The 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Sen. Daniel Inouye in LEGO

This post isn’t about politics. Well, mostly. On Monday, I expressed some anger about the way Memorial Day has become increasingly trivialized here in the United States, but I didn’t apply the nuance I usually expect from myself, even when writing about the intersection of our LEGO hobby and the real world — of which complex political issues (including my pacifist viewpoint) are most certainly a part. I’ll try to do better as I explore an issue that I think lies a bit closer to home for LEGO fans reading this blog.

Why is it that ethnic minorities are so under-represented in our LEGO depictions of military history — World War II in particular? Why are the LEGO minifigs storming beaches and liberating France presumably all white? Where are the Tuskegee Airmen, the Nisei soldiers, the Filipino sailors, the Navajo Code Talkers, and many more?

I realized recently that I was guilty of this oversight myself, as illustrated amply in the links to my own models above. I’m correcting this today with a rather simple photograph depicting 2nd Lt. Daniel K. Inouye as he marches with his platoon toward the ridge in Tuscany where he would single-handedly take out three German machine gun nests, losing his arm — and earning a Medal of Honor — in the process.

The 442nd Moves Out (B&W)

Daniel Inouye went on to become a US Representative and Senator from Hawaii, serving his state from the first day of statehood in 1959 through his death at the end of 2012.

(Frustratingly, I also realized that I don’t have the LEGO landscaping talent to attempt the ridge scene itself. And as an infantry regiment, the 442nd wasn’t equipped with the “interesting” tanks and other armor I’ve been building.)

There are historical reasons that answer my questions, of course. The United States military was officially segregated until after World War II ended, and most non-white units did not serve in front-line combat roles. Thus, the ever-popular and exciting scenes depicting the first moments of D-Day, for example, sadly but accurately exclude minorities like African-Americans and Japanese-Americans.

It’s also challenging to use LEGO as a medium to reflect real-world diversity. With LEGO Friends as a welcome exception — Heartlake City is certainly a multi-ethnic LEGO society — theoretically, only LEGO sets from licensed themes like Star Wars and the Lone Ranger include explicitly non-white characters. Why is it that a person of color has to be in a movie in order to be included accurately in a LEGO set? (Try asking LEGO that the next time you call Customer Service.) LEGO has claimed in the past that yellow minifigs are somehow race-neutral. Rubbish — tell that to a 9-year-old African-American girl wondering why people like her are so grossly under-represented in LEGO minifigs. And yes, LEGO is a Danish company, but that’s no excuse either.

Thanks to LEGO, we builders don’t actually have too many “non-white” minifigs to work with. For my Nisei soldiers of the 442nd, I had to dig up LEGO Ninjas minifigs from the 1990s, along with a few Ninjago minifigs. I shouldn’t need to go to themes with stereotypical ninjas in their name to find Asian minifigs. And for my African-American tank crew from the 761st Tank Battalion (below), my choices were even more restricted.

M4A3E2 Sherman "Jumbo" of the 761st (1)

But I can’t give us WW2 LEGO builders a pass for focusing so obsessively on Normandy (with a bit of North Africa or Stalingrad thrown in from time to time) at the expense of the much-larger historical context, which did indeed include people from every thread of the vast tapestry of American society. Nor is the “limited LEGO palette” an excuse. What’s a bit sad about our collective obsession with D-Day is that we’re overlooking heroism and drama that is just as interesting and just as “buildable” in LEGO. By starting with the question “What can I build?” I’ve learned about people and events I’d never have learned in my high school American history classes (and certainly not in the Japanese history classes during elementary school earlier in my life).

Unfortunately, I’ve also encountered darker obsessions among some LEGO World War II builders. I can’t count the number of teens (apparently) who’ve included references to the Third Reich in their Flickr screen names — some going as far as to include the SS lightning bolts or even swastikas. I’ve also seen casual use of dated and hateful terms like “Jap” and “Kraut.” It makes me angry, but it also makes me very sad. Such behavior is unacceptable, and flies in the face of the very values that the Allies fought to defend in World War II. These are the kinds of actions I was alluding to with my “trite hand-wringing about ‘kids these days’” in my Memorial Day post. It’s hard to believe such attitudes toward fellow human beings don’t color what these builders choose to create with LEGO (or how they treat their fellow human beings in real life).

Whatever the reasons, we can and must do better.

The LEGO Military Annual Build Competition is happening now through July 10. With that in mind, I’d like to issue a challenge to those of us who are building something in the numerous contest categories: Build your models and minifigs in ways that reflect the true diversity of the men and women in the armed forces — whether you’re building something historical from World War II, Vietnam, or more-recent conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, or whether you’re creating something from an alternate or future timeline.

African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, and other minorities fought racism and prejudice during World War II even as they battled the Axis Powers in the war itself. When they arrived home, they built on that experience to begin the Civil Rights movement, as well as the drive toward Hawaiian statehood and an independent Philippines. Those of us building LEGO creations based on historical conflicts like World War II owe it to the men and women who served to accurately reflect their experience.

