Boy, harassment and racially charged personal insults *really* convince me that I'm wrong, that I'm to blame for seeing race, that racism is over and there's no such thing as white privilege! No, seriously, did you think that course of action would make me stop posting or having opinions you don't like? ]
So, this is my flames-on-the-side-of-my-face re: Avatar: The Last Airbender movie casting post. Read it, don't read it, it's up to you but I'm warning you now: a) this is long because the angrier I am, the longer I tend to ramble and I've gone on forever here and b) any comments about my PC agenda (in non-white privilege land, it's called social justice, thanks), how I should concentrate on RL things (hi, yeah, I do plenty of social justice work in real life and on the internet, how about you?) and advice about how pathetically I should beg and play on people's pity will get you banninated.
I decided not to post my kneejerk post o'profanity regarding decision to whitewash Avatar: The Last Airbender and cast white actors for nearly all the major roles last week until I'd, at least, spoken to my three nephews, who absolutely love the show. They are the reason I'm interested in Avatar; I've enjoyed watching the series with my nephews on weekends. It's our thing, our bonding family thing which also includes trips to the cinema and going to eat things that their mothers won't let them eat. In part, because of their interest in Avatar, they've been more eager to learn Japanese and Korean. They became much more interested in about that part of themselves, the part of them that is comes from the East Asian side of our family. They can read 漢字 (Hanzi, Chinese characters) (if you call Chinese characters in Avatar 'kanji' in my journal, I'm going to insist that you call English 'Inglese', kthnx; Avatar is mostly based on non-Japanese philosophies, legends and mythologies, don't bring Japanese readings of Chinese characters out of context unless you want me to give you a ten thousand word treatsie on phonetics, socio-linguistics and Western tendencies of privileging Japanese culture amongst East Asian cultures) and they know enough to know the meanings and whether Avatar written them correctly and used them correctly or not.
During our early Christmas dinner this weekend, the oldest of the nephews, who is 13, brought up the subject of the incredibly white child actors that had been picked for the film version. The three of them were confused and disappointed but unable to articulate exactly why. Then the youngest, all of 7 years old, asked me whether this meant that he couldn't be Aang when he played Avatar with his friends from now on.
That, my friends, was when I felt the flames on the side of my face.
I'm not going to address most of the white-privilege defences I've seen about whitewashing the cast. Please see bossymarmalade's splendiferous post [here] for super-duper clear and informative explanations debunking some of the common defences.
I do, however, want to address three things about the casting decision that make it fail so utterly for me.
1. Cultural adoption/adaptation vs. cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism
When non-mainstream sub-cultures, ie PoC culture within Western culture and non-Western European culture (which are oh, so extremely not the same thing) are adopted into mainstream white culture, several things can happen. On one side of the spectrum, there is cultural adoption and adaptation and on the other end, cultural appropriation. The difference is the film-maker/writer/content maker's relationship with the source, whether it is one of respect and genuine exploration of cultural themes, relationships and contexts and a willingness to reach out and understand or whether the remade content is completely severed from the original source, context and meaning removed, whitewashed and the "cool" bits left as an exotic husk to become a product of white cultural homogenisation. Cultural appropriation is the polite face of cultural imperialism.
Subtle and insidious, cultural appropriation has very little understanding of original source culture and attempts very little to understand philosophies, symbolism and cultural icons that are not part of the dominant (white) culture. Sub-cultures or different cultures are never of itself appreciated and observed for their own sake. Instead, the focus is on the dominant white culture defining minority culture in a calculated manner with the intent to define what the minority culture is and means, and in the case of media, strip it of its artefacts and sell the now whitewashed and homogenised "exotic and foreign" culture to a white-majority audience for their own profit.
Avatar, at least to me, was a really good attempt at cultural adaptation. The makers, at least to me, were clearly influenced by anime and were genuinely respectful and interested in trying to understand and retell East Asian and Inuit mythology, legends and history. They remixed it into a fantasy but the use of Hanzi and the concept of Wu Xing/Mahbhuta as well as other Buddhist philosophies as well as martial arts from many different regions of China clearly shows that they are interested in telling wider and more complete story than has been told before. And, crucially, their characters weren't drawn as white. They weren't white characters transported into East Asian/Inuit culture and magicked to a galaxy far, far away in order to put in a "this isn't even really on Earth!" disclaimer.
