stolen culture buried in the main character’s pale demeanor [ 7 ][ 8 ].
For one thing, he wasn’t really all that pale—indeed, his shading varied from episode to episode. In fact, the only “white” character was Faye. Spike’s coloring instead came very close to some of the typical Asian skin tones. And as for the hair, it was obviously an afro—something rare in Asian culture as their hair type can’t typically maintain that shape and consistency. But even more telling are the “press photo” looks of some of the pictures of Spike where you may notice an old, more memorable face staring back at you—Yusaku Matsuda. OK, maybe not memorable, but at least a little familiar. When Japan started pulling its inspiration from various Blaxploitation films, this Japanese actor could convincingly match the look of any one of the dozens of black actors that were on the scene in that era, and he made a career out of acting as tough and street as the best of them. So much so that the look ended up becoming the look of the one and only Spike Spiegel. A generation of anime fans grew up thinking Spike Spiegel was the coolest guy who never lived. But as it turns out, Cowboy Bebop’s protagonist was heavily inspired by the most badass actor you’ve never heard of. Seriously, just take a look at Matsuda [ 9 ].
Matsuda is Japan’s James Dean, in more than one way. Though he starred in several movies, Matsuda’s biggest influence on the creators of Cowboy Bebop came from his tenure on a detective show called Tantei Monogatari. Though the show was notably set in then-present day 1970s Japan and not, say, in a future where everyone jets across the solar system in spaceships, the show’s vibe is so familiar that you’d almost expect to start hearing Bebop‘s jazzy soundtrack [ 8 ][ 9 ][ 10 ]. John Cho might have taken up Spike Siegel’s mantle in the short-lived Netflix adaptation, but the anime version is Matsuda all the way.
Not So Fine and Dandy
The dandies of the 1940s were mostly black and Latino and were culturally classified by the clothing they wore—Zoot Suits. A look rarely sported in modern times, the zoot suit has fallen on hard times, mentioned only in the song “Zoot Suit Riot” and occasionally on Tom and Jerry. However, the history of the Black Dandy is much older than that [ 11 ].
“Black dandyism originated with the beginning of European exploration of Africa. As early as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, young children from Africa, primarily boys, were imported to Europe by the elite as a special kind of servant or “luxury” slave. This trend of keeping young Africans as pets, dressing them up in elaborate liveries, and sometimes educating them and training them to be companions, became even more popular later during British control of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. These dandified Blacks came to understand and take advantage of their status as social spectacles. Some of them became celebrities whose fame confused their status as inhuman chattel. Others, after a time as luxury slaves, became early members of the free Black British community. Due to their spectacularity, these Blacks also became a part of literary and visual culture, becoming characters on the stage and also the subjects of paintings, prints, and political cartoons, sometimes valorizing and sometimes criticizing the wealthy who tried to domesticate Black people by means of elaborate dress. This practice gave the enslaved and free working Blacks a strategy with which to define their own identity — the intentional redeployment of clothing, gesture, and wit” [ 12 ].
Since the 1990s, there has been something of a renaissance in the Dandy culture. Picked up by the outliers of culture, the dandy represents someone who was trying to express himself in a unique and cultured fashion [ 13 ].
Thus, it should come as no surprise that there is a series called Space Dandy made by the people that brought you Cowboy Bebop, capitalizing on the same genre components as its predecessor. Indeed, despite adding way more silly content to the cartoon, the underlying components of blaxploitation TV and film are all over it. From the look to the soundtrack, to even how the action sequences play out, it is indeed a comedy-based ’70s Blaxploitation show—with paler players. The overall feel is very comfortable for those of us who grew up during the ’70s, and the comedy still translates very well to the modern age. To those who think I am bashing these cartoons, I’m not. I am pointing out that despite them being well written, well animated, and masterfully scored, it would be nice if maybe one or two actual black people were in them. After all, the look, the feel, and the style all come from a place that lays deep in our hearts—at least the hearts of us old black people who watched the live action variants growing up [ 14 ].
What You Mean ‘We,’ Kemosabe?
This brings us to the last member of this cavalcade: The Lone Ranger. Here we find yet another little-known figure from American history. His story has been whitewashed so well as to be practically unknown to those who watched his much lighter doppelgänger play his role as a beacon of justice in an untamed world. Bass Reaves is known by few, but his legend is true. Hold on—I hear some of you saying, “How can he be famous if I have never heard of him?”
