I’ve always hated my voice.
Depending on the day, it varies between contralto with hints of Philadelphia, New York, and Trinidadian accents, and that of a 12-year-old boy with strep throat who’s also going through puberty. I understand, to a point, how people could mistake my gender by hearing my voice without seeing my face. With time, I was able to shrug it off without feeling too offended. After all, I don’t think accidentally being considered male is offensive, unless it’s deliberately used to mock my femininity.
And then, there was Overwatch.
“Okay, guys. I haven’t played Overwatch in about a week. I’m feeling good, I’m gonna work on my tank play, gonna get out of plat, here we go.”
“Are you a tranny?”
I have to say, guys. This exhausts me. I’m getting too old for this. I mean, I’m a ball of energy under normal circumstances. and when things are going great, I never want it to stop. But this kind of bile is a mood killer, to say the least. And no, I don’t believe that “it’s gamer culture” is an acceptable excuse – it never was.
I get it, random Overwatch player. When you were growing up, you probably thought it was cool to say someone was a faggot if they were being stupid or “acting gay.” The best way to express how stupid someone is was to call them retarded. Whenever you saw a man cross-dressing on TV or heard a woman with a deeper voice than “normal”, you immediately called them “tranny” or “she-male.” And the second someone came onto the playground with skin as dark as mine, with eyes and lips as big as mine, you would probably have a conniption if you didn’t call me the N-word before the day was out. It was the result of centuries of history dominated by white males – and if you weren’t that, you were damn sure going to know it, in the most dehumanizing ways possible.
Your upbringing is no excuse to allow those slurs to limit your worldview, and it’s definitely no excuse to limit your respect and acceptance of people just because of their skin tone, or sexual preference, or whatever else. I’m willing to forgive the sins of the past. The idea of getting older is getting wiser, and that means knowing that saying those words in any sort of derogatory context is, in this day and age, unacceptable. But you had best believe that I am always going to be the first one to shut down any slur thrown about during games, and especially so when I hear them in real life. There is little on this Earth more satisfying to me than confronting bigots face-to-face, given that most of them are downright fearful of those they are trying to oppress.
But sometimes, I simply can’t deal.
This Shouldn’t Be a Thing
Take Gatamchun for example. A well-known Korean esports fan and translator on Twitter, she had the most horrifying competitive match she can remember just last year.
“It was probably one of the few times I heard the N-word spoke out loud ever,” she recalls. “I immediately got a little nervous once we joined a match, because the person’s language already sounded aggressive and toxic. The person who invited me–let’s call him Jack–was immediately very hostile toward this Doomfist pick.”
I brace myself, knowing what was coming. “And then midway through the game,” she continues, “he started calling the Doomfist player ‘Niggerfist.’”
Do you feel that? That ache in your chest? That almost numbing wave of shame, horror, and guilt as you let each letter in that word imprint themselves into your brain? This aesthetically and phonetically displeasing word that some people seem to throw around as casually as ordering coffee? That is the weight of history crushing you. It doesn’t feel good, does it?
I have been called every derogatory slur under the sun, including some that I didn’t even know existed. But despite my skin being thicker than titanium, when she told me this story, I found myself shaking. And I felt ashamed, not only because I was brutally reminded that the loudest minority is still going strong, but because I still wasn’t immune to it. I was conditioned to be the “strong one,” yet the mere mention of the word made me want to cry out in rage.
What really broke my heart was what Gatamchun said next.
What Am I Supposed to Do?
“I still think about what I could have done, what I should have done when Jack said the n-word,” she continues. “And I wonder if I should have screamed at him and told him he’s a horrifying racist. I felt very helpless. It felt like the most effective thing I could do was to unfriend and report him. Of course, that feels deeply ineffective.”
This isn’t uncommon. The reason why people don’t want to fight is that they feel like no matter what they do, it won’t be enough. They automatically feel the obligation, the desire, to stop racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in their tracks. Even if they know, deep down, that realistically we’re hundreds of years from that kind of global enlightenment – if it will even happen at all. For every person they report, another two come out of the woodwork like some kind of bigoted digital Hydra. And it leads to feelings of helplessness and guilt.
“I wasn’t sure how to frame this incident, in a way,” she said to me. “Because I don’t know if anyone who heard was black. I’m not black. I was fucking frightened, for sure, because people who use words like that don’t belong in any civil society as far as I’m concerned. I guess…I’m not sure that I can argue I was in any way victimized by that encounter.”
The thing is, she is technically right. She isn’t a black person, and since the word is specifically used to dehumanize black people, there is an argument to be had that she isn’t the intended victim. However, she still felt the same or at least damn close to the same amount of horror. Why?
She has empathy.