46 comments on “The 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Sen. Daniel Inouye in LEGO

  1. Ralph

    I recently completed a WW2 diorama of a P-16 at an airfield, which I intend to take to Brickfair, and for added realism decided to use ‘fleshy’ minifigs. I immediately wondered about including the single African-American minifig I own (from a basketball set). I ultimately didn’t. There simply weren’t any African American P-61 crews and the USAAF was segregated.

  2. Creative Anarchy

    I’ve been at this thing we do a while and a much longer time before my dark age. The idea of racial specific minifigures is something I still grapple with as a builder. Honestly I’m uncomfortable using them. I have a pretty huge selection of pinks, tans, browns and others but they don’t see much action because I find that including flesh tones communicates a much stronger message about race than omitting them. I have appreciated the impact of racially specific figures for racially charged political MoCs but for WW2, despite the very dark racist tones that pervaded aspects of that war, I prefer to see it as a yellow-on-yellow conflict.

    I don’t want to say “Kids will be kids” about teens glorifying Nazis or using period appropriate racial slurs in their MoC descriptions but I feel almost every time that’s the case. Children aren’t born with a grip on how our society deals with complex issues like race and pushing against those boundaries of appropriateness is how they map that territory. If we rail against it like it’s a social disease they’ll figure it out, but if we call them out on their behavior maturely they’ll learn a lot more quickly. If you see a MoC or commentary that concerns you. Say something reasonable and discreet. They’ll figure it out in time.

  3. AK_brickster

    I think that the restricted palette that we have to choose from as Lego builders is a perfectly adequate excuse for most MOCs lacking diversity. While I’m a self-proclaimed “yellowist” (or should it be “anti-fleshite”?), even in my bin of discarded fleshie parts, I only have one or two African-American heads, if that. I think it’s probably beyond the budget of many TFOLs (who, in my experience seem to be the bulk of the military-building crowd) to populate their armies with a plethora of ethnically diverse flesh tones due to the rarity of alternative colors. Why would they want to spend $20 buying heads and hands in dark flesh and brown colors when they could be using that money to buy 2x as many light flesh parts, brick arms weapons, or basic building parts?
    I can’t really blame people for going with the most cost-effective option, particularly for large dioramas with lots of figs.

    Also, I tend to agree with TLG that the yellow figs help things to be “race-neutral”. I honestly can say that I’ve never considered race (other than being really tempted to include fleshie elves in my medieval world) when building with my Lego figs. If I want to build a desert tribe, I give them turbans. I don’t worry about whether or not I have enough dark flesh heads to populate my oasis. It seems like having a more diverse parts palette, while being historically accurate, could really serve to promote racism among the kids who play with these sets.
    Imagine:
    - A military MOC where white and black American troops are gunning down Arabs.
    - A city MOC with white cops perusing the streets of a mainly black inner city neighborhood.
    - A scene of Viatnamese troops swarming an American outpost.

    Despite these scenes all being real-life/historical scenarios, do we really need our toys to reinforce ideas of race vs. race instead of people vs. people?

    I petition that we do not.

  4. bruce n h

    Just wanted to chime in as another proponent of a yellow fig world. You note that the two dioramas you linked are ‘presumably all white’, but that’s inherent in the viewer, not the MOC. I’m not casting aspersions here, as I probably see them more as white than as mixed as well, but I’m just saying that the MOCs are not inherently white.

    Personally I use fleshies as the undead, inspired by a series of vampire MOCs by CC member Maehdros several years ago. :)

  5. Andrew Post author

    Since I happen to know both AK_brickster & Bruce a bit outside this comment thread (I don’t know Deus outside his/her comment above), might I suggest that your viewpoint that yellow = race-neutral might be a reflection of your own white privilege?

    As many of you know, I grew up in Japan (something I’ve written a bit about on my personal non-LEGO blog). I’m a white American, but I grew up as a minority — the only white kid in my elementary school, for example. Kids are indeed kids, and will tease and bully anybody who’s different — this isn’t unique to American children, and certainly wasn’t unique to my Japanese schoolmates. When my family moved back to the States when I was 15, American teenagers called me things like “Jap” and “Chink.” (Baffling on multiple levels, I know — but it happened.)

    These experiences have made me aware — painfully aware — of what it’s like when you’re not part of the racial majority, and what some Asian-Americans continue to experience today. And I hope these experiences — as traumatic as they were growing up — have made me a bit more sensitive to my own “white privilege.” I question whether non-white LEGO builders feel the same way about the yellow = race-neutral issue. I know at least some other non-white and mixed-race people are indeed not in agreement with that perspective.

  6. Catsy

    I’ve been a little disturbed as well by the way Nazi-related materials are (seemingly increasingly) treated by kids, and while I certainly don’t think we should turn a blind eye to it or fail to call it out, I think it’s also something that we’re going to have to get used to seeing the further that WW2 becomes removed in time from where we are now.