As a U.S. Marshal, Bass Reeves’ record is the stuff of legends. Sometimes he dressed as a preacher, at other times a tramp, and occasionally even as a woman. But beneath the elaborate costumes it was always Bass Reeves—born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. He captured more than 3,000 criminals during his tenure as a marshal with flamboyant detective skills, super strength, and supreme horsemanship [ 15 ][ 16 ][ 17 ][ 18 ][ 19 ].
What does The Lone Ranger have to do with some guy we don’t know? Quite a lot, argues Art Burton, a lecturer at South Suburban College in Illinois, pointing to similarities such as their gray horses, penchant for disguises, use of American Indian trackers, and unusual calling cards. Reeves gave folks a silver dollar to remember him by, while the Lone Ranger left silver bullets. As for the iconic black mask, the link is more symbolic. “Blacks at that time wore an invisible mask in a world that largely ignored them—so in that societal sense, Reeves also wore a mask,” says Burton [ 15 ]. And although some deny the similarities between Reeves and the fictional Lone Ranger, the resemblance is difficult to ignore, particularly given that twenty-three years after he died, stories about various lawmen were cobbled together by a few writers to create the series and included in that collection were many of Reeves’ documented cases.
Some of the highlights:
In 1882, Reeves had a warrant to arrest Belle Starr for horse theft. She was eventually arrested by another officer, but some accounts said that she just turned herself in when she heard that the legendary Bass Reeves was looking for her. In 1889, when Reeves was assigned to Paris, Texas, he went after the Tom Story gang for their long-term horse theft operation. He waited along the route Tom Story used and surprised him with an arrest warrant. Story panicked and drew his gun, but Reeves drew and shot him dead before Story could fire. The rest of the gang disbanded and were never heard from again. Reeves also approached the three murderous Brunter brothers and handed them a warrant for their arrest. The three outlaws laughed and read the warrant, and in the split second they all took their eyes off Reeves, he managed to draw his gun and kill two of them, disarm and arrest the third.
Although Reeves was a skilled frontiersman and spoke several languages, he never learned to read. Once, when two potential assassins forced Reeves off his horse, he asked them for one last request—that someone read him a letter from his wife. When the outlaws were momentarily distracted by the piece of paper they were handed, Reeves drew his gun and turned the situation around. The second outlaw dropped his gun in surprise, and they were both arrested. Reeves used the “piece of paper” ruse several times in his career to distract felons to similar ends. Reeves was arrested himself in 1886, charged with murder in the death of his posse cook, William Leach. Brought to trial before Judge Parker, he testified that he shot the cook by accident while cleaning his gun. He was acquitted.
The marshal was famous for his fair-mindedness and was by all reports impossible to bribe or corrupt. In 1902 he arrested his own son, Benny, for murdering his wife (Reeves’ daughter-in-law). Benny had fled to the Badlands after the crime, and no other marshal was willing to pursue him. As distasteful as the task was, Reeves brought him back, and Benny served 20 years at Leavenworth. Like the Lone Ranger, he was a man above reproach and took his job as a marshal very seriously. Once asked why he spent so much effort enforcing the “white man’s laws,” Bass reportedly replied, “Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it we got nuthin’” [ 19 ].
There are literally thousands of cases to draw on, and while several hundred seem too amazing to believe, records of criminals captured or killed, and court proceedings make every incredible story true. He showed what a super lawman looked like. Is it any wonder that he is thought to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger?
Why does it matter?
Well, it doesn’t, not to Hollywood or to most people. They’ve accepted the whitewashing out of Hollywood for so long they can’t imagine a movie with black people in it making money—even when exactly that happens. Leaked letters from movie studios show us how they believe the world feels about black actors [ 20 ].
“I believe that the international motion picture audience is racist—in general pictures with an African American lead don’t play well overseas” [ 21 ].
So why am I pointing it out? Well, let me put it in a way that is almost magical in its simplicity. Imagine the world is a hamburger. There is nothing wrong with ground beef grilled to near perfection. But add a touch of salt. Maybe some pepper. How about some onions? Maybe some mushrooms, curry, peppers, jalapenos, cheddar, Swiss, pepper jack, and bacon! You see, if you just have the ground beef, you might have a meal, but it will be pretty bland. But if you add those things from all over the world, you can make an ordinary burger into something magical. But people who don’t know you are making decisions on what kind of burger you like, what kind of drink you like, what kind of girl or guy you like, and then putting that kind of thing in front of you every day in an attempt to change your way of thinking and gain control of you. Those changes seem subtle, but ultimately result in something like a loss of your free will. Once somebody who isn’t you starts making decisions for you, the slippery slope is already under your feet and the slide starts. It takes active effort to stop, and if you don’t pay attention, it might lead you to a sinister end. Don’t believe me? Take a look.