We Judge What We Don’t Understand
Empathy is a rare commodity these days, but one that needs to become more and more prevalent in the Overwatch community as a whole. This is important for everyone to understand, especially those who can recognize the systemic privilege that was provided for them at the cost of rights and opportunities for people of color. That lack of empathy and ignorance of privilege makes up our country’s entire, reprehensible history, as well as its present state. Realize that the privilege you have can be used to change the world for the better. By speaking out. By telling your white friends to cool it with the racial slurs. And by reminding themselves of this one fact:
Minorities should not be the only ones offended by bigotry. Bigotry is unacceptable, whether you are the target or not.
Even in the Overwatch League, a place where intolerance is largely unwelcome (despite the best efforts of Twitch chat,) players themselves are not immune to saying and doing hateful things. Even the stars of the league are a target for hatred. We all know about the xQc situation, and how his use of the TriHard emote during an OWL broadcast while Malik was on screen. That situation isn’t as cut and dry as a lot of people made it out to be, though.
Something Something 7
I spoke to Malik while he was in Incheon for the Overwatch World Cup. “From my POV, it wasn’t [an] xQc mess,” he says. “I originally was acknowledging that I know people use TriHard. It’s happened for so long, way before OWL started, and I never even made a mention of it. I had been getting so many messages from people of all types, but it was the young black kids hitting me up saying things like, ‘It really hurts to see how they do that to you. It discourages me from wanting to pursue a career like yours.”
“That was it for me. I decided, ‘I’m not calling it racist on air, I don’t want to bring that energy on the broadcast. But I will acknowledge that I see it. That’s a good start.’ I realized I gotta really hold this position down for those who will come around in the future.”
“And when I acknowledged it, people flipped the fuck out. A lot of guilty consciences out there, claiming I was offended, claiming I wanted the emote banned. I said nothing of the sort; I just acknowledged that I saw it. It was actually hilarious to see all the little trolls blow a gasket over that, because not only did they show the lengths trolls are willing to go to paint a negative picture – they even tried to change what I said to fit their own little Reddit narratives. But that just further proved my point.”
Pro tip, guys. If your first instinct is to “not all white people” a racially sensitive argument, you are part of the problem. We aren’t sadists. Anyone who finds more joy in the punishment than the penance isn’t an activist – they’re an antagonist. We don’t point out your mistakes because we find joy in your resultant shame. Shame can be a great catalyst for change, but the LAST thing we want is for anyone to go through, even minutely, what we go through on a daily basis. We are giving you a chance to learn from what you’ve said and done and to grow. To be better.
Malik’s balance of acknowledgment and tonal awareness is the reason why, despite opposition in and outside of Overwatch as a whole, those hateful voices are being swiftly and immediately silenced. That balance is also why he’s become an inspiration to young black men and women around the world. Including myself. Being live on air is a harrowing experience for many people, and for a gaming culture that seems unforgiving to women and people of color, it’s inevitable that those people will be ridiculed and discriminated against by a faceless crowd. Twitch will be Twitch, after all.
Luckily For Us…
Blizzard is not messing around. Players were heavily fined, suspended, and even released for their actions in almost record time this season. Global accessibility is a key component for the Overwatch League. With that in mind, Blizzard have made every effort to make this environment inclusive for everyone.
“My OWL experience has been eye-opening,” Malik told me. “Mainly because this is the first time since my days of YouTubing about games where I hear from the positive majority. And loudly, too. People are ready for a more inclusive gaming community. OWL is definitely leading the charge in that regard.”
What really inspires him, and this I can 100% get behind, is that not only do people treat him like a human being at Blizzard, they want to learn more about him.
“Behind the scenes, everyone treats me pretty normal. A lot of the foreigners in the building seem to be inquisitive towards me, like if I’m using slang or wearing certain things. I can tell they’re opening up to learning more about African-American culture, and that I’m a lot of those folks’ first exposure to such.”
A couple of months ago, a pro Overwatch player asked me about my hair. To clarify, this particular player was white. Like, “Larry’s not white, he’s clear” kinda white. I usually wear my hair in braids because my mixed hair has no chance in this desert heat and I’m too lazy to style it. But he called them “locs,” which is a completely different style. While I explained the difference to him, he was very open and interested. More importantly, not one time did he try to touch my hair. Not. One. Time. [Note: Please don’t ever try that.]
This. This right here is all we want. Just ASK. Just ask us questions. Get to know us. It’s basic human interaction and holy hell, do I miss that. We don’t expect everyone on the planet to know about our culture, but it’s hard to deny the fact that it serves as a pervasive influence on the world today. Hip hop is the most dominant music genre in America. Dances are incorporated in various video games that come straight from African-American artists.
With Malik’s presence in Overwatch League and my meme queen position for the LA Valiant, we know what we do for people who look like us. We see you. We see your discouragement when someone calls you a slur in-game, and we know that that makes you never want to touch that video game again. And we know you are hesitant to speak out for those who are marginalized, because it seems as if your voice will never be heard. We’re here to tell you that you are not alone, and that we will invest all the time and effort we can to assure you that you can do this. That you can make a difference. And even if you can’t? Let me. I’m more than happy to help.
As a wise, female engineer once said, “I will be your shield.”