Video games and the usual amount of racism

Blog against racismFor day three of International Blog Against Racism Week, I want to look specifically why games, such as many of the prior Resident Evil ones, haven’t received as much criticism as, say, Resident Evil 5 has.

So, why aren’t critiques of the prior Resident Evil games easy to find? Well, there are a few reasons. As discussed in my previous post, gaming as a field of study is still in its infancy. Gaming blogs discussing issues like race are still few and far between. Despite the re-release for Gamecube, the previous games are (in internet terms) rather old.

And, finally, the last reason I can easily think of, which is what I will be discussing here: The previous games didn’t gather much discussion because they had only the usual amount of racism in them. What do I mean by that? Well, keep reading to find out.

I. The “usual amount of racism”? WTF?

When someone first mentioned this, i was disgusted that humankind could possibly feel there were racist overtones to the game.

Given the general state of the gaming blogsphere — which can be rightly called, if I’m being charitable, ignorant on matters of race — most people stumbling onto this blog will probably have a defensive reaction. “Games aren’t racist!”, “How dare she attack my beloved Resident Evil with her bleeding heart liberal lies!”… and probably worse, if I go on some of the actual responses to the issue (the one quoted above is one of the nicer ones, really).

The trailer of Resident Evil 5 (which can be seen here) is what sparked calls of racism. The main reason for the strong reaction is that the game is set in Africa but the protagonist is a white American. The trailer shows him killing hordes of black zombies. Further discussion on race in Resident Evil 5, which includes links to relevant posts, can be found here.

So, if Resident Evil 5 gathered controversy because it exceeds “the usual amount of racism”, then what defines “the usual amount”?

It starts with a primarily white universe*. If you really look at the worlds that the majority of games, even today, are set in, you’ll most likely notice a pattern: protagonists, antagonists, and random NPCs will tend to be white more often than not. You can read more about this trend, which is not confined to video games, in the post Why is the Universe full of White people? over at Angry Black Woman Blog.

The usual amount of racism doesn’t stop with the relative invisiblity of non-white characters, though. It extends to the concept that every non-white character that exists does so in a marked (versus the unmarked white) state. The marking of a character can be through comments drawing attention to the character’s race and/or through the use of clear racial stereotypes. See On Indigo Prophecy, Part 2: So Bad, It’s Racist for an example of this.

Ultimately, the “usual amount of racism” is things that, when viewed as separate entities, don’t seem that bad. Because of this criticism can be easily countered, and typical arguments include “there’s a good reason that the protagonist is white”, or “but the use of [racial stereotype] is done in a way that makes the character look cool, so it’s actually a good thing!“, or even, “why can’t you just be happy that the character was included at all?”

II. So why isn’t there any discussion?

With all the recent FPS’s set in the middle east, no one is saying anything about islam haters in games.

[From Resident Evil 5 Trailer, comment by Kuaz Omega]

This question comes in many forms, the most typical of which are “why aren’t you discussing white-on-white violence?” or “why aren’t you discussing [x minority] on white violence”.

The answer to the assertion of “white-on-white violence” not being discussed is that, of course it is. What do you think all the media attention gamers hate is all about? White-on-white violence in video games is talked about all the time. Sensationalist media, studies (good and bad), bloggers talking about the issue… it’s right in the faces of people who use the arguments, but they don’t see it as “white-on-white violence” because white is an unmarked state. The media only mentions the race of the characters in question when it’s a non-white person involved — such as with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas — and therefore people only see “violence” when really it’s a discussion of “white-on-white violence.”

As for “[x minority] on white violence”, who can name a recent game that was widely distributed and played in the West which featured a non-white character killing primarily white people? Even counting the aforementioned GTA game, in which there were plenty of non-white people to kill in addition to the white ones, the number likely does not come close to reaching double digits. Beyond just recently distributed, how many games like that that have been made for a Western audience in total can you think of? Now compare that to the number of games featuring other kinds of violence and you have your answer as to why the “[x minority] on white violence” hasn’t received much attention.

III. So… usual racism, no discussion, what’s up with that?

Off the top of your head, name 5 black video game characters. Now, exclude any characters that were not main characters. Now exclude any that appear in a sports game or hip-hop based game. Finally, exclude any characters that embody stereotypical representations of African Americans. (Yes, that means excluding CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.) How many are left in your list?

