Is Pokémon Go Kind Of Racist In Memphis?

By Courtney Anderson

Like any other socially conscious person who is suffering from racial fatigue, I spent this week becoming addicted to Pokémon Go as a means of escaping my reality.

While this strategy has mostly worked (it’s much more fun looking up poké stops than it is looking up statistics of police brutality), playing Pokémon Go has actually alerted me to real-life issues I was working to disassociate from.

And, as usual, these real-life issues are somehow connected to issues of racial discrimination, economic disparities, and other social ills that have managed to permeate every aspect of my life.

So, without further ado, here is a list of observations I’ve had while playing Pokémon Go in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, that made my racism alarm go off a little bit.

  1. The layout and transportation problems in the city make playing way too hard for certain folks.

Pokémon Go is a game that is designed to make players walk around.

The best way to catch Pokémon and find poké stops is to walk from place to place.  

Because of the fact that Pokémon can pop up at any time while you are playing, it’s best that you’re able to stop moving or move faster at any given moment.

Parts of Memphis make that basic requirement of Pokémon Go very difficult.

First of all, it’s a sprawling city; its layout consists of seemingly endless flat land and forever-long streets. You need a car to get almost everywhere.

If you’re playing Pokémon Go in Memphis, you’ve probably had to hop in your car a few times.

And unless you want to get knocked off of the road, you’re driving at least ten miles above the posted speed limit.

Photo Credit: Eduardo Woo/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Photo Credit: Eduardo Woo/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Catching Pokémon becomes much more difficult when you have to use your car (and waste your gas and gas money) to get to the nearest poké stop.

Not to mention that fact that some of the streets of Memphis are filled with so many potholes that driving over them feels like an assault on your car’s tires and alignment.

“But, Courtney, how are bad roads and spaced-out areas a problem based in racial and/or economic discrimination?”

Thanks for asking.

Well, to put it simply, it’s because the raggedy roads and spaced-out areas mostly affect poor and Black people.

It’s no secret that the worst roads and the most spread-out areas of the city are in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Places like Bartlett and Germantown, which are famously white, are more likely to have smooth roads and closer stores and such.

Meanwhile, driving down certain parts of Elvis Presley feel like you’re jumping on a pogo stick.

And the further into the hood you get, the less likely you are to see groupings of stores, restaurants etc.

It’s mostly empty buildings.

It’s a fact that is so widely accepted that even city officials make jokes about it (and they really have no business joking about that, but that’s another post for another day).

Even more obviously, having spaced-out, sprawling areas sucks for people who can’t afford to waste gas money. Or to buy a car, for that matter. And public transit in Memphis has always left a lot to be desired.

Besides, who is going to try to catch the MATA just to catch a Charmander? The sprawling nature of Memphis is a feature that effectively excludes poor people from playing the game.

2. All the poké stops are in the bourgeoisie parts of town.

Speaking of Bartlett and Germantown, you’re much more likely to find poké stops in those areas than you are in other (mostly Black) areas of town.

For example, today I went poké stop hunting because I’m on Level 6 and I ran out of poké balls (which made me panic more than I care to admit).  

I live on Sycamore View, so Bartlett is down the street for me. And while I don’t excitedly drive down Bartlett Road often (because Bartlett police are no joke), I got pretty excited when I saw there was seven poké stops in a two-mile radius.

But my excitement died away when I thought about my experience playing the game this weekend and how different it was.

This weekend, I spent most of my time on Mill Branch Road, which is in Whitehaven.

And for those who don’t live in Memphis, Whitehaven is a misnomer; it is not a haven for white folks, but rather a predominantly Black and poor area of Memphis.

Anyway, when I tried to play the game in Whitehaven this weekend, I was annoyed by the fact that there was nary a poké stop around. Not one.

But Bartlett has seven in a two-mile radius? *side-eyes*

“Okay, but that’s probably just a coincidence, Courtney. You’re probably just reading too much into that.”

Maybe. But it’s hard not to read into things when there’s an established pattern of leaving poor Black people out of the fun and giving all the goods to the well-off, white areas.

3. All the Pokémon seem to be in bourgeoisie parts of town.

Besides there being no poké stops in the hood, there doesn’t seem to be many Pokémon in the hood, either.

I don’t know if this a quirk of the development or just my racial anxiety acting up, but I’ve found that I am much more likely to catch Pokémon in areas like the two I keep having to mention.

I find it odd that I can walk into a McDonald’s in Bartlett and have six Pokémon just show up, but that walking into several buildings and stores in Frayser turns up nothing.

This phenomenon could serve as an example of the racial and economic discrimination Pokémon Go plays into.

All these observations have been disconcerting to say the least.

But the major problem/racism-alarm-triggering-issue I’ve had while playing this game is one that others have previously pointed out.

4. I can’t play Pokémon Go without feeling like I’ll get stopped by a cop.

That may just be a personal problem, but the seemingly never-ending list of black people who were killed by police for doing mundane things make this seem like not a personal problem.

With me being Black and all that, I feel like I already have a “Hey, police officers, come stop me for almost absolutely no reason,” sign hanging on my back.

“Like I said, Courtney, you’re probably just reading too much into this.”

And like I said earlier, coincidences are hard to find in a society that values whiteness and wealth over blackness and not-wealth.

Even something as frivolous as Pokémon Go can reflect racism and other inequalities.

And, as someone who is keenly aware of this inequalities, it’s difficult for me to just let it all go and focus on getting a Pikachu (because I will get a Pikachu, damn it.)

Look, as much as I would like to frolic around and play Pokémon Go like everyone else seems to be able to, I can’t.

I guess I’ll either just have to deal with what I feel while playing or stop playing entirely.

And I’m too far along to stop playing entirely.

Besides, I still have to get my Pikachu.

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Cover Photo Credit: rpavich/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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