Sister Krone’s design in The Promised Neverland is inundated with racist implications, calling to mind the image of black Americans popularized by minstrel shows. This is something a lot of people don’t like to hear, but it’s objectively true. A mere side-by-side of Sister Krone and, say, an old drawing of Aunt Jemima will confirm this to be the case: the massive lips, huge nose, stronger musculature, and general servant-like aesthetic all contribute to an image of that oh-so-pernicious depiction of black women, one that has not entirely faded from cultural consciousness. Throughout the show, the reasons to be afraid of her are not her quiet, unnerving cunning as in Isabella’s case, but her monstrous power, the sheer strength and speed she possesses in her massive body. And yet, she’s a great, sympathetic character, morally disgusting but no moreso than Isabella, grounded in a system of oppression that made her this way. Sure, she has a servant-like outfit, but so does Isabella—it’s clearly not intentional stereotyping. To simply call her racist and write her off would be a mistake and yet, it would be equally troublesome to ignore the racist implications. Discussing the way American racial issues affect a Japanese work isn’t something that’s easy to do, but we need to do it. So let’s dive right in to Sister Krone and the complexities of criticism.
There’s a couple of common arguments against the idea that Sister Krone is racist. The first, and this one is disappointingly common, is that her design is simply not racist at all. The side-by-side from a minute ago should debunk that immediately—you have to be consciously disingenuous to claim her character art is somehow far afield from the sort of thing that was oh-so-prevalent in 19th and 20th century American racism. Even today, there’s a common perception that black women are stronger, that they have massive lips, that they’re more masculine; and yes, black people do tend to have larger lips than those of other ethnicities but not nearly to the degree often portrayed. Anime exaggerates things, of course, but most of the other characters don’t even have lips—other anime show that you don’t need to go to this extreme a level. Any argument taking this approach can be safely discarded because it’s simply not being made in good faith.
The argument which seems more valid on its face claims that because The Promised Neverland is Japanese and because the average Japanese don’t interact much with black people, the design is simply an unfortunate case of convergent evolution and not anything related to historical racism. This runs into a number of issues. First, the fact that most of the Japanese population have never met a black person does not, in any way, mean that the way they depict black people is free from criticism. If—and this is a big if—the entire country’s exposure to black people is through American media, media which often engages in the exact same stereotypes being critiqued here, then that’s an additional indictment upon American culture, not something which absolves this anime. As an American, I do have blind spots, and I can fall into criticizing other cultures from my somewhat hegemonic perspective, but racism is racism, intentional or otherwise, black people exist in Japan and blackface is still seen as problematic over there, even if there’s a lesser education on the topic. And again, other anime exist. Works like Michiko to Hatchin, Black Lagoon, and even Macross show that you can portray black characters whose blackness is important to them without falling into trite stereotyping. It’s a shame The Promised Neverland, one of the best meditations on oppression ever seen in anime, does not get this right.
Second, I think we must understand the particular ways in which Sister Krone’s racialized traits are not just mundanely present but are, in fact, actively wielded for the series’ horror, as it’s this which can have an adverse effect on viewers, particularly black ones. Much of what makes Sister Krone scary is that she is unfeminine. Isabella, while terrifying, is the perfect mother; attentive, careful, and always neat. This, too, is used for fear, but there’s no racial stereotype at play. Meanwhile, Sister Krone’s lack of traditional, white femininity is absolutely key to the reasons she’s scary; unfortunately, it’s for this reason that black women have been put down over the centuries. As Angela Davis says in Women, Race, and Class, “judged by the evolving nineteenth-century ideology of femininity, which emphasized women’s roles as nurturing mothers and gentle companions and housekeepers for their husbands, Black women were practically anomalies”. It’s for reasons like this that Sojourner Truth’s, “Ain’t I a woman”, speech is so important; it exposes the way in which the supposed masculinity of black women—a trait and stereotype that’s come about due to forced servitude—has been used to diminish their womanhood.
