The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, June 19, 2009

Can We Change? And "Resident Evil 5"

Can We Change?

Something I said recently triggered a flurry of comments and emails, centered around the question of whether or not human beings can change.

My answer: yes and no. It's tricky.

No, I don't think our absolute essence changes. But what people really want to know is: can our behaviors, thoughts and feelings change? And as for that, my answer is yes. The problem is that we don't really know ourselves, that we react from false images of ourselves given by family, friends, teachers, society at large. We mistake these, and even our own thoughts, for our "self." In that sense, we're like onions with an infinite number of skins, or layers. We peel away or build upon until we find something that works, something that feels good in comparison to what we have known in the past. And there most of us stop. And in truth, the lessons learned before puberty are likely to stay with us the rest of our lives, if we don't engage in serious introspection.

Even as adults, we often react as if we are still children, helpless and controlled by giants with the powers of gods. This isn't very conducive to maturation. Often, people shift behaviors just by getting "realer" with themselves: a smoker quits because his doctor convinces him he will die if he doesn't, AND his children plead with him to be there to dance at their weddings.

Pain. Pleasure. The illusion that "I won't be the one who dies" or "it doesn't matter anyway" is shattered, and what emerges is a stronger person capable of uprooting a habit based in physical pleasures. This might be similar to a "coward" who runs into a burning building to save a loved one. What we think we are isn't what we are--but we react to the world, perceive the world, as if conscious and unconscious assumptions are correct.

I've known many people who are afraid to dig into themselves too deeply, afraid that if they do, they will find something hideous and ugly. In almost every case, these people were

1) Rejected by their parents.

2) Abused by people who should have protected them (family friends, relatives, priests or teachers)

3) Raped or badly beaten before the age of 20.

4) A member of a group reviled by their own society.

5)Trapped in a loveless, dominating or demeaning marriage.

Those five things come up so often that I think they touch some core circuits, some primary buttons connected directly to our sense of "is-ness."

If you believe that, at your essence you will find corruption, you dare not dive deeply. And since it is inevitable that you will enter damaged areas of your psyche as you move toward the center of your being, it is easy to imagine the negativity you encounter as "proof" that that is your essential nature.

I suppose that this is one of the reasons I believe that our core is loving energy. An urge to join, to merge, to evolve. The fact that I can present evidence from physics or biology or philosophy or religion to support this belief is irrelevant to its truth or falsity: others can present evidence to the contrary.

And if this belief made me more vulnerable, gave me greater pain than pleasure, I almost certainly would have abandoned it. But it has not. I realize my real attitude is: "have an open heart, but be ready to kick ass if necessary." I guess I can live with that. Some of the bitterest people I know started as loving, open-hearted sweeties. And when they got their teeth kicked in in love relationships, jobs, the political process or whatever, they began to believe that the world is a dark and ugly place where you have to keep your hands up at all times. I feel sorry for the extremes of this attitude ("trust everyone!" "trust no one!") because what it really means is that they can't trust themselves.

I love an expression Swift Deer often used: "don't trust people. Instead, rely on them to do what they see as being in their own best interest." I love this, because it puts the responsibility in YOUR hands. In other words, you can't trust other people more than you trust yourself. And

How do you learn to trust yourself? Be honest about the reasons for the results you've gotten in your life. Place yourself at the center of your world, take responsibility...and realize that everyone else is at the center of THEIR circle as well.

We get into trouble when we expect others to orbit us, or when we feel we are less than others. I've heard it said that the beginning of evil is viewing other human beings as means rather than ends. Another is to not love ourselves, and then extend that love fully to others. That doesn't mean I won't defend myself from you--just that physical violence will be the absolute last resort, and that I will do all in my power to avoid it honorably.