“In these studies, Dempsey and Mitchell told people about two brands of pens. One brand had better properties than the other. So, objectively, the better brand is the one people should have picked. Before making a choice about the pens, though, some people did what they thought was an unrelated experiment in which they watched pictures on a screen that flashed by quickly. Some of these pictures paired the brand name of the pen that had the worse set of properties with a lot of positive items. This procedure is known to create affective conditioning.
So, this experiment put two sources of information in opposition. The pens’ properties suggested that one brand was better than the other. And the group that did not go through the affective conditioning procedure picked this brand most of the time when asked to choose a pen.
The people who went through the affective conditioning procedure picked the pen that was paired with positive items 70-80 percent of the time. They chose this pen, even though they had objective information that the other pen was better. Over the two studies in this paper, the authors found that people chose the pen that was paired with positive objects even when people were given as much time as they wanted to make a choice, and even when the instructions specifically encouraged them to pick the best choice and to say why they were choosing a particular pen” [ 22 ].
Why is this important to me? Because I can see a divide that starts with little things and turns into big things because people aren’t paying attention. I know you think that someone convincing you that Coke is better than Pepsi isn’t all that important, but it is. Because if you don’t notice the small ones, the next one will be bigger. Have you ever wondered what turns sweet and pure young people into murderers, Nazis, or members of any hate group? Small steps. It might start in grade school with a little bullying and positive reinforcement, then go on to high school with a little assault, then maybe a so-called “alt-right” rally in college where you are doxxed and your career ends before it starts. Or worse, you end up causing the death of someone and end up in jail for decades because someone fed you a line of BS and you weren’t sharp enough to see it happening to you.
Honestly, I do think I am better than a lot of people—not because of the color of my skin but because of the things I have learned in life. I feel that I am an amazing dad, and decent writer, a godlike friend, and an OK husband. It’s OK to feel you are superior to other people. You probably are—in one way or another. But if you bring that thinking to the table and all you have to show for it is your inability to tan properly, then you probably aren’t as good as you think you are. I know many people who are superior to me in a lot of different ways. Indeed, I have just recently found out that I suck at improv comedy. Apparently, everyone in the troupe I was with was better at it than me, even the people pulled from the audience. All in all, I had a good time and learned something new about myself. The ability to see things as they really are can make your life and the lives of people you care about better.
And so we come back to where we started, with bleaching the Kool-Aid and why it may be detrimental long term to the world at large and to you in particular. Things typically happen for a reason, and sometimes you aren’t privy to that reason. There are little pieces of data that one learns in their daily life. For example, the bleaching we are talking here is the equivalent of lying. When advertisers consistently throw lies at you, there are definitive truths that cannot be ignored. Eating junk food, no matter how good it tastes, can still make you fat and potentially cause strokes, heart attacks, or worse. Smoking isn’t cool, unless you consider yellow teeth, bad breath, various cancers, and COPD to be cool.
Indoctrination is inherently bad for people because when someone can convince you that you must believe everything they say (because of “reasons”) then they inhibit the questioning part of your brain, conditioning you to irrationally accept BS as fact. “O, that way madness lies.” Such as the Pope telling people in Africa that condoms make the AIDS situation worse or churches telling people that science is bad because the “facts” that result from science are anti-God. Or that any given racial group is better than any other. Anyone can be taught to be stupid—just think of all the babies in the world that spend two or more years learning baby talk only to have to forget it all and learn what will become their eventual native tongue.
So, if you haven’t already figured out where I am going with this, I’m essentially trying to point out that most racists and white supremacists are fed a line of BS from their first interaction. As a result, they end up believing things that make little or no sense, such as Alex Jones’ belief that the government is turning frogs gay [ 23 ]. There are many animals (such as frogs and clownfish) that are simply at a level of genetic development that allows them to change sex for any number of reasons—reasons that have nothing at all to do with humans. If you have no urge to seek the truth and have a conditioned acceptance of BS, you are stuck with the belief that the government is turning frogs gay.
Having a percentage of the world’s population accepting BS because it is culturally, financially, or religiously expedient has proved bad for the planet and will continue to do so if nothing changes. If you’ve gotten this far reading this, do some research on something someone has told you was true that didn’t sound quite right to you. Start by doing it once a week. Then twice a week, then three times. I challenged everything that was told to me as a child. I have learned that the truth is not mutable—but half-truths are. The more tainted the truth is in your life, the worse your life will be. I have people who are admitted white supremacists on my friends list because I can’t prove them wrong if I don’t have access to them. As long as they aren’t violent or crazy, keep hitting them with facts. They can’t ignore them forever. You can’t put color back into the Kool-Aid without stirring it up a bit.