As for the answer on why games that display the usual amount of racism don’t get much attention, the simple answer is that even the people who are actively anti-racist are resigned to accepting that level of racism in games. Games that go above and beyond the call of duty tend to get praised — just as games that exceed the “tolerable racism quotient” tend to get slammed — but those that are bad, but not as bad as they could be, get a sigh, a head shake, and everyone but the most dedicated anti-racist game blogger move on to other subjects.

Indeed, when these subjects are taken on it tends to be not from a game-specific angle, which (especially considering the rabid fans that come out of the woodworks, as we’ve witnessed with Resident Evil 5) is generally considered to be fighting a losing battle, but rather from a general one that talks about trends and their effects. While there’s nothing wrong with the white American Jill Valentine being the protagonist (along with her white male partner, Chris Redfield) of Resident Evil 1, it becomes a bit more suspect when all of the protagonists in the series are white. Then take that in the context of not just the Resident Evil series, but Silent Hill, Max Payne… the default avatars in FPS games being white, protagonist races in strategy games tending towards the light end of the skintone spectrum, RPG protagonists having white markers and/or the absence of non-white markers (primarily in skintone and hair choices). What all that begins to add up to is a trend.

One game does not make a trend. One game that displays the usual amount of racism can be easily dismissed — even more easily than a game with blatant race issues, such as Resident Evil 5. Because of this, unless one is citing it in reference to a trend, or building evidence to support a known trend, most bloggers are not going to go into the minutia only to deal with cries of “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill!”

IV. Conclusion

So, in conclusion, one of the reasons that the other Resident Evil games haven’t yet gathered any criticism from bloggers is that they contain only the usual amount of racism. The lack of criticism doesn’t indicate a lack of a problem, nor is it in any way a valid way of deflecting criticism off of the problems in Resident Evil 5.

For a more in-depth look at racial inclusiveness in games, please see Latoya Peterson’s Racial Inclusiveness in Gaming article in Cerise. I also highly recommend reading through the links provided at the end of that article in order to get an idea of the current state of anti-racist theory in video game critical theory.


* Yes, I am fully aware of the irony of Resident Evil 5 exceeding the usual amount of racism when it seeks to acknowledge a world outside of the dominant white one.

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25 Responses to Video games and the usual amount of racism

  1. air says:

    I’m so glad to see this conversation happening. I remember when Final Fantasy 7 was in the process of being localized and one of the characters, possibly the only Black playable character in the entire Final Fantasy series, was given some sort of faux-ebonics type of speech. The message boards, which I confess I’ve since lost track of, so I don’t know how they would react now, justified this because it was “real” (“That’s how Black people talk”). It made me sick.

    But I wonder if I can add one more possible reason for the lack of discussion, perhaps related to the valid “games aren’t taken seriously yet” point. The demographics of the average gamer. I confess I don’t have the statistics, but considering just how much these new systems cost (I certainly can’t afford them), I’m willing to hazard an educated guess that it’s largely middle-class children and adults who have, in addition to disposable income, disposable time. That demographic, I think, is not the one most inclined to think about issues such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism in their daily entertainment. It’s like going to a movie that treats women as objects to be won (do I need a specific example for that? Doubtful) and someone says “calm down, it’s just a movie.” People don’t want to risk ruining pleasure by considering that they’re participating in a dangerous and offensive project. To do so would — perhaps this is extreme — disrupt the comfortability of their everyday lives. It would create instability to question one’s pleasure.

  2. Pai says:

    Another thing that bothered me most about Barret in FF7 was that his daughter was white, too. I thought that was really obviously strange.

  3. David Simon says:

    Another thing that bothered me most about Barret in FF7 was that his daughter was white, too. I thought that was really obviously strange.

    It’s not entirely without explanation; Marlene was Barret’s adopted daughter, if I remember right.

    When I was a kid playing through FF7, before I had really reached the age when I started noticing race, I remember thinking that Barret was a pretty cool character. He was allowed, unlike Cloud or Vincent, to get justifiably emotional without becoming at all brooding or whiny… In retrospect, though, I’m not sure if that’s a positive thing or not regarding stereotyping. Maybe the writers or translators assumed that he couldn’t be deep enough to be introspective? And the “#$*%” cursing was pretty silly.

