Suddenly Ethnicity

Apparently not just named by costume color.

A character is revealed to be... black. Or Asian. Or Jewish. Or any ethnicity that isn't the same as that of the majority of the target audience.

The other characters are surprised, or shocked. More importantly, the audience is expected to be surprised as well. Ideally, the character will need to keep covered up before the reveal, or have non-obvious features. Otherwise the trope provides comedy, possibly intentional.

This trope can be played in several ways. The fact that the character is not what the audience would assume can be used for a cheap shock effect. Sometimes, the fact that the other characters are surprised is parodied. Alternatively, the audience may be called out for assuming that all characters have a certain ethnicity unless otherwise specified.

If the story contains An Aesop, it's usually that all races are equal.

In these melting-pot days it is on the way to being a Discredited Trope. Compare Suddenly Sexuality, Samus is a Girl. Contrast But Not Too Foreign where a seemingly foreign character is revealed to be at least partially a member of the target audience's nationality.

Examples

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     Comic Books  
  • In DC Comics, Black Manta was revealed to be black in 1977, ten years after his debut. Notably, he attempts to use his race to trick people into following him by claiming his actions against Aquaman were in an attempt to make Atlantis a paradise for minorities all along. This is, naturally, a total lie he used to personal gain, which amusingly still leads to the aesop that all races are indeed equal: in that all of them are capable of producing jerks (further reinforced by the revelation that he suffers from a form of Autism, which is played as a Freudian Excuse prompting Aquaman to later magically cure him...and the first thing Black Manta does afterwards is stab Aquaman and brag about having murdered his infant son)
  • The classic EC Comics story "Judgment Day", in which an examiner comes from Earth to see whether a planet inhabited by sentient robots is ready to join The Federation. It's revealed that the robots are split into two groups, identical except for the color of their outside casing, and the educational programming given to each color. One group of robots is given less useful programming, forced to live in inferior housing in a segregated part of the cities, relegated to less desirable jobs, etc., all based on the casing color. The examiner is forced to flunk the civilization, and the guide whines that he is "only one robot" who can't change the system. The examiner consoles the guide by mentioning that Earth used to be like this, too, until its people got their act together. Then the examiner gets into his spaceship, takes off his helmet, and is revealed to be black.
  • ElfQuest has a fantasy version of the trope. Kahvi (leader of the Go-Backs, a tribe of "pure" but magicless elves) is revealed to be a Wolfrider (a tribe of forest elves with animal heritage).
  • Gummbah: Parodied in this strip:
    "When Annie said 'colored boy', for a moment I thought... er... well, right, I guess you know what I mean. But thank God. Want a drink, son?"
  • Dick Grayson, the first Robin and later Nightwing of DC Comics, was revealed to be of Romani descent decades after his initial introduction. Interestingly, in one interview about Batman Forever (1995), Chris O'Donnell referred to Grayson as "a gypsy lad"; many readers probably thought he was just being metaphorical.
  • Similarly, Spider-Man foe and walking Italian mafioso stereotype Hammerhead was revealed decades after his introduction to be the child of Russians who immigrated to Italy: he managed to hide his origins in order to join the Maggia and lost his memory in the same attack that prompted his transformation into Hammerhead.
  • Young Avengers did this in the third issue. Patriot's original costume covered his entire body, head and all. When the kids are questioned by the adult Avengers, Eli takes off his mask and reveals that he's not only black, but the grandson of Isaiah Bradley, hero of the graphic novel Truth: Red, White, and Black and the second Captain America. Why yes, you should go read it.
  • Similar to Patriot, the new Nova was introduced as Sam Alexander, with no real indication that he was anything other than white. It wasn't until the third issue that we learned his mother is Mexican and that he's of partial Latino ancestry. In hindsight, the fact that he's Ambiguously Brown in Ultimate Spider-Man might have been foreshadowing.
  • During the period where James Rhodes filled in for Tony Stark as Iron Man, he got captured by the Mandarin. The Mandarin was shocked when Rhodey removed his helmet, as he had always assumed there was a white man under the armor.
    • The same thing happened when War Machine met Deathlok. Deathlok (who is also black) was shocked when War Machine removed one of his gloves, revealing black skin.
    • Averted in Secret Wars. When Reed Richards was helping Rhodey with his armor, Rhodey commented that he must be surprised to learn that Iron Man is black. Reed basically just shrugged and said he'd never given Iron Man's race much thought one way or another.