    The war ended almost 70 years ago. Most of these children don’t even have any living memory of the 20th century at all. Unless they have a close family member or other reason for having it kept fresh and real, World War 2 is as distant to them as the Revolutionary War; the heinous crimes of Nazi Germany have as much emotional impact and contemporary relevance as, say, the Crusades. To them, the Nazis are the ur-”bad guy”, almost cartoonishly evil, and using elements like that in their screen name is roughly equivalent to, say, using the name of Genghis Khan or romanticizing pirates.

    None of this will be any comfort to anyone who winces when they see real-life historical monsters who committed real atrocities treated as cartoon characters.

  7. Dennis

    “Why is it that ethnic minorities are so under-represented in our LEGO depictions of military history — World War II in particular?”

    FYI, of the 16.1 million U.S. armed forces personnel that served in WWII, there were: 992 Tuskegee pilots, 1,432 Nisei in the 100th Infantry Battalion, 500 Code talkers.

  8. Andrew Post author

    @Dennis: That’s a gross statistical over-simplification, and your actual numbers of non-white American service personnel are off by several million. The full 442nd alone (of which the 100th was a part) had a strength of 3,800, while 1.2 million African-Americans served in uniform by war’s end. I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove with those numbers.

  9. bruce n h

    Hey Andrew,

    I completely see your point, but might it not be the same for any majority group? I think you said once that you didn’t have LEGO when you were a kid in Japan, but if you did, did you see the figs and say ‘Americans and Europeans!’ or, if you saw them as any particular ethnicity, did you associate them more with the majority culture around you? I see lots of yellow figs in pics from Legoland Malaysia, and suspect I’ll see the same when Legoland Dubailand opens, and I suspect that the visitors there see those figs as representing them. It probably wouldn’t be the same in sub-saharan Africa.

    There’s an old joke that goes something like this. The psychologist shows his patient a picture of a vertical line and asks him what he sees. ‘A naked woman standing up,’ says the patient. Next a horizontal line leads the patient to exclaim ‘a naked woman lying down.’ Finally a picture of a right angle leads to the response ‘a naked woman bending over.’ ‘I think you’ve got an obsession with naked women,’ says the Dr. ‘Me?’ responds the patient, ‘You’re the one with all the dirty pictures!’ I’m just suggesting that the way we respond to an image sometimes says more about ourselves (including myself here) than it does about the image.

    Catsy – I don’t think there’s anything new here. I grew up watching Hogan’s Heroes, and even during WWII itself we had Donald Duck blowing rasberries ‘in der fuehrer’s face’ (though admittedly at that point the public did not yet know the full horror of the Nazi regime).

  10. Kevin J. Walter

    I agree fully with Catsy!
    Personally it seems to me, that this romanticization among teens is pretty common in the US or generally in the anglo-american part of the world (no offence) – or to say it provocative: In the countries of the former allied forces.
    On the other hand, I can’t honestly understand this immense interest in WW II in combination with Lego in general – this includes things as brickarms, WW II decals, buyable custom tanks etc. etc.

  11. AK_brickster

    Andrew, you may be correct about the “white privilege” to an extent. I think I agree a bit more with Bruce though with regard to people seeing the figs as whatever their social norm is. I went to college in Hawaii for 4 years, which is one of the most ethnically diverse places I’ve ever been. I would venture to guess that kids who play with Lego there, be they Japanese, Korean, Pac Islander, African American or “Haole” (White), probably identify with the figures as their own race. I doubt that the non-white kids there see the figs as Haoles, though I obviously can only speculate on that.

  12. Andrew Post author

    @Bruce: Actually, LEGO was one of the few toys that was available in both the US and Japan — thus a convenient “single system” of gift-giving for both parents and friends in Japan and relatives back home. And yes, all of LEGO’s advertising (TV ads, catalogs, etc.) was full of blonde, blue-eyed children who looked just like me. ;-)

    @Jordan (AK_b): Fair enough! I would definitely defer to your experience in Hawaii, though I can’t attest to its universality.

  13. bruce n h

    Very surprising. Do you think it is the same today? Or is this hopefully something LEGO has gotten better at that the early eighties?

  14. Andrew Post author

    @Bruce: That’s a great question to which I didn’t have a current answer, so I went and looked. I don’t have much visibility into LEGO Japan’s TV and print advertising these days (and don’t watch channels where LEGO is advertised here in the States, either). But if you look at this page on the Japanese version of LEGO.com, it’s hard to escape the overwhelmingly European majority — the licensed themes whose minifigs reflect European and American actors, obviously, but also blonde Chase McCain in the LEGO City sets. Even the names of the pseudo-Japanese ninjas in Ninjago are written not with Japanese characters (hiragana or kanji) but with katakana, usually reserved for foreign words like “hamburger,” “Bruce,” and “Andrew.”