    It’ll be hard to tell if they’ve made a similar mistake in RE5 until it comes out and we know some more about (or, heck, know if there even are any) major black characters. Racism in game development seems to take a different tack with individual black characters as opposed to large, indistinct groups (like the hordes of zombies).

  4. Richie says:

    Didn’t it turn out to be his friend’s daughter, rather than his? I can’t remember. Actually, on the subject of Barret, the Advent Children dub is a total cringe too, and that was like ten years later. WASSUP DIS IS BARRET AH AM DA MAAAAN! [/derail]

    A strapping young man once told me that including black characters in fantasy games was “illogical” because “fantasy is European”. I think I just stared at him.

  5. Beste says:

    Tekanj,

    Are you still going to play/buy Resident Evil 5?

  6. tekanji says:

    Beste: It’s a possibility, but I haven’t decided for sure yet.

    It depends on several things, such as when I get a Wii, whether or not my friends get it, if I have the time to play it, and whether or not it would be better to wait and buy a used copy (so I don’t add to sales and give the impression that I’m buying it because I approve of their choices), wait until I have friends who have it, or give up and put it in the, “I have better things to do with my time” pile.

    I definitely think it’s worth playing; not just because I’m a fan of the series, but because I would like to do a proper critique of the game. But I’m also notoriously a chicken when it comes to these kinds of games, and if I don’t have a second person to take over when I freak out, I might never finish it… o.o;;;

  7. Lake Desire says:

    I’m also planning on giving RE5 a try, but I’m going to get it used or borrow it so my access to RE5 is slightly more removed from the economy.

    I think it’s cool that Barret adopted a white girl. It’s a nice play on white folks rescuing adopting children of color from their own “sub-par” families/countries.

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  9. itsrainingkarma says:

    Barrett cursed because he was in the military and most military folks tend to curse, not all, but most. He didn’t do it constantly, but enough to add flavor to his speech in high tension situations which is when most people will curse. I doubt it had anything to do with his skin color, but we can reach if we want to.

    As for Resident Evil 5… uhh, the setting kind of lends itself to race. I’m relatively certain if I was in Africa I would see a lot of people with dark skin. Correct me if I’m wrong on that. Next, he’s an American Agent so he kind of goes where he has to go to do what he has to do. In this case it’s Africa where there happen to be (you guessed it) black people. Also, I think you could argue that this paints a grim light on the AIDS epidemic in Africa and is a commentary on the poor response from the governments in the region.

    Was it racist for them to assume in Resident Evil 2 that a small town in the United States would be predominently white and thus have white zombies? Was it racist for them to assume in Resident Evil 4 there would be Spanish speaking people in a town in Spain? They were dark skinned too.

  10. Hans Dannik says:

    Five games with non-stereotyped black main characters off the top of my head, from my own collection…

    Crackdown (default protagonist)
    Condemned Criminal Origins (black protagonist)
    Unreal II (black protagonist)
    Command and Conquer 3 (GDI President)
    Killer7 (One of the seven (eight?) main playable characters)
    Half-Life 2 (Alyx)
    Enter the Matrix (Niobe, one of the two main playable characters)
    Star Trek Deep Space Nine: The Fallen (Two of the three main playable characters (Sisko and Worf))
    Mercenaries (Default protagonist)
    Project Eden (Team leader, one of four playable characters)
    Star Wars Starfighter (Vana, one of three playable characters)
    Star Wars Jedi Starfighter (Vana, one of the playable characters)

    I’m sorry, was that more than five? If by “main character” you mean “playable character”, then you can take Half-Life 2 and C&C3 off the list. I’m not going to try to claim that videogames “look like the world” or even “look like the U.S.”. There is clearly a bias towards a mostly white universe. But I think that’s changing. And that list does not include games where you can choose your race (America’s Army, Myst Uru), games with characters from other races (Ico, Rainbow Six), or games with multiracial/ambiguous protagonists (The Suffering, Beyond Good and Evil, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay).