I really do regret that Marty lost his job and house due to racial quotas. No way to feel good about that. His understandable anger is one of the reasons I'm not in favor of Affirmative Action: while it does reduce the net amount of social pain, the individual, anecdotal pain fuels negative backlash. I hope for other answers. Here's a gift to you, though, Marty--if you can grasp it. If you wonder why black people are so often angry, please grasp that while many (if not most) white people know, or know of, someone that this has happened to, almost every black person I know has actually experienced it. If the same number of racially bigoted people exist in both groups--call it 10 percent--then there is one black bigot for every 100 white people, and one white bigot for every black person in the country. No comparison in terms of potential damage. If people over-react in trying to even things out, it is regrettable. But if you can "get" this you'll have a piece of understanding most are denied, and it will help you understand the world better, and more deeply.

Again, sorry for your pain, my friend. I would not have had it so.


A note from a reader:

"Given the amount of thought you've put into depictions of race in media, I'm curious about your response to the game Resident Evil 5.

Are you familiar with the debate it kicked off?"


It was glaringly obvious that those who made decisions on this game were not black, nor do I think they knew many black people. To have every "monster" in the game black, and the one supposed heroic "African" straight-haired and very pale, is just too obvious for words. Capcom, who made it, is a Japanese company with a branch in San Mateo. You can either attribute this nonsense to universal human traits, or try to isolate it ("it's Hollywood!" "It's the New York publishing industry!" "It's Washington!" "It''s San Mateo...") Yeah, right.

The first images of blacks I saw in Japanese movies or animation were savage, brutal, ignorant, raping animals. The first black "heros" I saw in Japanese games were brainless hulks, mere physical specimens. If whites hadn't kicked their asses in WW2 they would probably represent Gaigin as sub-standard as well...but apparently, nothing earns respect like a good thumping. Japanese women had their breasts enlarged, men had surgery to their eyes to resemble Europeans (Chinese as well...look at Jackie Chan).

So would I expect the guys at Capcom in San Mateo to have a visceral reaction to the negative imagery, and grasp how painful it would be? Nope. And if there are black people at the company, they've probably learned to keep their heads down, or be accused of being "too sensitive." I did a quick Google for "Resident Evil 5 controversy" and encountered a fairly reasonable, pain-filled but intelligent overview of racial politics in gaming by a guy named Ororunda. And the immediate reactions of (presumably) white gamers? I quote:

"People like him are why people are racists against blacks in the first place."

"Yeah, when I hear people complaining about racism my first response is to whip out the KKK hood and slap on the swastika armband."

Grasp this: if you even complain, you are justifying racism. This is like a woman who complains about rape justifying the act. And sales were great (surpassing 5 million units in the first month, I believe). So my guess is that not only did white gamers not want people making them feel guilty for enjoying a game, but if they have any negative racial feelings, don't you think that they actually ENJOYED killing black people, even fictionally? Sort of like how I enjoy watching white people die in movies where black people are demeaned?

How could they have fixed this? Well, if the female lead had been as dark skinned as the "bad guys" that would have been a great start. But as with the upcoming Disney "The Princess and the Frog" they have to make her as light-skinned as possible while still maintaining plausible deniability ("she's black! What are you talking about! See, there's no satisfying these people...") and making her "Prince" so pale he is not even plausibly of sub-Saharan African genetics, but sort of "exotic," allowing that old devil sexual/racial politics to rear it's head.

My wife and I played some "Resident Evil 5", and the very natural speculation is that the massively muscled hero and the curvy side-kick would bundle up at some point. That's part of the fun of male-female dynamics. And to suggest that you wouldn't be about ten times more likely to see a white male with a dark female than vice-versa is, in my mind, just refusing to notice human nature and the way it emerges in media.

Asians who would (and have) protested over depictions of themselves as subhuman---except for their cool, submissive women who fall into the beds of white soldiers--are perfectly happy to perpetrate such stereotypes of other groups, and then play innocent when you call them on it. And again...either I see this as a natural expression of our human tendency to be hierarchical, and then place ourselves high on that hierarchy...and then say "who, me?" and blame the victim...or I would do what Steve Muhammad did, and join the Nation of Islam.