  • Slightly mocked in Exiles, where an alternate version of Sasquatch (who turns back into a white male in normal continuity) turns out to be a black woman. Alternate versions of Spider-Man and She-Hulk are surprised by this; the former by the very male-looking Sasquatch being a woman, and the latter by a white-haired beast being black.
  • Parodied in a Marvel Comics spoof What If?... story, where The Avengers of an alternate universe are shocked when their new African member Black Panther takes off his mask to reveal ... he's a white South African. When the Avengers protest that he joined under false pretenses, he points out that having a name with "Black..." in it doesn't indicate your ethnicity (Black Widow is white) and declares "You don't care about real diversity! This is nothing but ... but tokenism!"
  • In Justice League: Generation Lost, it is revealed that Ice is a Scandinavian Roma, and made up the story about coming from a race of Ice Gods. Who the Ice Gods that claimed to be her parents and brother in the "Ice goes home" Justice League International storyline were has yet to be explained. Ice's retcon was written by Judd Winick, who previously declared that Kyle Rayner's Irish-nationalist father was secretly a self-loathing Mexican. All the Celtic pride he taught his son was supposedly after changing his name and learning Gaelic. As seen in this fan cartoon, Ice's retcon has met with some fan bemusement. The retcon also comes dripping with Unfortunate Implications, as it's shown that her entire clan (save her parents) were con men and thieves, and the head of the clan, her grandfather, wanted to use her to further his schemes.
  • Mister Bones, a former DC villain turned government operative (head of the Department of Extranormal Operations), has among his powers transparent skin and organs, leaving him looking to all the world like a skeleton. Eventually, it turns out that he's ethnically black, and can appear so through use of make-up. At one point, Manhunter (Kate Spencer) tries to guilt trip him into getting involved in a border dispute by claiming he has "forgotten what his skin color is". Bones predictably chews her out and ends the conversation.
  • Ben Grimm, a/k/a "Thing" of the Fantastic Four, was revealed to be Jewish, and the Yancy Street Gang he ran with as a kid was really a Jewish street gang. One supervillain said, "Funny, you don't look Jewish." Interestingly, a short story from a Marvel Christmas Special comic book a few years prior to this reveal has Ben Grimm discussing the difference between Christmas and Hanukkah with a little Jewish girl. This story implies that Ben is not Jewish himself - though given that Ben was in many ways an Author Avatar for Jack Kirby, he was considered to be implicitly Jewish for years.
  • Jim Valentino's Shadowhawk remained masked during his first arc. Midway through his second arc he encountered a white-supremacist named Hawk's Shadow, who modeled himself after Shadowhawk. When Shadowhawk encountered Hawk's Shadow, who bragged that he viciously killed black people, the infuriated Shadowhawk removed his mask and shouted, "You mean like ME?"
  • Spider-Man, who has an everpresent full facemask and a costume that covers every inch of his skin, was once asked to reveal why he thought J. Jonah Jameson hated him in a court room. His response "it's because I'm black." Jonah then tried to back pedal, saying something along the lines of "I'm not racist! I have a Black Best Friend!"(which he does, but phrasing it like that didn't earn him any brownie points) and then is utterly humiliated along with his lawyer when Spidey gleefully declares "just kidding!". Hilarious in Hindsight now there actually IS a black Spider-Man in the Ultimate Spider-Man books.
  • Done deliberately in an issue of Mark Waid's Daredevil. The hero finds out that the NYPD has been infiltrated by members of the white supremacist group the Sons of Serpent, and thus realizes that any of the cops in the courthouse with him could be one of them. One of the officers is a young woman in a pair of Cool Shades, who eventually removes them to reveal that she's Asian-American. This then assures the reader that there's no way she could be one of the Serpents.
  • Averted by Ferro Lad in the Legion of Super-Heroes. The writer's original intention was that after a few issues Ferro Lad would remove his helmet, revealing himself to be black - and that no one would bat an eye, since it was the future and no one cared about that sort of thing anymore. Unfortunately, the editor nixed it, saying they'd lose sales in the South, and the writer killed Ferro Lad off as a form of protest.
  • Youngblood: Judgment Day features the millennia-spanning story of a book that chronicles the past, the present, and the future... and can be written over. One of the figures to come in contact with the book was the costumed Western hero Kid Thunder. In the last issue of the miniseries, it's revealed that Kid Thunder was an escaped slave who wore a full-body costume to hide his race — and that he was an ancestor of Youngblood teammate Sentinel.