    (Some of this I suspect is for the same reason that Playmobil is often marketed here in the States as an explicitly German product — there’s always a certain cache in a “premium” imported product. It’s really only here in the US that LEGO isn’t marketed and appreciated as a premium toy.)

  15. AK_brickster

    I’m thinking that, particularly “back in the day”, Lego maybe only made one set of commercials / ads and then just changed the audio or text to fit whatever region they were marketing to. That would seem the most cost effective marketing plan, though it could be that they’ve discovered since then that featuring actors who better match the demographics of the local ad campaign increases local sales enough to offset the extra expense.

    One other advantage to using yellow figs that I thought of is that it allows kids (and AFOLs!) to be able to identify with ANY figure that is produced. If a set had one “white” fig with glasses and one “Hispanic” fig without, who does the kid identify with if they are white with no glasses or Hispanic with glasses? If both figs are a “neutral” yellow, then there isn’t a problem.
    That was a somewhat simple example, but think about a broader example such as sig-figs. By all figs being yellow, everyone is equally somewhat represented by the entire collection of fig combinations, instead of being limited to whatever fraction of heads/arms/torsos happen to come in their specific skin tone (I run into this problem with converting fleshie torsos to yellow figs on a regular basis).

    Maybe I’m getting off-topic, since I’m not sure that this was meant to be a yellow vs. fleshies debate, but it was just something that came to mind as I was thinking about our discussion. :)

  16. mike rutherford

    Andrew, this is an excellent topic, and your illustration demonstrates it’s relevance in a very direct way. The fact is that it IS difficult to address race as a historical factor in Lego. This truth that has vexed me more than once.

    You mention: “its challenging to use LEGO as a medium to reflect real-world diversity.” So painful and so true. I often consider MOCs with themes where race and racism are central. Colonialism, imperialism, slavery, cooperation, exclusion, unity, harmony, exploitation… all important, and all with possible (but not necessarily) powerful racial components. To address these themes, by depicting images in Lego would be a worthy endeavor. And if done well… very cool to boot! And although we often nay-say the relevance of coolness, it is only by coolness that we capture the attention of the viewer, and perhaps… on a good day… we are able to stimulate thought, and maybe even to persuade. I want to build a dio depicting the encomienza, but then I count my three possible Mesoamerican minifig heads and think “Naw… I’m going to have to go yellow again…”

    As an AFOL, I guess I have the money to buy some more of these scarce heads (and hands!) but for TFOLs? How many Mesoamericans do they have? Or African Americans? How many NBA players, Landos, and ambulance drivers does your average TFOL really have? Lego does make it hard for the young builders to depict diversity.

    You also mention: “LEGO has claimed in the past that yellow minifigs are somehow race-neutral. Rubbish.” That is the best use of the word “rubbish” that I have seen in a long time. It IS rubbish, and I think you nail it when you invoke the notion of “white privilege.” WP is not a popular concept, and on the whole it is not well understood, but in this case, the notion that a yellow fig is “race neutral”… that a yellow guy (or gal) could ever be used to depict an African, or an Aborigine… is a NO GO.

    On a lighter note, while you are correct in your observation that the Friends are a racially diverse theme… it is sadly irrelevant. My mini-figs are frightened by these looming new comers with their fused lower limbs, hyper developed crania, protruding nasal extremities, and massive eyes (the classic calling card of a nocturnal species). The friends walk around with their arms perpetually spread, as if ready to seize and hold all who come near them… perhaps to shout “BE MY FIREND!” right into your face… My mini-fig scientists have concluded that these “friends” are actually a completely different species of primate. And in the end, despite their advanced culture, and their obvious biological advantage (genetic diversity) I am afraid that my mini-figs will simply rob them of their oddly colored artifacts, and food items… and then quarantine them in the same unfortunate bin as my Duplo and my Fabuland figures. The vile shadow of racism stalks us all…

  17. ghost target

    True about the races rarely shown, but when was the last time a Native American was shown in a MOC that didn’t involve cowboys or a feathered headdress.

    Everyone who has made a MOC of the Flag Raising on Mt Suribachi or used it as an inspiration, is helping to honor Ira Hayes; a US Marine & Pima Indian

  18. Magnus

    I agree with Creative Anarchy above:

    “I find that including flesh tones communicates a much stronger message about race than omitting them”

    I identify as culturally white but am in fact half Asian and half white. The minifig race issue is an interesting one and I’m not sure there’s a one size fits all way to approach it. If you are depicting scenes from our world, past or present, especially scenes that involve individuals of various races, you end up having to decide how to represent them by your use or exclusion of minifig head colors.

    Andrew, I know you have indicated unease in the past with Vietnam war related MOCs, but these obviously do get built. So do dioramas involving battles based in the post 9/11 military adventures in the ME. And separately from ethnic diversity within the US ranks, any Pacific theatre diorama includes minifigs representing combatants of different races.