This becomes even clearer in other aspects of Sister Krone’s depiction. Her femininity is distorted, not only in the form of her body, but in her psychology as well. She treats a small doll like her child—I don’t think I need to go into the racist imagery of the doll, though it’s worth noting that it’s anime-original—while also abusing it, meant to contrast once again with the calm, though predatory, gaze that Isabella subjects her children to. Of course, both of them are attempting to raise their wards for slaughter after being raised that way themselves, but the manner in which they do so is different, because Krone is fundamentally incapable of accomplishing the task properly, of applying the feminine gaze that Isabella can. She treats the doll horrifically—an entirely different piece could and probably should be written on how this frames mental illness as inherently terrifying—which serves as foreshadowing for the fact that she doesn’t ultimately become a mother like she wants. In being deprived of this role, she is textually estranged from femininity. Yes, being a mother is not actually that great of a position to be in, it’s the utmost crystallization of working for the system which ruined you in the first place, but that Krone isn’t even able to reach it isn’t because she’s too kind, too unwilling to perpetuate the oppression of those like her, it’s because she isn’t maternal enough. Even beyond the racism, that’s a serious misstep; with only slight changes, Krone could be a noble martyr, the symbol of resisting oppression even when you have the chance to give in and sell out those who struggled alongside you, to pull a Kanye if you will. When you factor in her racialization, the show’s deprivation of her ability to reach motherhood is even nastier—it sits right alongside racist propaganda of past centuries and some from the present.
Lastly, we need to remember that in being scary because she’s monstrous, Sister Krone appeals to a very specific white supremacist notion of black people as inherently dangerous animals. Look at her run cycle or one of her creepier smiles and tell me there isn’t some level of bestiality at play. Spend a couple minutes on racist forums like /pol/ or The_Donald and you’ll see black resistance being labelled as “chimping out”; the idea that black people are animalistic is inherent to white supremacy, as there’s no way to justify making other races a lesser caste if they aren’t something less than human. As with all of these elements, this definitely wasn’t intended, but you’d have to deny that white supremacy, empire, and anti-blackness maintain some global power to say it isn’t there at all.
So what do we do about all of this? Do we simply write The Promised Neverland off as a racist work because of this detail? That’d be an issue, given that as the manga continues, it includes a great number of black and brown people presented in all manner of roles; throwing out that positive fact just because it starts from a less-than-perfect place would be reductive. And besides, a series being problematic in one area hardly makes it a bad work; it’d be absurd to simply deny the show’s impact when it actively challenges the panoptic, predatory nature of late capitalist society, something only so many works can say. No, we absolutely can’t just mark the show as “problematic” and call it a day, satisfied at having done our diligence. That can never be the outcome of a critical analysis and it certainly isn’t what we should do here.
But then, what’s my solution? Well, I think this brings us to a couple of questions which are more fundamental to critique as a whole. First, how much does something being offensive matter? I’d say, relatively little. I’m not offended by Sister Krone’s design; looking at it conjures some unpleasant images but I wouldn’t say I take offense, I simply find it unfortunate and slightly uncomfortable. The issue with framing problematic tropes in terms of how offensive they are is that it ignores the far more important analysis: how does this work cause harm? Offensiveness as a heuristic is overly focused on the individual impact rather than the societal one. In this case, the show is harmful in that it reproduces common stereotypes about black women, subtly warping their images to those outside the group and calling to mind often traumatic experiences to those inside of it.
For the white cishet members of my audience, imagine for a moment that the boomer depiction of millenials and zoomers, as lazy, self-obsessed, uber-privileged garbage children was somehow one that dated back well over a century. Imagine that, while kind, genuine, multifaceted characters belonging to these generations do appear in media, there are just as many examples of the classic stereotypes being portrayed. Imagine that even the sympathetic characters who you have to appreciate just for being in the story when you usually just aren’t there at all still end up like this. You’d probably be pretty upset, given that this picture of young people is false, one that ignores the serious barriers in your way and your relative inability to affect the world around you compared to those who’ve been around for much longer. It would be absolutely reasonable to have some grievances with this kind of media, to say, “Hey, this isn’t cool”, even if you like the work and even if someone responds with, “What, it’s not like it was intentional stereotyping. Stop watching stuff just to get offended,” a comment that’s always bound to come if you so much as hint at a critique of the social dynamics in art. Now think about the fact that unlike generational groups, this has actually happened to black people, and is reflective of a past and present oppression far more intense than anything a nebulous group like “Millennials” or “Gen Z” has gone through. Remember, minstrel imagery recalls the generational trauma that is slavery, an institution whose ripple effects still feel like earthquakes. It shouldn’t be hard to recognize why criticism pops up if you look at it through this lens; media can and will influence people even if it can’t and won’t change the world and we’d obviously like for that influence to be good. This isn’t an obsession with offensive language; it’s a real analysis of how depictions of serious subjects can have serious effects, with one of those being the pain that a marginalized person can feel when they see themselves denigrated and stereotyped on-screen, intentionally or otherwise and another being the negative influence it’ll have on others’ views of that group.