    Film 
  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner plays the trope for drama. It is about a white girl who introduces her black boyfriend to her family. Ashton Kutcher meets his girlfriend's black family, in the 2005 remake Guess Who.
  • Romeo Must Die: Black and Chinese gangs engage in an ongoing turf war. At one point Han (Jet Li) chases down a helmeted motorcyclist who he assumes is a black man. The "black" cyclist eventually takes off "his" helmet to reveal....a Chinese woman. Han is shocked - not because he'd never have expected to see a Chinese woman riding a motorbike, but because he never thought Chinese immigrants would ever be fighting each other in Oakland.
    Han: You're Chinese!
    Biker: No shit.
  • Little Fockers plays it for comedy. Jack has been studying the Byrnes family genealogy and while they do indeed seem to be mostly of Irish descent, Bernie and Roz do a little research of their own and discover that Jack is "one twenty third" Jewish. They proudly present him with a yarmulke for Christmas and start calling him by his 'Hebrew name', much to his bemusement.
  • In Dogma, when Bethany's heritage is revealed, instead of picking up on the fact that Bethany is descended from one of Jesus's siblings and is carrying the next Messiah, Jay exclaims, "Bethany's part black?"
  • Played with in Robin Hood: Men in Tights when Robin declares Achoo the new Sheriff of Rottingham much to the surprise of villagers and Robin's blind servant Blinkin.
    Villagers: A black sheriff?!
    Blinkin: He's black?!
  • The twist in Devil In A Blue Dress is that Daphne is really half black (like her actress) and has been passing as white.
  • In-story example in The Birdcage: The Jewish Goldmans have been passing for Christians (the "Colemans") for most of the movie, Armand Goldman has been passing for straight, and his partner Albert (who is too Camp Gay to pull off "straight man"), has been passing for Armand's wife (in a blonde wig and drag). The Goldmans had been terrified of being found out to be gay, but when their son's future father-in-law learns the truth, all he can say is: "I don't understand... You can't be Jewish!"
  • The final scene in The Artist reveals that the protagonist is French.