    None of the above should be taken to diminish the discomfort that people feel on seeing the Resident Evil 5 trailer. I know it bothered me, and I knew what was going on. For anyone not familiar with the series, the zombie bit could be easy to miss. What it looks like is a crowd of poor black people who are sick trying to defend themselves from the rich white soldier gunning them down (Anyone here ever see The Cassandra Crossing?). And the soldier’s voiceover just reinforces that, making him sound like a reluctant death camp guard. Of course, that’s not what it is, but it sure is what it looks like.

  11. tekanji says:

    Hans: Thanks for the list. I definitely agree with you that things are improving, due both to people (slowly!) cracking white boy’s club of gaming and increased visibility of anti-oppression gamers who speak out about problems with non-inclusive game design.

    As an aside, Alyx isn’t a playable character?? For some reason I thought you had the option to choose her or Gordon.

  12. tekanji says:

    itsrainingkarma: Whoa, boy, there’s a lot to address there.

    First off:

    but we can reach if we want to.

    This is your first, and final, warning. Review the discussion rules, especially under the dismissal clause. You are free to disagree with other people’s interpretation of things but you are not allowed to invalidate, dismiss, or otherwise ridicule their point of view. If you make any further comments like that your comment will be deleted, so if you want to actually have people hear your part in this discussion, stick to the rules.

    As for Resident Evil 5… uhh, the setting kind of lends itself to race.

    Of course, and if you read the other threads on the issue you’ll find that one of the problems that is addressed is the choice to set it in Africa. I recommend you check out the link roundup that I’ve made before you continue this discussion. In fact, that post or the Resident Evil 5 Trailer one are better places to discuss the issue of RE5, as this thread is focused on games other than that one.

    Was it racist for them to assume in Resident Evil 2 that a small town in the United States would be predominently white and thus have white zombies? Was it racist for them to assume in Resident Evil 4 there would be Spanish speaking people in a town in Spain? They were dark skinned too.

    Yes and yes. The first question is addressed right in this post, actually, where I talk about part of the usual amount of racism including whitewashed worlds. That would, indeed, include Racoon City which had predominantly white citizens in RE2 (this was partially addressed in RE3 and the Outbreak series; see this post if you want to discuss that).

    As for RE4, I had actually wanted to get a post out about it for the end of IBAW, but I ended up playing The Sims instead. However, I am firmly on the side that there was a similar (though, obviously, not the same) dynamic in RE4 as they’re using in RE5. If you’re interested in discussions on that, I would recommend the Resident Evil 4 thread on Iris’ forums.

  13. Nic says:

    What exactly is your definition of “racism”?

    I’d definitely call “Birth of a Nation” racist, but Resident Evil 5? Not really, seeing as skin color tends to be incidental to the location of the plot.

  14. tekanji says:

    Nic: You’re using a rather narrow definition of racism there. I would suggest reading through all the links in my link roundup in order to educate yourself on the racial issues brought up by the game. It’s a hell of a lot more than the “skin color [being] incidental to the location of the plot”.

  15. ryan says:

    Off the top of your head, name 5 black video game characters. Now, exclude any characters that were not main characters. Now exclude any that appear in a sports game or hip-hop based game. Finally, exclude any characters that embody stereotypical representations of African Americans. (Yes, that means excluding CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.) How many are left in your list?

    • Blade
    • FRACTURE
    • DOM (Gears of War)
    • Augustus Cole ( Gears of War)

  16. itsrainingkarma says:

    Tekanji, it’s not fair to claim racism in a work of fiction (based in the real world) if you use real world rules and facts. The US has a 75% white population (12% black population) with a greater percentage of them located in Small Town America than in a major city. I would agree it would be racist if they had done RE2 in New York City and included no minorities. Video Games strive for a certain degree of realism and using a small town in the US lends itself to a mostly white population, it’s fact, not racism.

    I looked at the round up. Here’s the problem I see.

    In all the complaints about RE4 and RE5 they are ignoring the fact that these people have been taken over by a foreign entity. They are not africans or spanish people anymore but aliens.

    Assuming you are correct and this is racism, what would you suggest is the solution to said racism? Assuming that these games are set in the real world and that an African country will have a large proportion of black people and that a US city will have a large proportion of white people what would you suggest?

    Would RE2 been acceptable if it had 75% white zombies, 12% black zombies, 14% hispanic zombies, and a few other assorted forms of zombies? How would you solve the rampant racism in the Resident Evil series?

