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Why ‘Squid Game’ resonates with Black folks

A rigged system enforced by state-sanctioned violence? Feels like being Black in America.

It took less than a month for Squid Game, the South Korean survival series about systemic inequality and capitalism, to become the most-watched show in Netflix history. The show, in which an international elite coerces downtrodden people to play childhood games to the death with the hope of winning generational wealth, has had such a global appeal because of its universal themes of inequality, greed and oppression.

But when I watched the show, I saw something that related directly to the Black experience: a rigged system of fear, intimidation and rationed goods enforced by a network of state-sanctioned armed violence with the promise that somehow we’ll achieve a piece of the same currency used to oppress us. That certainly feels like being Black in America to me.

One of the major themes in the show is the facade of choice — the notion perpetuated by the powerful that those without means can make personal decisions to break themselves out of their straitened circumstances. The rulers of the game give the players the option to leave and return of their own “free will.” They allow this false choice, understanding that societal wrongs will beat the players down, making a return the only real choice they have.

Park Hae-soo (left) and Lee Jung-jae (right) in a scene from episode one of Squid Game.

Noh Juhan/Netflix

The people in charge of the Squid Game are obsessed with the idea of “fairness,” even killing other guards and supposed rule enforcers for tainting a game they believe had an even playing field. But fairness never existed in the society the contestants came from, nor did it exist in the game itself. Sexism, classism, ageism and outside influence determined who lived or died. 

The preoccupation with “fairness” and “choice” and the perversion of those ideas to blame the marginalized for their living conditions is a central tenet of Americana. My entire life I’ve heard phrases such as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “Black on Black crime,” claims that hip-hop or buying sneakers is the reason that Black folks haven’t overcome economic despair, that we’re under the thumb of anti-Black legislation because we don’t participate in supposedly fair elections and not because of concerted efforts to suppress our votes. We’re inundated with the idea that separated families and full jails are results of personal choice, and not the consequence of a game that’s as rigged as Red Light, Green Light.

The myth of personal choice even infiltrates the psyches of those who have the least of it. It was heartbreaking at the end of the series when Seong Gi-hun looks down at his former friend and idol, Cho Sang-woo, yelling, “You killed everybody!” The tragedy here was both the deterioration of their one-sided friendship, and also that, in the moment of his most raw anger about the Squid Game, he blames a person trapped in the same system. Cho did perform some of the most deplorable deeds of anyone in that facility — culminating in murdering one of the contestants in cold blood — but being in that arena where survival is a daily miracle relegates people to their basest instincts.

I’m not the only one connecting these dots. Meek Mill took to Twitter to speak to how he saw himself in that island compound of death and manipulation. “Squid games ‘pay attention how fast people switch and kill eachother to survive …now think about the ‘hood’ poverty … it’s the exact same thing … if you just help them with work/money they won’t be that way ‘just a common sense message.’ ”

Meek Mill almost gets to the critical truth of the show, but his own capitalist leanings stopped him at the finish line. Squid Game goes out of its way to show how even riches beyond our wildest imaginations corrupt us and cause us to buy into the same oppression that had us clawing for scraps in the first place. And even if we do accrue wealth, the one person who gets out represents hundreds of able, deserving and oppressed folks who didn’t make it. Understanding this, then the process of obtaining this generational wealth doesn’t feel worth what was lost. 

Squid Game is a series about inequality and the toll it takes on the most vulnerable among us. I can’t think of a more relatable plot point for Black Americans. That’s why we’ve come to love the show and have embraced its themes. It’s why we root for Seong and hope that the system responsible for the terror inflicted on his life will ultimately crumble.

David Dennis, Jr. is a senior writer at The Undefeated and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.