    Literature 
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's early novella Magic, Inc., a wise and respected character, Dr. Royce Worthington, is revealed to be black. The main character spends about a page getting over the shock, then decides it doesn't matter. Heinlein did this all the time. The protagonist of Starship Troopers is revealed to be Filipino in one line, and similarly the protagonist of Tunnel in the Sky is revealed to be black in one sequence where other characters admit they couldn't tell him from another character (a Zulu girl) apart from a distance. In both cases it's been obvious to all from the beginning and in neither case does anyone comment on it before or again. Podkayne of Mars is also black, while Manuel Garcia "Mannie" O'Kelly-Davis is mixed as can be.
  • There was a mild uproar in the Harry Potter fandom when extremely minor character Blaise Zabini (assumed as a white girl for several books due to his unisex given name and Italian surname) was mentioned to be black and male. Up until then, Blaise had been a popular piece of Canon Fodder for Fan Fic writers. Most fans didn't care, but some found their mental image to be horribly shaken—and a few declared their intentions to keep writing him as white.
  • In Anthony Burgess' M/F, the main character is revealed at the end to be black.
  • The twist in the Sherlock Holmes story The Yellow Face is that the yellow-masked creature is actually the client's wife's first child—from a relationship with a black man. The wife's been hiding her in fear of what her husband would say, keeping the child in a nearby house and masking her so her dark skin wouldn't be noticed. The client lifts the child onto his shoulder, carries her out of the room, kisses her, and accepts her as his own.
  • Arthur C. Clarke was known to use this in his fiction (for example, Imperial Earth) occasionally, once intentionally misleading the reader by giving the protagonist a stereotypically Scottish name [Duncan Makenzie] and revealing the character to be black...about 150 pages later...when the protagonist is mocked by the other black characters for a lack of a stereotypically black accent.
  • In the short story "A Hot Time in the Old Town", the elderly gentleman in the park relates a story to the narrator about the time when he was a landlord whose house was avoided by potential black tenants because of a hate crime that happened in the house. And for good reason - the original crime "poisoned" the house and the next black tenant died there as well. The elderly gentleman tells the narrator that sometimes he goes back to the site where his house once stood to make sure everything's still okay and the narrator offers to help him check. It's not until the second-to-last sentence we find out the narrator is black himself.
  • Ursula Le Guin likes this trope; it's most famously used in The Left Hand of Darkness. (It's only a few chapters in that one of the characters asks the protagonist if all humans in the universe are as dark-skinned as him.)
  • Downplayed in the Goosebumps spin-off HorrorLand books, which bring back Ensemble Darkhorse Billy Deep (from Deep Trouble and Deep Trouble II) as a recurring character. Apparently, he's Asian, though neither his surname nor his own books gave any hint of that. Depending on your perspective, this may be because of The All-Concealing I or R.L. Stine making it up as he goes along.
  • In The Bible's Book of Esther, the title queen makes the big reveal that she is Jewish, in a bid to stop a pogrom against the Persian Jews. Granted, the audience has known this since the beginning, but her own husband is astonished to find out her ethnicity.

     Live Action Television  
  • In That '70s Show, Hyde is revealed to be half African-American, a fact he didn't even know before meeting his biological father. Sure he is.
  • In All in the Family, Archie is in the hospital and befriends the patient in the bed next to his, not realizing (because they're separated by a curtain) that the guy is black. In another episode, Archie's good friend "Stretch" Cunningham dies and at the funeral Archie discovers he was Jewish.
  • In M*A*S*H, Frank Burns gripes that, being left with a North Korean patient, he's stuck with the Indians while Hawkeye gets the 'cowboys'. Colonel Potter's response? 'I'm one quarter Cherokee.' Frank is left mollified. (In fact, he raises his hand and says, "How.")
  • One episode of Hogan's Heroes had Carter get a letter addressed to "Little Running Deer Who Goes Swift And Sure Through Forest", forcing him to admit he was part Sioux. Newkirk and LeBeau proceed to tease him mercilessly about it, in ways that wouldn't be quite so funny today.
  • Played with in Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Jason David Frank looks vaguely American Indian, but Tommy's ethnicity isn't mentioned until season 3, and it becomes a story arc in Power Rangers Zeo.
  • Inverted in Lost. During the first season, Rose, who is black, is separated from her husband, who was on the tail end of the plane and landed far from the midsection. In the second season, her husband is discovered to be not the Scary Black Man, Mr. Eko, but a white guy. Hurley lampshades this by saying, "So...Rose's husband is white. Didn't see that coming."
  • Done unintentionally on Seinfeld with Elaine. Given that she hangs out with a bunch of Jews (OK, two Jews and one half-Jew, half-Italian), is played by a Jewish actress, and plays up a fair number of stereotypically Jewish jokes, one would expect her to be Jewish. Even the writing team considered her Jewish. And then came the perfect opportunity to make a joke about "Shiksappeal", and the writers were like...sure, why not?
  • Puck from Glee suddenly turning out to be Jewish in the seventh episode - and it becomes a major part of the next episode's plot, not to mention a major part of his character for the rest of the series.
  • An Angel episode with flashbacks to the 1950s revolves around a woman who is part-Black but has been "passing" since she was a young teen.
  • Doctor Who: Played with. Although the character was clearly white when introduced and was born to white parents, the episode "Let's Kill Hitler" revealed that Melody Pond/River Song was black during most of her childhood and young adulthood before regenerating into her Alex Kingston incarnation.
  • On The Drew Carey Show Drew and his friends are invited to a club that Drew's father is a part of, only to discover they have a semi-secret policy of excluding minorities. Oswald brings up the fact that he's part Native American, which the others are initially skeptical about.
  • Played for Laughs in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode "The Gang Gets Trapped" where the gang sneak into a family's house who wear cowboy boots, speak in a southern drawl and the gang calls them southerners. They turn out to be asian.
  • An episode of Saved by the Bell revealed Zack is partially Native American and has to do a report on it. He and Screech initially do the stereotypical version until a guilt trip from a real/full native, unironically calling him "Running Zack," implores him to dig deeper into his roots and does a more sincere, dramatic report after he dies. The old man returns in a dream, with white clothes to boot, congratulating him. The actor who plays Zack, Mark Paul Gosselaar, is half-Indonesian which is more apparent with his natural black hair and a tan.