The second question to bring up is this: what is the point of criticism? Is it to change the media we’re talking about? I don’t think that’s the case, at least not to any meaningful degree. Not only does Western anime criticism have an incredibly low efficacy in that regard, it isn’t even common outside anime. To quote Austin Walker, the most common sort of critique in games is, “the sort of critical writing that makes an appeal to consumers, developers, and publishers,” in other words, simply stating how you feel about a work using various lenses and techniques; unlike in games I rarely get the chance to talk to the people behind the anime I like! Instead, when I say that The Promised Neverland unfortunately falls into some racist imagery, I’m doing so for a couple of reasons. I’m trying to make a not-uncommon reaction to the show more easily understandable, I’m trying to complicate people’s thoughts on the work so they can read it from a perspective which is more fully informed, and I suppose to some degree I’m trying to have people look more critically at the art they consume in an attempt to maybe, one day, have some small impact on the art that gets made. This isn’t something that could be called, “being offended just for the sake of it”, it’s merely another form of criticism. Lots of people have a hard time accepting modes of critique aside from a sort of distorted reader-response theory and the close-reading focused New Criticism they were taught in high school, but there are so many important lenses out there, from postcolonial, to feminist, to psychoanalytical, and they all have their value. I promise that those who use them aren’t some evil group trying to destroy your favorite art—as I’ve said many a time throughout this video, The Promised Neverland is a fantastic series, one that absolutely shines when looked at through many of these lenses. That it has a somewhat muddied color when viewed through one of them doesn’t make its appearance through the others any less beautiful.
To quote Austin once again, he once said that, “those of us who write about things like race, gender, class, and sexuality in games do so because we fucking love games. And you know, most of us actually spend the majority of our time in any given year writing about weapon design, death mechanics, art style, game preservation, “virtual worlds,” weird little import gems, explosive and private narrative experiments, rad Japanese robots, and the billion other things that make our favorite medium so great. And sometimes, we want to take the things we love seriously enough to offer analysis and critique that goes beyond “I like this” or “I don’t like that.” We want to figure out how a game might fit in a larger cultural context or try to communicate how it fit just so into our lives. We often see the faults in these games we love because we’re so close to them. And sometimes, pointing out those flaws doesn’t mean we love them any less. Even our most brutal critiques–the ones that come closest to head shaking and dismissal–are rooted in a broader love for the medium.” When he made a fantastic blog post that criticized Animal Crossing: New Leaf for not giving him the freedom to make his character black, it wasn’t because he hated it. It was because he loved it. Unfortunately, we can’t all separate our sociopolitical experiences from the art we enjoy.
I can say the exact same thing he did except about anime; I truly love it, warts and all and I enjoy talking about so many aspects of it that don’t involve race, or gender, or the structure of capitalist society. I appreciate discussing how Giant Robo is just really damn cool, or how Hidamari Sketch is sooooo nice to watch after a long day, dude. I don’t watch anime to be offended; I watch it to enjoy myself and sometimes I feel the need to write about less-than-savory aspects of it because I notice those aspects, but that doesn’t change my reasons for watching it. Just please, stop worrying about the fact that people find issues in works you like. Criticizing Sister Krone’s design and traits won’t bring down the entire structure of anime, it won’t destroy Japanese culture, it won’t come to your house and knock in the head for liking the wrong show. It simply allows us to look for and support media that does a slightly better job in certain places and I’m plenty willing to support The Promised Neverland for where it gets things right. I don’t think that sounds all that bad. Also, please don’t say I’m just bringing an American perspective to things, there’s nowhere in the world where minstrel imagery is anything but hurtful to black people.