    Are you suggesting that builders creating these kinds of scenes are being more culturally sensitive by using fleshies, yellows, and browns? Or does that perhaps create even more of a racially fueled dynamic? If someone wants to create a battle scene from some colonial era, you can’t really get away from the racial aspects of that – but do you want to exacerbate and highlight that or not, by making it a battle of browns verses fleshies? Or is it better to go with yellows all around?

    I don’t have any definite answers and I am not disagreeing with you. I am just pointing out some of the complexities that come into play when your racially mixed minifig population is depicted fighting each other rather than fighting side by side.

    Thank you for your shout out about the Military competition! We don’t have any official stance on the use of fleshies or yellows, and we welcome any and all tasteful interpretations of ethnic and cultural diversity.

  19. Tromas

    “LEGO has claimed in the past that yellow minifigs are somehow race-neutral. Rubbish.”

    I think the greatest example of proving that statement is Disco Dude. I don’t care what colour your skin is, you look at that guy and see Travolta not Shaft!

  20. psycho013

    Hey guys. I agree that this is an important and complicated discussion, and I’m glad you’re having it. It’s truly enjoyable to see some respectful discourse. I know I don’t post much, but I wanted to commend you guys for being rational and thoughtful, which seems to be increasingly rare on the sites I visit.

    I’m afraid I don’t have much to contribute to the debate, other than saying Lego has really complicated the matter by evolving their minifigs. I remember as an elementary school kid, minifigs all had the same head. The yellow smiley face. And, like the buttons, or the emoticons (much later), I don’t think that they carried any racial overtones; Most kids I knew assumed they were a semi-abstract representation of humans, and therefore themselves. I can’t say what my black friends thought, because I had few to ask, and we weren’t bothered with such conversations at the time. I don’t like speaking for anyone, but I assume that none of my friends take issue with the color of the icon that pops up whenever they type “:)” so I don’t think the minifig heads bothered them back then, either. I do remember thinking that everyone looked too damn happy, though, so I replaced all of my head pieces with blank black 1×1 cylinders, because that made them look more like anonymous space men with inner visors. And I had a creepy 40 tall totem pole of smiley faced heads to show for it. But then Lego started adding all kinds of facial details and created a very delicate grey area for themselves.

    FYI, I’m a 37-year-old Asian-American who grew up in Minnesota when there weren’t so many of us, and played with Lego since I was four, and never worried about this stuff until Lego did – when they had to make a Lando figure and switched the Star Wars figures from yellow to fleshy.

    On another note, Andrew, does your fascination with building military/historical MOCs conflict with your pacifism in any way? Are you worried about glorifying violence by making these monuments to battle? Just wondering; I tend to build in strictly sci-fi themes when I have my own creations, but there’s always some element of violence there as well.

  21. IronBricks

    I’ve noticed the same thing, but I believe the biggest problem with this is the fact that Lego rarely puts out black/ African heads. The only one I have is Seso, from the Prince of Persia line. The NBA line of minifigs/ sets is a great way to get some heads, but that line was discontinued years ago. I think the easiest way to fix this problem is for Lego to produce more of them.

    I have made a couple minifigs utilizing my one Seso head, but I can’t do much with it, sadly.

  22. Daedalus

    Out of curiosity, for those who question the yellow=neutral position, what do you think they should have done differently when they started producing minifigs?

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that “yellow=neutral” is “rubbish, and indicates white privilege. Am I missing something, here?

  23. Andrew Post author

    @psycho013: I don’t have an easy answer to that other than to direct you to the experiences (which I’ve been writing in a series of posts on my other blog) that make my viewpoint all the more complex.

    I’m sure part of it is that my late grandfather — the son, like me, of a pacifist minister — volunteered for the US Army, only to request a change to non-combatant status in light of our family’s longstanding pacifist tradition. While all his children see both these acts as incredibly courageous, Grandpa himself carried double guilt throughout his whole life — guilt for first abandoning pacifism to volunteer, and guilt (no doubt caused by being called a coward by his officers and brothers in arms) at changing his mind and asking for a medic role as a conscientious objector after the fact.

    I’m not necessarily fascinating by war and the military in general; it’s “classic” conflicts like the American Civil War and World War II — wars that challenge my preconceived notions about whether war is universally wrong — that I like to research. And one way that I delve into the subject is by building with LEGO.

  24. Heretic

    What happened to just posting pics and highlights of lego builds? Lately it seems like certain contributors feel the need to interject their own views of subject matter and it takes away from the actual point of the post, and indeed the site itself. This is a lego themed site, is it not? I really don’t want to know or even care what your opinions are outside of Lego. If I wanted to read this kind of crap, there are plenty of other sites for it.

    And the idea of putting “racially diverse” minifigs in a build just for the sale of them being there is utterly ridiculous. My grandfather, a Hispanic, fought in WW2, and never once have I had the audacity to complain that there are no “brown” figures in a WW2 build.