    Theatre 
  • In Spamalot, Patsy turns out to be Jewish.
    King Arthur: "Why didn't you tell me?"
    Patsy: "Well... it's not the sort of thing you'd say to a heavily armed Christian."
  • In Gotthold Lessing's classical German play Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), Nathan's adopted daughter Recha (who was raised Jewish) and her suitor (a Christian templar) both turn out to be the children of Saladin's brother - a Muslim. The moral of the play is that all three religions are like different brothers of the same family.
  • In Bertolt Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny), Jenny sings: "I am from Havanna. My mother was a white one." Interpretations of this line have varied wildly depending on the production. (The original Jenny, though, was played by red-haired Austrian actress Lotte Lenya.)
  • In Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder), Anna reveals that her children all have different ethnicities, although one of them is "half a German."
  • Played for Laughs in Of Thee I Sing, where Diana Devereaux replaces her Southern accent with a French accent when her noble French ancestry is revealed.

    Video Games 
  • Smoke was always a McNinja who operated under the Chinese Lin Kuei organization (and was turning into a robot in Mortal Kombat 3 and thereafter). However his history never got delved into until Mortal Kombat 9, where his backstory states he was once a boy from Prague, Czech Republic (real name "Tomas Vrbada") who was sacrificed to a demon. The process took away his human life but reanimated him as a being of smoke and vapor called an "Enenra" and he killed everyone who subjected him to the procedure. So Smoke is actually a native European.
    • Same applies for Cyrax, who is from Botswana, Africa. his Suddenly Ethnicity moment comes at the end of Mortal Kombat Gold, after his faceplate is removed.

    Web Comics 
  • In Pictures For Sad Children, Paul (who is a ghost) is revealed to be Chinese. Considering the entire comic is in black and white, and all characters are blank-white stick figures, finding out anyone's ethnicity is a surprise. Like the bald stick figure that's friends with Paul, who is apparently black.
  • In Hanna Is Not a Boy's Name, {...} is implied to be Asian during a Journey to the Center of the Mind which both shows his human face and reveals him to have some kind of sentimental attachment to paper cranes. He's a green-skinned zombie(?) with Ghost Amnesia, so his ethnicity was pretty much impossible to tell before that.
  • In Homestuck, once Jane enters "Trickster Mode", her skin goes from just being generic white (like all the other characters) to very obviously Caucasian. This was played for laughs by Jane declaring that she felt so… "CAUCASIAN!", but it was retconned to "PEACHY!" shortly afterwards because a number of dickwads decided to use it as an excuse to be dicks to POC fans.