    In one instance you complain about a whitewashed world (that is accurate to the setting) where all the zombies killed are white and then in the next you complain about a game where they introduce minority zombies and they are killed by the same white character.

    I don’t think it’s tactful for a white person to kill black people in a video game but if I want an accurate game there’s going to have to be some black people some where, agreed?

    The truth is, short of not making the games at all, nothing would solve this problem. Making a black protaginist that kills the black africans would make people upset because it brings up anger about black on black violence which is a problem in the US. This only leaves a white protaginist killing white zombies which you complain leaves a whitewashed world.

    Please offer your solution to the problems.

  17. ryan: The “name 5 characters” query was from Latoya’s post, not tekanji’s, so you may want to join the conversation there.

    Your other comment was not let through moderation because it reiterates the same misreading of tekanji’s criticism that she addressed in the comments of this post.

  18. tekanji says:

    itsrainingkarma said:

    Tekanji, it’s not fair to claim racism in a work of fiction (based in the real world) if you use real world rules and facts. The US has a 75% white population (12% black population) with a greater percentage of them located in Small Town America than in a major city. I would agree it would be racist if they had done RE2 in New York City and included no minorities. Video Games strive for a certain degree of realism and using a small town in the US lends itself to a mostly white population, it’s fact, not racism.

    It’s entirely fair to claim racism when a story uses a made up city based in an alternate reality much like our own with primarily white characters. Racoon City might be no New York, but it’s also no small town. I also don’t think that racism is something that games need to include in the “realism” pile and, indeed, “realism” is not an excuse for whitewashing. Even if it’s realistic* that doesn’t mean that choosing a setting that can realistically be whitewashed isn’t a choice influenced by racism, especially when the unconscious “white as default” is one of the most prevalent forms of racism in America today.

    * And, frankly, I fail to trust the realism of your numbers when you fail to quote important things such as demographics. For future reference, here are a couple useful links: Texas and California are the new “Majority Minority” states, so now What?, Dimensions of Residential Segregation, and the most and least segregated cities for blacks (if you’re interested in other minority groups such as Latinos and Asians, you can find them there too).

    In all the complaints about RE4 and RE5 they are ignoring the fact that these people have been taken over by a foreign entity. They are not africans or spanish people anymore but aliens.

    Sorry, that fails. They may not be wholly human anymore, but their looks (and therefore their racial markers) don’t undergo any massive changes and it still, to all appearances, looks like you’re killing hordes of non-white savages.

    Assuming you are correct and this is racism, what would you suggest is the solution to said racism? Assuming that these games are set in the real world and that an African country will have a large proportion of black people and that a US city will have a large proportion of white people what would you suggest?

    First off, see the Racial Inclusiveness in Gaming article I linked in this post. On top of the solution it offers, it also links to other discussions on racism in games and what to do about it. As for the RE specific question, see the link roundup thread, which has links to posts where people who know more than I do about Africa talk about it.

    I don’t think it’s tactful for a white person to kill black people in a video game but if I want an accurate game there’s going to have to be some black people some where, agreed?

    I never said that minority characters are not allowed to die in video games. But surely you must see the difference between racial inclusiveness (ie. including non-stereotyped minority characters — both in protagonist and antagonist roles — in a diverse environment where the lead character, even if they are white, is in their indigenous country) and the imagery evoked in the RE5 trailer?

    The truth is, short of not making the games at all, nothing would solve this problem.

    If you think that solutions are found only through all or nothing proposals, then sure. But the reality is that while the perfect solution won’t be found overnight, the only way to find it is by being conscious of the problems and strategize how they could be avoided and/or fixed.

    RE5 doesn’t have any simple solutions because there are too many problems. Slapping on a black protagonist wouldn’t solve the problematic way that Africa is handled. Setting it elsewhere wouldn’t change the problem of cultural appropriation. Introducing completely new characters in new fictional cities would probably have the fans up in arms about how it isn’t a “real” RE game.

    Is the solution to just have not made RE5 in the first place? I don’t think so. Personally I think it’s a racial relations nightmare, but it did help bring racism in gaming to the forefront. It got people talking and, even though a lot of that talk was knee-jerk racist apology, it is the first step toward consciousness raising about these issues, and therefore the first step to creating a gaming culture that’s more friendly toward non-white issues.