    I understand wanting to make a post interesting but making racial issues out of Lego sets is beyond ridiculous. People don’t come to a Lego site to read this garbage.

  25. Tromas

    @ Daedalus: I don’t think they could have/should have done anything differently. I certainly don’t think LEGO had any White Supremacist undertones to making minifigs yellow. At the time they were developed what other choices did they have considering the colour palette at the time? I certainly don’t think red, green or blue would have worked. I am sure that most Asian, First Nation, Inuit, Hispanic etc. children would look at minifigs and be able to see themselves. But I would be surprised if Indian, African or Aboriginal etc. children would do the same.

    I don’t think it really is a good or bad thing at all, I think it is just the fact that yellow is a light colour, and no matter how sincere the intentions are, a darker skinned child would find it hard to look at that minifig and see themselves. Maybe I am wrong, but that is just my thoughts…

  26. gambort

    @Heretic> “People don’t come to a Lego site to read this garbage.”

    Apart from you and all the other people in this comment thread talking about “this garbage”. But I guess with such a black and white worldview irony isn’t your strong suit.

    @Andrew> I don’t agree with you about minifig fleshtone, and don’t think you’re giving the opposition view a fair assessment. Even if not totally neutral, yellow minifigs are much more colour-neutral than fleshies (although it wasn’t the case before minifigs *shudder*). Sure there is some measure of white privilege involved, but it’s hardly an accurate representation of a western European skin tone. As TR said it was probably the optimal ‘flesh’ colour back in the five colour days. I can’t imagine we’d be looking back on a jet black minifig with red printed lips very favourably.

    I’d almost go so far as to argue you’re adopting an American-centric analysis of race based on a black/white dichotomy. We weren’t all slave-owning countries :P (*stirs*)

  27. Maedhros

    Well, I’m a bit too late in commenting here to really say much that hasn’t been said. As someone who reads this blog very frequently but comments very rarely I still wanted to say that I commend you for these kinds of posts, Andrew. This discussion as well as others in related posts also serve to show that we both need to and can handle “political” matters on a LEGO blog such as this one. I’d also say that keeping a neutral line is quite impossible, since that would mean accepting a status quo, which is every bit as political as opposing it, even though it might not look like it.

    Oh and speaking of power and privilege, I might add that you wrote this post as if a military builder is an American military builder, and as if the military is the American military. This is of course me as a Swede reading, but I thought I’d point it out to you. Just some food for thought for future posts. Other than that, keep up the good work of running this blog, Andrew, and please do give us readers something to think about every now and then, between being awestruck by wonderful MOCs.

  28. Lyichir

    Personally, I’m a firm proponent of the idea of non-licensed Lego themes depicting a raceless society. Lego struggled with the idea of race throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s, with yellow minifigs absorbing racial traits in themes like Western (the Indians in which felt almost like racial caricatures) and later, Orient Expedition (which varied up the minifig eye shapes to make some figs more “Asian”. And let’s not forget Lando Calrissian, the sole dark skinned fig in the era of yellows, whose existence basically prompted the full conversion to fleshies in licensed themes.

    Lego has moved past that era now, I think. The collectible minifigs convey cultural traits, not racial ones, even in the case of figs specific to racially homogenous cultures like the Tribal Chief or the Samurai Warrior. And having race could in fact limit kids’ appreciation for a fig; while a black kid may appreciate a fig who’s “just like them”, at the same time it could also LIMIT the type of figs that they can identify with. If the computer programmer were white, or Asian, would a black nerd be more likely to identify with their skin color or their non-racial characteristics? What kind of message would it send for a hypothetical Basketball Player Collectible Minifigure to be black? Lego neatly avoids these issues by avoiding the issue of race except when it is absolutely necessary, and maintaining a clear line between Lego themes which have race, and consequently realistic flesh tones for ALL figs, and those which stick to racially-ambiguous characters.

    Does this mean Lego has no need to improve the racial diversity of their sets? Certainly not. Fleshies are reserved for licensed themes, sure, but the diversity in those sets are still lacking. You can justify the lack of non-white characters in a theme like Star Wars, but the fact remains that there are still NO black female figs (unless you count the Friends minidolls), even after themes like Pirates of the Caribbean which offered the opportunity for more. But racializing the traditionally raceless non-licensed themes would create more problems than solutions.

  29. Creative Anarchy

    @Thomas – agree with you about the color palate but let me point out something you may not have thought about. They could have used white. White was a commonly available brick color when the first figures were made. If the purpose wasn’t to create a racially diverse character, Lego was largely only available in white developed countries at the time, there would have been no reason not to simply make a snow white figure if the Lego Company was approaching race representation from a perspective of white-like-me.

