Imagine a hypothetical video game featuring a prepubescent black girl who with a strange habit of saying things like “Sup Sucka”, a predilection for referring to things as “badonkadonks,” and pronouncing the word “child” in a way that can only be expressed in writing as “Chiiiild.”
Would this be a racist depiction?
I’m certain that many people would say that it is. Having a minority side character trot out tired clichés in an industry dominated by white faces, both in terms of its collective fiction and its reality could only resort in a few raised eyebrows. However, a character with an absolutely identical description, with the exception of being white, came under fire for being a racist caricature.
This brings up a conundrum: If the behavior of a character is racist regardless of the character’s race, is it impossible to include that behavior in that particular video game without it being racist? Is that behavior or language simply off-limits? Let’s take a look at the particular behavior of Tiny Tina that has been viewed by some as racist.
“These fine-ass womens could stop that train for yas, but I’m gonna need their badonkadonks first, and they got stoled by the bandits a few days ago.”
“So you gotta hijack a train, huh? Chiiiilds play.”
“Climb the pipe to the train, or you’ll go insane. Wut wut. That’s a rap song I wrote.”
“Oh daaaaaayum, you lookin’ good, ladies.”
The crux of the argument for Tiny Tina being racist is that she speaks in what is perceived to be a stereotypically “black” parlance. The argument appears to be that if a black character speaks in ebonics, it is a racist stereotype and if a white character speaks in ebonics, it is mocking a racist stereotype. Essentially, the only logical conclusion that I can come to is that if both examples are offensive even in the absence of other possibly racist elements, there is no possible way to integrate ebonics into a light-hearted game such a Borderlands 2 without it being offensively racist.
Society is rife with obvious examples of words and actions that are considered more or less racist depending on who spoke them, but we also know that there are actions that are clearly racist, regardless of race. But is the usage of ebonics one of them? Have we arrived to a point where simply including ebonics in a video game is cause for accusations of racism?
While I understand how such a character should result in some conversation about race-related issues, I am not willing to accept that ebonics and “black” slang should be excised from the entire medium.
Let’s get one out-of-the-way: what Tiny Tina employs is ebonics, and absolutely not African American Vernacular English. Ebonics is wacky. Again, context is important here as the behavior of black people is rarely described as “wacky.” More often, the things done by a white person will be described as “ignorant or “stupid” if done by a black person, but it absolutely true that ebonics is a conversational style for the most informal of times when hanging with friends or playing the dozens.
There is no amount of liberal-arts college classes that will ever make ebonics appropriate for a professional environment and despite the fact that anyone who actually has intelligence will tell you that employing ebonics is not a sign of lacking intelligence, perception is reality, a fact that most black people learn sooner or later. Ebonics is should certainly not be immune from being depicted in a silly way.
Which is not to say that Tiny Tina’s dialogue is unimportant. It, and the reaction to it, is very telling. As a black male, I found nothing racist about Tiny Tina, but I did see an element of it that was particularly fascinating when looked at through the lens of race. What I concluded was that, most likely unintentionally, someone is being parodied here, but it isn’t black people. If Tiny Tina makes a mockery of someone, its target is most likely a specific slice of white America—those who are completely out of touch with black culture.
When I first heard Tiny Tina, the first thought that came to mind was quite surprising. “This is Kim.”
Kim is an acquaintance of mine. Not a close friend, merely an acquaintance. We have the occasional conversation and see each other at parties, but she’s not exactly on my mind often, which is why I was so surprised that Tiny Tina evoked thoughts of her. But there was no doubt that the person on the television was Kim. The voice, the dialogue, the mannerisms; this was a digital representation of Kim. Which brings us to a fact that is both awkward and necessary to state: Kim is white.
Before this moment, though obviously aware that Kim was Caucasian, I hadn’t fully comprehended just how white she was. I hadn’t spent any time considering who Kim was in terms of her race. However, in the wake of the Tiny Tina controversy, it became clear to me that Kim was not simply white, but the most stereotypically white person I knew. She is a menagerie of Chappelle’s Show references and third-rate BET stand-up routines. I’d feel bad for saying that about her if she didn’t seem to embrace it so willingly.
One of the most obvious similarities between Kim and Tiny Tina is that they really enjoy the word badonkadonk. Got a plate with a great deal of food on it? To Kim, your plate is now a badonkadonk. Did you recently purchase a large SUV? Your car is a badonkadonk. The word badonkadonk is pretty fascinating in itself, as it is a very effective indicator of just how far removed anyone who uses it is from the lexicon of the actual youth culture that birthed such slang. Badonkadonk has bounced around on every step of the slang life-cycle from in to out, edgy to retro, and ironic to lame, until it arrived at its current and, likely final, resting point, somewhere between “highly awkward” and “slightly embarrassing.”
Of course, Tiny Tina can be forgiven for her supposed transgressions. She is a child in a desolate wasteland. There is no reason to believe she would have any real comprehension of urban culture, or any culture, other than her own.
In fact, it’s almost appropriate that someone cut off from our reality would be so out of touch. Many people from such far-off places such as the suburbs have experienced great trouble attempting to navigate the waters of urban slang, so why wouldn’t a little girl from an alternate reality with no access to television, radio or books? Tina is cringe personified, as she should be. She’s a child trying to be her idea of a “hip” adult, cobbled together from what little media she has access to.
This supposed mockery of black language is, in reality, particularly white, and this is indicative of the rest of the slang sprinkled throughout Tina’s dialogue. At best it is antiquated and at worst (and most commonly) it is simply, well, fake. Tiny Tina does not recall any of the black women I know. More surprisingly, Tiny Tina doesn’t even recall current stereotypes of black women. What Tiny Tina serves as, is a stereotype of a white person who desperately feels the need to integrate black slang into their lives.
Tiny Tina wreaks of urbandictionary.com. She is the digital equivalent of a suburban mom desperately attempting to keep up with the trends, clinging onto the most exotic slang terms she can pick up from listening to the local Morning Zoo on her way to work in an attempt to relate to her kids. She is the Christian Sidehug.
If you ran a CNN article on what the hip, “underground” trends are through a video game character generator, the result would be a character called “Hashtag Tiny Tina.” Every time a CEO or lawyer decides that he needs to “do a rap” in a commercial because it would be hiiiiiiiiiiiiilarious, they are calling forth the spirit of Tiny Tina.
Burch is absolutely correct when he asserts that there are plenty of people who speak like Tiny Tina. The important thing to realize is that very few of these people are at all in tune with urban culture. This doesn’t make them racists or prejudiced—it simply makes them out of touch. There are plenty of people who think Tiny Tina’s dialogue is hip and edgy, very few of whom realize that the Harlem Shake is an actual dance that does not simply consist of throwing your body into spastic convulsions.
Tiny Tina is not a mockery or a parody of black people or black culture; If she is meant as a parody, she would be a parody of those who worship urban culture from the outside without any willingness to truly experience enough of it to understand why “badonkadonk” is not a part of said-culture. If you believe that Tiny Tina is meant as an honest attempt at a portrayal of a character using black slang, it may be you who is relying on stereotypes more-so than Anthony Burch.
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