    And, well, if nothing else it seems to have gotten people like you talking about the issue in a way that you might never have been given the opportunity to do so otherwise. You may not agree with the claim of “racism”, but you’re probably a few steps closer to understanding what anti-racism activists mean when we use the word. And, to me at least, that’s a victory right there.

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  20. James Gilmer says:

    Excellent post all around and good arguments. One thing people don’t seem to be attempting to understand is how powerful some of the images of the trailer, specifically very dark-skinned blacks (and there are no lighter skinned blacks to be seen) meld into the shadows and rush out with a crazed look in their eyes to be gunned down. Is it really that hard for white gamers to see that there’s a cultural and historical weight there that’s rather powerful and disturbing?

    Right now, all we have to go on is the trailer, and it’s a trailer that has some rather powerful culture images in it (and whether it’s set in Africa or Haiti doesn’t matter), and people seem to willfully deny that. From what I’ve seen, most of the people raising the issue have been extremely thoughtful about it, and are simply trying to pass along WHY this is seen as a problem, and end up getting attacked or dismissed as “PC” or told that “sterotypes exist for a reason”. Well, yes, maybe they do, and I’d be the first one to argue against stereotypes for their own sake, but to look at the RE5 trailer and not see the cultural and historical problems in the artistic presentation of the elements is willful denial of the weight those images carry.

    I’ve had plenty of cringe-worthy moments while playing video games both over sexism and racism, and it’s not white-liberal guilt, but a sense of “Ouch, did they really mean that to come over that way?”

    Putting our heads in the sand and thinking that racism and stereotypes will just go away if everyone talking about it would stop talking is just silly. I fail to see what’s wrong with opening up a dialogue, and I fail to see why some gamers feel so threatened by that dialogue.

    Again, in the trailer images it’s not just the fact that black people happen to be the antagonists, it’s the whole imagery that is created by the atmosphere and setting, and gunning down poor Spanish people in RE4 just isn’t the same because of a lack of cultural weight and the before mentioned problems with wild-eyed black zombies melting out of the shadows visible only by their blood-shot eyes and white teeth until they emerge to try to rip your throat out and you gun them down.

    Seriously, it should be obvious why this would fuel a discussion on how race is used and portrayed in games. The weight of the cultural imagery alone is problematic, and at this moment all we can judge the game on is the trailer. It’s a healthy discussion to have if people are open to it, and it’s probably past time, and I’m sure from the POV of black game designers and other players the fact that most video game players may be white is even more of a reason to enter into this discussion, so that white players can understand the baggage something like this carries.

  21. Degero says:

    “Again, in the trailer images it’s not just the fact that black people happen to be the antagonists, it’s the whole imagery that is created by the atmosphere and setting, and gunning down poor Spanish people in RE4 just isn’t the same because of a lack of cultural weight and the before mentioned problems with wild-eyed black zombies melting out of the shadows visible only by their blood-shot eyes and white teeth until they emerge to try to rip your throat out and you gun them down.”

    However, you are looking at it from an American viewpoint. Games are made in many countries (such as in Japan or Europe) and thus might not have that history and culture that would give them pause over this type of game. You seem to be looking at this game from a very Americanized view. Let’s stop thinking America is the only country and realize that Europe and Asia both buy more games than North America.

  22. tekanji says:

    Degero: Of course I’m looking at it from an American viewpoint. I have limited time in which to make my posts, and so I have to choose a frame of discussion. In this case, it was using a discussion that people who are primarily Americans had over the upcoming game Resident Evil 5. Furthermore, an analysis from an American viewpoint is warranted because the game’s heroes are American, and also the series was originally set in America.

    Others have brought in a more international perspective (you can go through the link roundup elsewhere on this site, or google the matter if you’re actually interested in it), and, frankly, trying to discuss such a deep subject here would do both the article I have written and the subject of racism around the world a great disservice.

    But, by all means, lecture me on being America-centric as if there’s no such thing as racism in Europe and Asia. Really, as someone who hasn’t actually lived in America for almost a decade, I really needed to be reminded that America isn’t the only country.

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