    Web Original 
  • Lavernius Tucker of Red vs. Blue is Black. Probably. You wouldn't know, because he's wearing a helmet and has a White voice-actor.

    Western Animation 
  • Played with in South Park; as the kids are going to a dodgeball competition in China, a character who looks white is revealed to be Chinese, and then they make fun of him. This leads to An Aesop about it being wrong to make fun of someone for their race, but it ''is'' okay to make fun of someone for their nationality.
    • When Cartman was trying to figure out who his biological father is, he's first led to believe it was a Native American chief who lives outside of town, and later that it was (black) Chef. Naturally, he starts acting like stereotypical versions of each race. Subverted because, in both the original and Ret Conned-many-seasons-later ending, his father is white. (Though in the latter, he is horrified to find out that his father is a ginger.)
  • American Dad!
    • A group of neighborhood members meet, including a high-pitched agoraphobic who contacts the others on speaker phone. Those who didn't already know him are surprised later when they meet him and find out he's Black.
    • When Francine's parents are first introduced they turn out to be a rather stereotypical Chinese couple. Turns out she was adopted and her maiden name was Ling.
  • Family Guy
    • Peter's ethnicity is, quite frankly, confusing to track out, as he is constantly discovering his newfound heritages. Such as finding out that his ancestor was a slave. Or that his real dad is from Ireland. Or that he's technically a Mexican. And then Lois' mother reveals to her that they are Jewish.
    • In the Halloween episode, Quagmire claims his grandfather was a WWII Japanese fighter pilot. Subverted in the fact it was a prank played on Joe and Peter after they got him too many times.
  • In the Christmas Episode of Arthur, it's suddenly revealed that several of the characters (who are all presented as animals) are actually from different ethnic backgrounds (The Brain is African-American, Francine and her family are Jewish, etc.). Francine seems to get it the hardest, as during the episode Muffy invites her to a Christmas party and gets really mad when she turns her down, thus giving the episode an excuse to talk about Hanukkah. Another episode has her trying to get through the Yom Kippur fast.
  • The Simpsons
    • There are some ethnic reveals in the Simpson family history. Homer reveals to Lisa that they have a Native American ancestor (much to her chagrin, as she had made up being part Indian for a report and then confessed that she wasn't). Another reveal is Lisa finding out she's 1/64 black descended from a runaway slave (which Grandpa knew all along but lied about because he's Suddenly Racist).
    • Principal Skinner's Armenian ancestry came out in an episode in which it is revealed that he (partly) lied about his Vietnam War experiences - and that his real surname is "Tamzarian." Could be considered Fridge Brilliance, since Seymour Skinner had always been drawn with vaguely "foreign" features.
    • And of course, a 3rd season episode that revealed that Krusty is Jewish.
  • Pony from China IL is Ambiguously Brown, and is only revealed to be Hispanic thanks to a throwaway line which mentions that her brother is plastic surgeon in Mexico. This is even lampshaded when she asks her friends if they're even aware that she's Mexican.
  • Doug uses Amazing Technicolor Population, but Word of God says that Skeeter (who's blue) is supposed to be African-American. At one point, Doug's sister Judy refers to Skeeter as "the blue kid."
  • Played for Laughs on Futurama, which will sometimes have Bender exhibit stereotypically Hispanic traits to remind us that he was manufactured in Mexico. (His last name, incidentally, is revealed to be Rodriguez). Interestingly enough, when Professor Farnsworth's invention during a What-If Machine segment turns him human however, he appears very white with blond hair.
  • When Warhawk was first shown in Batman Beyond, he was assumed to be a white guy and a Legacy Character of Hawkman. Then during Justice League Unlimited, we finally see him unmasked and it turns out he's actually the son of Hawkgirl and John Stewart, the black Green Lantern.