The Extremely Convenient Indian
It’s all but official: We’ve met Pharah’s father. And barring yet another 180 from Blizzard — he’s a Native.
I’m kidding of course. That’s Baine Bloodhoof, High Chieftain of the Tauren from Blizzard’s Warcraft franchise. This is what Blizzard thought Natives look like. For over a decade.
And this is what Blizzard thinks Natives look like now…
Admittedly, this is much closer to a reality.
But as with the Tauren, and let’s be honest, every other character in Overwatch — Blizzard can’t get beyond stereotypes. Or as one Overwatch fan put it, “Look I’m no expert but Pharah’s dad’s nose? The jawline? That hair?? Def Native American. Thank u Blizz.” Which wasn’t the only comment like that. Thanks to this image, the Overwatch fandom quickly latched on to any phenotype expression they could and ascribed indigineity to the otherwise-unknown character. And I don’t completely blame them. This is exactly what Blizzard counts on.
In case you missed it, The Pharah Discourse began at launch with two of her legendary skins “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird.” Now, they’re substantially better than anything Blizzard has previously done, but they are still a mix-and-match Native costume. The larger problem here is that Pharah isn’t First Nations — she’s Egyptian.
Amidst all of this, Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson did an interview with Jeff Kaplan, Game Director of Overwatch. The questions about Pharah were asked, and this was his response:
The closest thing Overwatch has to a god had spoken, “Pharah is clearly Egyptian and that’s her heritage.”
One would hope that this would shut down any question about Pharah’s connection to the skins or her ethnicity. Pharah is Egyptian. The skins were something that looked “awesome.” That’s why it got shoved into the game. They have no connection to anything. Either this interview went largely overlooked — or people just didn’t care. There had to be more. The skins had to be made acceptable.
Pharah’s dad had to show up and he had to be First Nations.
The fandom demanded an Indian.
Native peoples aren’t used to being in demand. We’re displaced from movies and TV about us, our own sociopolitical discourse, our lands. We are the original impediment to colonial success. It’s why our languages, religions, clothing, history — all of our cultures — have been made illegal or at least violently discouraged at some point. It’s why we had the Indian Removal Act and others like it. It’s why for the most part we’re discussed in the past-tense, especially in North America. The inconvenience of indigenous peoples is why the societies that have been hoisted upon us refuse to acknowledge even the historic genocide visited upon us. Even in video games indigenous peoples are so inconvenient that Firaxis willfully erased Aboriginal Australians from existence in Civilization VI because they didn’t fit in mechanically. The inconvenient Indian is something white hegemony demands disappear from all aspects of life.
Except every now and then white people need a Native. Like the “one black friend” who mysteriously only appears in conversation when a white person gets busted doing something racially problematic — non-Native people have the supernatural ability to conjure up indigineity on the fly. In this instance it’s always within themselves. It’s a fraction of their blood, a great-great grandparent, a past life. It’s the seasoning that allows them to seem a little exotic and to justify racist beliefs and behavior. Even Rachel Dolezal sprinkled a little “Native American Heritage” in her garbage soup.
And just like Pharah’s father, the Convenient Indian is an artifice to distract and cover.
For a game that’s hitched it’s wagon to “Diversity & Inclusion” so openly, Blizzard’s had a rough time making that statement meaningful. LGBT representation was “Well, who do you think is gay?” a game of smoke and mirrors for a very long time. When Tracer became a canon lesbian, it was only because Blizzard finally reached an internal decision to ride the wave that fans had created for them. If she was gay from the outset, questions wouldn’t have been met with “There are LGBT Overwatch characters, but we’re not saying who yet.” She was the cover girl, and establishing her as gay from the outset could have harmed adoption of their new franchise among straight male gamers. But fans had queered the hell out of her to the point where it finally made economic sense. Blizzard capitalized on those efforts while exerting next-to-none of their own. And now Overwatch is poised to make a similar move with Pharah.
Overwatch didn’t ship with a Native character. It shipped with two inspired by “Native American culture” skins. Jeff Kaplan has admitted that diversity and inclusion is difficult for them. Making any decisions can be when you’re a billion dollar company. But diversity and inclusion is actually pretty easy — providing you’re willing to accept that you don’t know everything, and you need outside help. A diverse game, needs a diverse staff. But what Overwatch has achieved, and really what they strive for, is G.I. Joe Diversity.
Look at nearly every one of their non-white characters. It’s representation without genuine thought. It’s shorthand, it’s stereotyping — it’s calculated corporate decisionmaking. And in the end, Blizzard (like with many large studios) can handwave shortcomings with “We’re trying our best.” And a lot of people will praise them for it.
It was my personal hope that ultimately Pharah’s skins would just fade into memory. There was no satisfactory way to save them. Removing them would just create a bigger, more disastrous discourse. People really like them. Some Natives like them, even ones who acknowledge that they’re a problem.
I would love to see a Native in Overwatch, but I want it to matter. I want them to do it right. And I know Blizzard cannot without hiring actual Natives to help conceive and develop the character from the outset.
Instead Pharah is no longer going to just be “clearly Egyptian.” She’s going to have ex post facto mixed heritage. She’s going to be “part” Native (which is a construction Natives rarely use, even when mixed), because Blizzard couldn’t leave well enough alone. Because a corporate interests and fandom demands aligned so they can make those skins “acceptable” while getting bonus points for finally having a Native in Overwatch’s lore. Because a retcon is easy.
(Edit: Please note there’s no issue with Pharah or any character/person having mixed heritage. Of course Pharah will still be Egyptian. The choice of phrasing here was to reflect how Blizzard views and approaches identity, specifically referencing how Kaplan speaks about her. I’m mixed. I would love to see more people with mixed heritage represented in media — but this is not how you do that. You don’t full-throatedly decide that a character is one thing, then spontaneously, retroactively change that to support your previous bad decisions or to dump in “bonus representation” well after the fact. Which is exactly what Overwatch is doing here. *That* is the issue. I apologize for any confusion or upset I caused.)
And that’s really fucked up, but also perversely appropriate. Being Native means living your entire life as a retroactive continuity. Our histories, our achievements, hell even our contemporary lives are fan-fiction, depreciated lore. Our lives are non-canon. Our existence cannot be commercialized — but the ephemera of our culture can be profitable.
For over a decade, Blizzard has willingly, openly participated in this theft and exploitation. They’ve crafted their fantasies from the parts they deem “amazing” and “cool” and called it an homage. They’ve placed themselves as appropriate arbiters of what is sensitive and respectful to the real lives of Natives. And, for over a decade, they have failed Natives at every turn.
Retconning Pharah to have a First Nation’s father is not only the wrong move, it’s a damaging and insulting continuation of…
…Native bodies being a commodity the same as headdresses and moccasins.
…Native identities as something “discoverable” without real connection.
…A single, unifying “Native Look.”
…Diversity and Inclusion mattering only when it’s sound business strategy.
…Blizzard’s history of creating racially problematic (and sometimes outright racist) content.
…Blizzard being cowardly and/or ignorant in the face of making real decisions to include marginalized identities with care and respect from the outset.
These are all deep-seated issues that Natives (and the other marginalized people Blizzard mines for content) have to live with daily. A properly included Native character in Overwatch would not *change* that. However, when companies with as much reach as Blizzard make these kinds of decisions they reinforce these issues and continue that harm.
By doing this, Blizzard is choosing to make the statement:
You only matter when we can use you, you’re only useful when you’re convenient.