Judging by what I've seen, most white people who don't (or claim not to ) understand why Resident Evil 5 would be offensive, would, if they were black, have a NOI membership card in their wallet.


Hugh said...

Just to be clear, I've played the whole game. It bothered me at first, and then didn't bother me, and then bothered me a lot. I'll write up my thoughts and send them in email.

Thanks for your response.

Christian H. said...

Well, as usual, I did a search and found two actors - black, a man and a woman - who have roles as heroes.

Methinks someone is being a little bitchy. They're fucking zombies in Africa.

Left 4 Dead has black zombies and they take hot lead to the head too- and I always play the black guy. I can say that I would get a person who doesn't have so pronounced an Ebonic accent and a few less colloquialisms.

I am proud of my vocabulary and enunciation and that offends me more than anything.

As far as "Can people change?" Sure, if they want to. A racist doesn't have to learn to love anyone, just to desire the same level of privilege and work output from everyone.

It's really hard to look into yourself as so many things are "externally-generated" thoughts. I really have no problems thinking about whether or not intimacy with a man has any erotic value for me and I can say no.

I have no problem dealing with anyone who has value - real marketable skills type value.

After all, it would take a helluva lot longer for a small group of people to build New York City - not to mention the rest of the world's constructs.

That's why I feel that the government has to push harder to get EVERYONE in college and EVERYONE on the "same page."

I fear death squads may be necessary but what the hell. The greater good and all.

Hugh said...

... Or not. I've written up comments, but can't find an email link, so I presume you don't want random strangers emailing you.

Ping me at if you want to see them, but I'm not sure how helpful they'll be. Writing while compiling doesn't make me very coherant, I'm afraid.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

>I fear death squads may be necessary
>but what the hell. The greater good
>and all.

This is a puton.

C. Guevara said...

"I fear death squads may be necessary but what the hell. The greater good and all".

I'm afraid you wouldn't like that a'tall good sir. The pride you take while espousing your vocabulary and enunciation as well as your education and marketability along with the rest of your glowing self-attributes would likely make you a marked man as death squads have traditionally gone after the bourgeois intelligentsia, FIRST, while tolerating to various degrees the more reactionary and oft times more revolutionary reactive and violently inclined proletariat.

Christian H. said...

I'm afraid you wouldn't like that a'tall good sir. The pride you take while espousing your vocabulary and enunciation as well as your education and marketability along with the rest of your glowing self-attributes would likely make you a marked man as death squads have traditionally gone after the bourgeois intelligentsia, FIRST, while tolerating to various degrees the more reactionary and oft times more revolutionary reactive and violently inclined proletariat.

I espouse that which should be. I'm the guy that knows when to pick the gun up and when to put the gun down - so far.
It is not my desire to see such things but are you all willing to stand up for a totally equal society in terms of reward for work and "social expectation?"

Probably not. I bet China has an easier time of "keeping people in line." The idea is "the government says" but those things are bought off here like they have no value.

Every non-productive "ideal" is pushed as "rights." BS.



Christian H. said...

BTW, perhaps you misunderstand what I mean by "death squads." Things I see on the streets are - in a lot of ways intolerable and defy social order as agreed to by every taxpayer - whether you vote or not.

I mean people need to see a few examples that we should be moving forward and fear can't run the streets.

Both emotional and physical violence are degenerative. They more so affect the "fairer" of us hence the brutal nature of my words. I don't worry about people doing anything to me. My concern as you may have noted is for the fairer of us. I guess we could start with just replacing female (you guys are on your own) rape victims with me.

That would give me some comfort.

Rick said...


