The Default Human Being

Answer this question quickly–what race are the people in the picture above?

What are their defining characteristics, what color is their skin, how are their eyes and lips shaped?  Can you tell what race they are?

If you answered White, you’re wrong.  If you answered Asian, then answer the next question: who are these people?  Actually, that question might be too hard, so I’ll give you the answer: from left to right, it’s my daughter the Pod, me, and my son Gun-Gun.  (Gun drew this for me yesterday.)

This question of What Race is that Cartoon comes from this cool blog post that King found: Why do the Japanese draw themselves as White? It’s hilarious but true.  When Japanese people draw this:

…Americans see White characters, while Japanese people see Japanese characters.  As Abagond points out with great perspicuity, it’s because in America, the “Default Human Being” is White, while in Japan, the default is Japanese.  Sure, the Japanese anime characters above have big eyes, but do White people really have eyes that big?  And Abagond is right about skin–some Asian people are as light or lighter than White people.  When I first went to Japan, I too thought that the anime characters looked White.  But after a while, I began to see them as Japanese people see them.

Abagond writes:

If I draw a stick figure, most Americans will assume that it is a white man. Because to them that is the Default Human Being. For them to think it is a woman I have to add a dress or long hair; for Asian, I have to add slanted eyes; for black, I add kinky hair or brown skin. Etc.

He also talks about Marge Simpson, who has yellow skin and a big blue Afro, but whom people still assume is White.  Absent any stereotypical feature–slanted eyes for Asian, black skin for black, turban for a Sikh–people in America assume Whiteness.  White men are the only people who don’t have to have a racially stereotypical identifying characteristic in order to be viewed as White.

It’s a very interesting observation because I find that under most circumstances, I too assume Whiteness.  My son watches a Nick Jr. show called the Backyardigans, and even though the characters are all animals, I think that post-anthropomorphism at least some of the characters are supposed to be African American.

The Backyardigans

After all, their names are Tyrone, Uniqua, Tasha, Austin, and Pablo–with the exception of Austin, their names all sound minority.  The creator of the Backyardigans is an African American woman named Janice Burgess.  But we (including me) are so used to assuming Whiteness that we experience cognitive dissonance when we see non-White people portrayed with non-stereotypical physical characteristics or non-stereotypical normal experiences.

I’ve been reading lots of literature recently and thinking about White writers vs. Minority writers.  Readers usually adopt their notion of the Default Human Being and use that model unless the writer specifically brings up the race of the character or has the character doing stereotypical minority things.  It’s a hard dichotomy to manage, I think, because minority experiences are similar to non-minority experiences, yet there are also unique situations that come from being a minority in a majority culture.  We don’t want to be Whitewashed, yet we also don’t want our experiences to be ignored.

So while I think it’s good for us to play both inside and outside society’s idea of the default human being, I think that ultimately we want to get away from it.

Maybe things will be different for the next generation.  Gun-Gun used to watch a show called Sid the Science Kid.  Sid looked racially ambiguous to me at first sight, and when I watched further, I learned (I think) that he is the product of a Black woman marrying a White guy.

Sid the Science Kid and his family

Perhaps through exposure to more diversity in the media our kids will more open to understanding people of different ethnicities without having a Default Human Being concept based on race.

31 thoughts on “The Default Human Being

  1. “White men are the only people who don’t have to have a racially stereotypical identifying characteristic in order to be viewed as White.”

    Oh yeah! What about hillbillies in Jews? Looks like you slipped up on that one, eh Bryon?

  2. Yo. Been lurking here for a little while, finally coming out.

    Remember “Doug” on Nick, then new “Doug” on ABC? I wonder if that’s a similar situation with that show.

  3. Hey Invasion,


    I hadn’t seen Doug (it was before my kids’ time!), but I just checked it out. He looks White, but who knows? I had an interesting conversation about Charlotte’s Web this weekend–I think I’d always assumed both Charlotte and Wilbur were supposed to be White too. 🙂

  4. Sieg,

    What are you talking about? We’re talking about race, and suddenly you have to bring in hillbillies. What does any of what you say have to do with the original topic?

  5. I was actually talking about the show in general, since most of the characters are different colors. That is one of the things I liked about the show when I was a kid; all of the characters had a unique look.

  6. Stick figures are one thing, but Anime is another. The features of Anime characters cluster more closely to people of European descent, than those of Asian descent.

    No one has addressed the fact that the Japanese portray the Chinese with “stereotypical” East Asian features, whiel they’ve given themselves big blue eyes.

  7. Hi Mel,

    Thanks for your comment! You also have an awesome blog!

    I’m probably more in agreement with abagond on your first point (I saw your comments on his site), and on your second point, I may be too ignorant of anime to hold my own–I don’t know what Chinese people look like in Japanese anime!

    One possible explanation is that maybe the Chinese characters are not main characters and therefore don’t need the eyes to emote, as with abagond’s comments on Osamu Tezuka?
    Outside of anime, I know that Chinese actors and actresses and movies are popular in Japan.

  8. I agree with Mel on this one — Japanese folks might see SOME characters in anime as Asian, but no one will convince me that Sailor Moon — with her long blonde hair and blue eyes, is supposed to be anyone but an ex-pat. I think what’s interesting is that Japanese anime incorporates a very diverse image of Japan — Asian characters are side-by-side with Caucasian characters with no particular eyebrow raise about it.

    That being said that Asian characters who are supposed to be Japanese or Chinese typically are represented with black or blue hair and other contextual indicators that they are Asian. Ranma, for example, has a whole bevvy of characters who are specifically suppoed to be Japanese or Chinese — and none of them have blonde hair an blue eyes.

    As far as Sid the Science Kid, I wasn’t sure if his mom was Black or Latina. I love how he’s multi-racial though, and I really love his Asian friend — who reminds me of Yoko Ohno.

  9. ^– oh, I forgot to include that in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Asuka — who is supposed to be haf-German and half-Japanese — is the only one of the characters with non-black or brown har (except for Ritsuko… and her ethnicity is never made clear).

    I think the point is that anima provides contextual clues, but it’s generally safe to say that hair and eye colour is a pretty good indicator of race, with the default generally being Japanese.

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  11. To those saying hillbillies is a “White” stereotype: it’s not. It’s a class/regional stereotype.

  12. It’s a class/regional/racial stereotype, there are no Black, Asian, or Latino, hillbillies.

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  16. Ever thought that the plain white stick figure (default human being) may be the stereotype for a white person? What if the sheet had been black or yellow? The reason why the anime is very similar looking to caucasian is because the artstyle happens to be that and it fits. As for Marge (in Simpson) we dont see her as a white person, but instead as a freak of nature who behaves like a white women and talks like one.

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  19. This theory can be applied to the “discovery” new countries. For example, Columbus. discovered a country that had millions of people already living there. They don’t count because they aren’t white. we could just say he was.the first european here.. redneck and inbred are white stereotypes that I’m all to familiar with.

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  23. White people? Light-skinned, often very tall people with varied hair and eye colors, long faces with long, narrow noses.

    Men often have plenty of body hair and can grow thick beards. Women have larger breasts on average.

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