    Additionally I’d really prefer we not include the Myth of Privilege in discussions in this forum. I find the concept unbelievably bigoted and it never fails to gall me when educated people that I otherwise respect feel comfortable pointing out how people could be inferior or evil based upon how they were born. I’m not uncomfortable with discussions about race and economics and I’m not blind to the fact that skin color, gender, and many other factors color how we perceive our lives but the abuse of the word “Privilege” enrages me like few white supremacists manage to. I feel that as a world we should be working towards Lego’s vision of a world where people are seen the same way and that the Myth of Privilege drives us directly away from that dream.

  30. Tromas

    @ Creative Anarchy: I knew that white would have been an option, and I think that LEGO probably didn’t use white for the simple fact that it would portray race too strongly (well that and minifigs would all look like rejects from a Twilight novel :P). I do think that initially LEGO intended for minifigs to be race neutral, I just meant that I believe that perception has changed over time. With the colour palette available now, I just don’t think people look at the standard yellow figs and see a neutral race. Again that is just my opinion…

    Let me be clear, I certainly don’t think the un-licenced sets should start having a mix of yellow and brown, and tan minifigs…yellow is as race-neutral as we can get and that shouldn’t be tampered with. But like Lyichir said, I think the collectible minifigs have done well with representing more cultural difference than relying on skin colour.

    As for White Privilege, I don’t think anyone was saying that anyone was “evil or inferior based on how they were born”, but the said fact of the matter is, that in today’s society (in many areas of the world) there does exist undertones of white privilege. Do I think it is right? No. Do I think that because I am white I deserve any better than someone else? Certainly not! But the fact that I am white pretty well guarantees that I will not face the same challenges that other ethnicities would. But like Andrew explained with him being the only white child in his school in Japan, it all depends on one’s own situation.

    (anytime I hear ‘white privilege’ I think of this comedy bit by Louis CK…I think he explains it quite well actually *warning strong language*)

    On another note, is anyone else somewhat bothered by the term ‘race’? I much prefer ethnicity…we are all the ‘human-race’ are we not?

  31. AK_brickster

    I suppose I prefer “ethnicity” as well, but the term “race” doesn’t bother me, and I prefer to use it when typing because it’s shorter and easier to spell ;)

  32. 4estFeller

    You certainly are adept at writing these comment-grabbing posts Andrew. ;)

    I personally always try to view and treat everyone on an equally regardless of race, economic/social background, IQ score, etc, but I do this for a very different reason than most of you. I don’t do it in the interest of “fairness”, but rather because that is what Jesus Christ did. The Man who died for me, and saved me from eternal separation from God, also died for ALL the world. That means everyone.

    I realize some of you might not appreciate my “religious” comments, but this has nothing to do with religion. This is about a man named Jesus, and the salvation He offers us. It’s about relationship, not religion. :)

  33. Magnus

    Once every now and then there is an intelligent thoughtful post here on TBB that addresses Lego in the real world, or uses Lego as a springboard to a real world issue. For teh record I like these and would like to see more of them.

    If you don’t like it, just leave the thread alone and comment on any number of the other MOC centric posts instead.

    There are lots of excellent points here, especially from Lyichir.

    As I’ve said before, I don’t believe Lego exists in a political or cultural vaccum, but there’s a time and a place for TLG and builders to address race and/or incorporate racial diversity. I think the trick is figuring out where and when those are, and how to deal with it best. One of the reasons I don’t generally use fleshies (and therefor other nonyellow fig heads) is frankly because I simply don’t like how the pale pink fleshies look (so call me a Lego racist if you will).

    For me as a builder, the classic Lego aesthetic of a raceless population of humanlike characters works well with yellow. Or maybe I’m just used to yellow having grown up on yellow figs. It’s very possible that a young builder who has just been building for a decade or so has no problem with non yellow figs, because they don’t ever remember a time when the only color was yellow.

    And just imagine, if good old Lando Calrisian had been cast as white guy, perhaps we wouldn’t be having this conversation :)

    It’s a good dialogue to have every now and then, but there sure aren’t any clear or easy answers, and I think we limit ourselves a little when we try to find a one size fits all solution.

  34. Arctic Fox

    All my WWII vehicles are German, so no, none of their crew are minorities.

    Nowadays though unless I’m trying to represent a specific character from a movie or TV show I just use the generic yellow smiley.

  35. mike rutherford

    Magnus, good point:

    “we limit ourselves a little when we try to find a one size fits all solution.”

    There are a lot of apples to oranges comparison going on in this thread. In fact, I think we are attempting to address about 14 different topics at once right now.

    For my part, I think notions like TLGs decisions, motivations, and what they should have, could have, would have do differently are distracters.

    The MOC related decisions of most AFOLs are made independently of that whole massive commercial paradigm. Look, I’m not trying to sell a billion plastic bricks all over the world. I don’t bare the burden of those marketing / ethical decisions. But I do think it would be cool to build a dio of the Khyber Rifles in action. For me, the grief isn’t about why Lego doesn’t produce more likely faces for that use. My grief is only that I want… and can’t get… more of them.

    When I build with Lego, I often try to convey meaning with mini-figs. Just as race is a very real concept in everyday life, it is a very real concept in the depiction of everyday life in Lego.