This may come across as rationalization, but the game has taken place numerous places before. The first three were in midwestern america with nary a black zombie to be seen. Barry Burton one of the series heroes albeit NPC's was originally slated to be black. The fourth game took place in rural Spain with basque-esque zombies fueling the mayhem, and these zombies, if you play the game were distinctly grayish (barring the bleached out religous zealots, an entire conversation in itself) I can understand that concern that the local and the characters caused, but zombie is a uniquely voodoo concept to begin with. But further still are the facts that Jill Valentine and Wesker and his lieutenent were all enemies and definitely not "black monsters", and neither were the kipepeos, lickers, adjelos, bui kichwas, reapers, the uroboros, or even ricardo irving. As far as the pale african female sidekick, I believe rappers are just as guilty of this approach as anyone. Ludicris can rhyme about the best women always being from Africa all he wants, but a strong portion the video girls he and everyone else use are so caucasianized they might as well be hispanic or asian half the time. You never see girls in those videos looking like they just came off the continent, or are even a few generations removed. And we both know there are plenty of african american women that still display facial features and hair qualities of the african genotype that they could use. So this is not just a japanese, or white issue, its something that society as a whole suffers from. As a gamer, I just can't help feeling like a few legitimate feelings of discomfort were inflated by many to be more insulting than their face values due to a heightened sensitivity.

Anonymous said...

yone stop to think that a portion of this game might have been a metaphor for the way high-powered governments and organizations have taken advantage of third world countries, or even that the governments tuskegee experiments. Sure there's a sensitivity that wasn't completely explored, but its just a freaking game. And one criticism I've read tangented to 50 Cent Bulletproof and Def Jam Battle being further examples of racism in games. when I'm pretty damn sure the driving forces behind those were none other than Curtis Jackson and Russell Simmons

Anonymous said...

1) Rejected by their parents.
2) Abused by people who should have protected them (family friends, relatives, priests or teachers)
3) Raped or badly beaten before the age of 20.
4) A member of a group reviled by their own society.
5)Trapped in a loveless, dominating or demeaning marriage.ᅠ

Is it a bad sign that I can relate to all five of these, to varying degrees. I was only rejected by my father, not my mother. I was molested by people who should have protected me, raped and beaten (though not too badly) before the age of 20. I appear white so most people think that makes me immune to number 4. Really it just means that people are more comfortable telling me "wetback" jokes and/or getting on their soapboxes about how Mexicans are stealing all the jobs. It also means that I've been alternately "forgiven" for my Mexican heritage and for my white heritage as well. Gee, thanks. Starting with the other four, I suppose it's no surprise that I didn't do great with marriage and instead enabled a man in giving me less than my due for way too long.

Thank you Steve. I feel a little less feeble in taking more than a decade to be able to meditate, in taking most of a decade to just be able to be with myself. For years I was afraid of seeing that monster, but monsters actually get less frightening the closer you look. I was not the monster in my horror film after all. Looking at myself is more like that scene where a character you've been rooting for is about to go out alone into the woods to investigate. The part of me that has seen this type of movie too many times wants to stand up and yell and pull the character down by their collar and not let them go anywhere alone. Instead I cover my eyes and listen to the score get more sinister, as twigs crack ominously underfoot and I just know this isn't going to end well. It's taken me a long time to believe that I can make choices that won't end badly. As I trust myself more I can look inward more and as I look inward more I can trust myself more. Go figure.

Steven Barnes said...

Of course you can see some of the same racial rejection in rap music. Along with the other self-destructive stuff they do. I've commented on it. I don't care about if there are black zombies (and while the word relates to voodoo, the concept of living dead is universal). I maintain that the pattern of exclusion is due to some basic human stuff. NEVER have I said that it was exclusive to Japanese or white folks. To the contrary, my point is that there is nothing exclusive to them at all. If black people had the upper hand, we'd be fucking them over the same way, claiming it's all an accident or some metaphorical intent, and ignoring the fact that the fantasy images mirror the social damage that just happens to favor me and my children.

Bemused said...

i'm late to the fray on this, but i've posted a draft paper (warning, its in academicese and 40 pages) on RE5,race, and gender.

feel free to read (and comment) on it:

Unknown said...

LOL.. cmon guys this game is not racist at all. Just happens to be that the Zombies are in Africa.. And yes there all black..

Cheer up you wife with a Resident Evil custom id card from This Store

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