Pokemon phenom harbors racist image

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I confess. i succumbed to Pokemon fever. I took my 10-year-old son to "The Pokemon Movie" during opening weekend. I suffered through the bad animation and mindless plot, while he sat spellbound as the battles advanced toward a saccharine moral. When I saw the movie, I already understood the phenomenon, having bought Pokemon Red, Blue, Yellow and Pinball. Manufactured by Japan's Nintendo Corp., these digital games challenge players to collect and train 150 little pocket monsters that gain power as they evolve. If my two children are any indication, the game is incredibly fun and addictive.

The fun merely begins with the game, however. Pokemon trading cards capitalize on the game's popularity. Despite my son's begging, I initially resisted investing in Pokemon cards, having bought Pogs and Beanie Babies when those fads were at their peak. So, without spending a dime, my son assembled a 60-some-card collection using duplicates donated by friends. I eventually relented and allowed him to buy a starter set, theme deck and several booster packs of Pokemon cards at prices ranging from $4 to $17.

STOPPED COLD

I would have paid a premium for the videogame Pokemon Snap if only I could have found it on store shelves or e-commerce sites during the holiday shopping season. Committed to resume my search for Pokemon Snap after the Christmas rush, I saw a character on the Pokemon TV cartoon that not only stripped the phenomenon of its innocence but stopped me cold.

The character Jynx, Pokemon No. 124, has decidedly human features: jet black skin, huge pink lips, gaping eyes, a straight blonde mane and a full figure, complete with cleavage and wiggly hips. Put another way, Jynx resembles an overweight drag queen incarnation of Little Black Sambo, a racist stereotype from a children's book long ago purged from libraries.

While my 10- and 12-year-olds do not find Jynx offensive, their parents and grandparents do. We call a spade a spade. And we have seen enough racist stereotypes to know one when we see it. There was room to debate whether Jar Jar Binks in "Star Wars: Episode One" was West Indian, but there is no question about this Pokemon character. Jynx clearly denigrates African-Americans, particularly black women. At the close of the 20th century, how could Japanese computer animators unleash such a culturally insensitive menace on the global marketplace?

STRANGE DAYS

These are strange days. Sisters in Harlem toss long tresses -- courtesy of hair extensions shorn from women in Shanghai -- to the beat of misogynistic raps produced by Japanese media giant Sony. So I am not surprised, though I am appalled, that a computer animator at a Japanese corporation would conceive of Jynx, and that corporate executives would deem the character appropriate for multiracial markets. Even Jynx's name -- a variation on the term "jinx," which means a bearer of bad luck -- has negative connotations.

In addition, the name Jynx suggests a link with witch doctors and voodoo, practices rooted in African religion but often ridiculed by Western culture.

Pokemon is unquestionably the year's hottest toy. Since Pokemon's arrival in the U.S. in 1998, more than 7 million of the games have been sold, representing more than half of all U.S. videogame revenues.

Will African-American parents continue to cough up hard-earned dollars for games and trading cards featuring a monstrously racist image?

Will Jynx deal Pokemon's last hand in the black community?

Or will the blonde-haired, black-faced monster evolve into an ebony princess?

Stay tooned.

Ms. Weatherford, of High Point, N.C., is a poet and children's book author.

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