    To use an ethnically neutral minifig (my vote would be an all blue fig) may in some cases not only be ok, it may be the point of the whole MOC. The depiction of humanity as a solitary figure for example. Or like the little tiny paper people on those cool architect models. But in other cases… generic “human shapes” would rob a MOC of beauty, texture and meaning. After all, it would be the same in real life wouldn’t it? If all of humanity became a population of racially homogenous beings, indistinguishable from one another to the eye… would we not all be the less for it?

    Texture, difference, contrast, variety, variation… they all contribute and enhance… both in life and in MOCs.

  36. psycho013

    @Creative Anarchy: I find the phrase “Myth of Privilege” to be extremely charged rhetoric, particularly when you use it as if positing facts with such an absolutist tone, rather than offering an opinion. It seems to imply that the it’s ridiculous to believe the idea that structures are in place in the world associating race with power and economics. While I agree that it would be ideal to live in such a world, I do not think we do currently. Privilege doesn’t indicate to me that anyone is inherently evil or inferior, just disadvantaged in a specific context.

    Might I inquire as to your own ethnicity? I only ask because the few people I’ve met who oppose the idea of privilege are ones who personally feel like they haven’t benefited from it or have seen or experienced personal examples of success that contradict the idea.

  37. LukeClarenceVan

    An excellent post and discussion here, I’m always impressed by how well worded the LEGO community is. Personnally, I am equally disdainful of all races* (or ethnicities, or whatever the term of the day is). To tell the truth, I’ve seen much more racism against white people**, even though (or perhaps because) I live in white dominated Canada. At least, in terms of governmental publications, public issues, and popular opinion. The private sector caters less to excessive diversity, which I find refreshing. (This is probably sounding quite racist to some people, so I’ll give a brief explanation. If I lived in Kenya I wouldn’t expect to see 75% of people in ads to be white, nor would I expect to recieve a job simply for my colour. Yet, that is often the situation here, with various minorities being incredibly over-represented.) Anyways, I have no problem with LEGO’s relative lack of racial diversity in respect to their target audience. Also, I don’t see yellow minifigs as white specific, as the tone more closely ressembles Asian or Native American skin tones. That said, I believe that for building scenes in other countries it would be nice to have a variety of figures of several races, as minifigs can add a lot to a build in some cases, especially when they’re accurate. Anyways, I hope that no one has taken offense to this little comment, which may or may not have been on topic.
    *Including my own
    **Frequently by white people

  38. Ewoklord

    I just registered to say that, as a builder who only recently has become interested in WWII building, I as well was shocked by the casual use of the terms ‘Japs’ and ‘Krauts’ among the community. I think it must have something to do with their common use in World War II movies and video games, but seriously guys, not cool. These aren’t words you throw around because you heard them in the movies. These are extremely offensive terms, and they put out the idea that the Japanese and the Germans are still viewed as an enemy. Topics like World War II need to be approached with much more maturity than they are being currently.

  39. Creative Anarchy

    @psycho013
    I’m not going to turn this thread into a discussion about how the myth of privilege is likely to increase inequality in our society. I simply objected to it being casually discussed as it is emotionally painful to me, and especially since this thread was concerned partially with bigotry. For your interest I’m Asian. I’ve dealt with virtually no racism because of my geography, but I suck at math and I’m much better at wrestling than Kung fu, I have no ironic or comical driving ability. So I’m very sensitive when people make encompassing statements about my race and it’s foibles or privileges, I’ve come to be sensitive about bigoted statements about my gender and my sexuality. I don’t see how claiming that what’s wrong with me is something I was born to that is debatably not genetic in nature, such as “privilege”, makes bigotry acceptable.

  40. psycho013

    @Creative Anarchy
    Thanks for clarifying. I agree this conversation potentially derails the thread, so I appreciate your addressing the question in an honest but respectful manner despite that. I can’t speak for the others here, but I think our interpretations differ on the term privilege in this particular context. I respect your position but feel that the discussion of privilege on this scale is on a scope too broad to make it personal.

  41. Tananavalley

    I believe minifigs represent a lighter skinned person, regardless of what LEGO says, and if you are darker skinned you would not nearly so easily identify with them. When the minifigs were designed LEGO’s primary customer were light skinned. I would theorize that they were not made white as to not look like drained corpses.

    But let’s just say they LEGO is sincere in their explanation. The designers would have still subconsciously identified with the yellow minifigs. If they had made them blue, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about non licensed minifigs.

    Third alternative is that the yellow minifigs represent who won after some world scorching race war.

    Or lastly, there were red, yellow, and green minifigs and they all eventually homogenized into all yellow minifigs after everyone started to just get along.

    I started off serious, but I had to end on a lighter and much happier note. Sometimes though we all need to look around and ask some hard questions (even to ourselves). Just because it’s a “kid’s toy” doesn’t mean it’s immune from scrutiny.

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