- “Cowboy Bebop’s narrative presents many afro-american traits in the character of Jet Black, with problematic bleaching in the animated space. The controversial Netflix reimagining, was both beloved and panned by an equally polarized audience. Not even Mustafa Shakir’s phenomenal performance could save it from early demise.” Source: Cowboy Bebop (Series). 1. Developed by Christopher Yost. Netflix, 2021.
- “TV’s The Lone Ranger, has long since been revealed as a fictionalization of the very real law-man Bass Reeves’ life. It is as egregious as case of white-washing as can be imagined, given generations of children idolizing the character, when the real hero would be passed over by all but historians.” Source: The Lone Ranger Television Series. Free-Images.Com, 2020. AND Bass Reeves. Wikimedia Commons, 2020.
Mr. Zimmerman is a storied problem solver and adventurer, scouted like so many others, by Mr. Gupta back in 2010. Wes quickly distinguished himself through his diligence and his “knack” for assorted creative work. As the firm’s standards evolved, he has quickly grown with them, elevating from junior, to intermediate, and finally Senior Creative staff for The Living Multiverse. Wes’ is also the single voice, outside of Mr. Gupta’s, on the largest quantity of our audio-recorded Roundtables.
- William Blinn, creator. Starsky & Hutch. Spelling-Goldberg Productions, 1975.
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- Chris Mandle, “Kylie Jenner braids hair into cornrows again despite being criticised for ‘appropriating black culture,’” The Independent, 12 Aug 2015. www.independent.co.uk/news/people/kylie-jenner-braids-hair-cornrows-again-despite-being-criticised-appropriating-black-culture-10451692.html.
- Alexis Dent, “It’s Not Just Kylie Jenner—These 5 Kardashian Enterprises Have Been Appropriated from Black Culture,” Marie Claire, 14 Jun 2017. www.marieclaire.com/celebrity/news/a27683/kardashian-enterprises-cultural-appropriation/.
- Andrea Arterbery, “Why the Kardashian-Jenner’s Hairstyles are Cultural Appropriation,” Teen Vogue, 11 Aug 2016. www.teenvogue.com/story/kardashian-jenners-cultural-appropriation-hair.
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- “Zoot Suit Riots: Causes, Facts & Photos,” History.com, 27 Sep 2017, updated 15 Sep 2020. www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/zoot-suit-riots.
- “The Black Dandy,” Encyclopedia.com, 6 Dec 2020. www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-dandy. Accessed 6 Dec 2020.
- Isabela Espadas Barros Leal, “Dandyism: This global style movement offers a view on black male identity,” CNN, 19 Nov 2019. www.cnn.com/style/article/dandy-lion-aperture/index.html.
- Daley, Caroline and Paul. “Space Dandy – Season 1 – Anime Review.” Three If By Space, ThreeIfBySpace, 25 Apr. 2021, https://www.threeifbyspace.net/2018/04/space-dandy-season-1-anime-review/.
- Art T. Burton, “Was Bass Reeves the Real Lone Ranger?,” True West, July 2013. truewestmagazine.com/article/was-bass-reeves-the-real-lone-ranger/.
- Miss Cellania, “The Life and Times of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves,” Mental Floss, 17 Jan 2013. mentalfloss.com/article/33537/life-and-times-deputy-us-marshal-bass-reeves.
- Art T. Burton, “Bass Reeves,” Bass Reeves – Fort Smith National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service), 10 Apr 2015. nps.gov/fosm/learn/historyculture/bass_reeves.htm.
- Max Bryan, “Belle Starr’s reputation as an outlaw lives on in Fort Smith,” AP, 7 Oct 2018. apnews.com/article/e650cd4c300343cc8acdc52054c94842.
- Ron. W. Fischer, “Bass Reeves: He Set a Timeless Example,” The Tombstone News, 19 May 2006. thetombstonenews.com/bass-reeves-he-set-a-timeless-example-p477-84.htm.
- Jess Denham, “Sony leak: Denzel Washington should not star in lead roles overseas because the world is ‘racist,’” The Independent, 18 Dec 2014. independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/sony-leak-denzel-washington-should-not-star-lead-roles-overseas-because-world-racist-9932507.html.
- Email from unnamed Sony producer ca. Dec 2014, quoted in Roberto Pedace, “Why aren’t Hollywood films more diverse? The international box office might be to blame,” The Conversation, 6 Dec 2017. theconversation.com/why-arent-hollywood-films-more-diverse-the-international-box-office-might-be-to-blame-86905.
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