(Before you ask and I urge you to use your google-fu, I know it's hard for people who aren't around East Asians all that much but yes, there are green eyed, grey eyed and even blue eyed Asians. Just because many white people haven't met one, it doesn't mean they do not exist. The validity of their existence and personhood does not depend on whether white people have met them or not. Some are Eurasians and/or mixed race but some, amazingly, aren't.)
I know, I know, why the melodrama, right? It's only one film. It's a fantasy. It's not real. It's not any film maker's or content producers responsibility to think about political correctness or social progress. They're *entertainers*, right? They just want to express themselves and make money.
It's never just one thing. It's never just one film. If it were just one voice, one opinion, one person thinking these thoughts, writing these books, producing this content, lobbying for anti-affirmative action policies, it would not be damaging. Contrary to what a great number of white people believe, it isn't one or two or five or ten. Whitewashing Avatar is just one in a long line of acts of East Asian cultural appropriation by Hollywood. Remove East Asians and scavenge the rest to make it look exotic and cool. Keep enough to connect it to the original cartoon but lose enough to bring in a new audience. I concede that it is a little different this time -- instead of appropriating East Asian produced content, they are whitewashing East Asian influenced content made by white people and thus have just that little bit more plausible deniability.
These aren't isolated events that sometimes coincidentally happen about the same time. This and the ideology behind it is pervasive in western cultures. In books, films, shows, songs, social policy, hiring policies, jokes; all of these send out conscious and subconscious cultural cues that informs of what the baseline, the default way of being is for people. What is "just another movie" to white people is a message to a great many PoC looking/listening/reading the same conteent. East Asian representation in Western media has had a huge tendency to be whitewashed, yellowfaced or represented by a magical sidekick/wise mentor/desexualised otaku/hypersexualised exotic female, ie, prime examples of Orientalism.
In the past 24 months alone, it's Leo Di Caprio cast as 金田 正太郎 (Shootaroo Kaneda) in a Hollywood remake of アキラ (Akira), a Japanese manga/animation classic that explores themes of how post-war Japan has dealt with cultural and industrial rebuiling and the general rejection of the effects 80s industrial Japanese growth and aanti-establishmentism; it's Justin Chatwin cast as 孫悟空 (kanji: Son Goku), a Japanese manga adaptation of 西遊記 (Journey to the West), a 400 year old Chinese novel which is a satirical, philosophical classic and one of the most influential (within East Asia) pieces of Chinese literature; it's Earthsea in which the central theme of race and non-white culture and the flipping of white privilege and white cultural imperialism that is so critical to the plot wa whitewashed and in effect, rendered meaningless by the Sci-Fi channel adaptation; it's Jake Gyllenhal who is slated to star in the Prince of Persia, which, jeez, I don't even know where to start with that one; it's 21, which is based on a true story of Asian American MIT students and an Asian American professor, which ended up being recast with four white leads.
It's that Hollywood is going to remake JSA and think that the situation along the DMZ is equatable to the US/Mexico border. It's that they are so uneducated as to world affairs and what their own country has done to contribute to situations that, to them, it's actually an acceptable excuse to say, oh, they didn't know.
It's that Firefly, set in a Chinese dominated future,
And even when East Asian characters are allowed to remain intact, if they are prominent roles, yellowface is a time honoured tradition. It's white actors doing yellow face to play Charlie Chan, it's Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu; it's Alec Guinness in A Majority of One; it's Tony Randall, it's John Wayne, it's David Carradine, it's Peter Sellers and Peter Ustinov, it is, in fact, every white actor who has ever played Fu Manchu, including Nicolas Cage who did it *last year*, it's Jack Black with his eyes taped up "slitty" in Be Kind Rewind, a film that had the sensitivity to take the white character aside and explain why blackface was unacceptable with visual language. Jack Black and the film-makers want you to know that blackface racism is bad but ching-chong racism=funny!
It's these people; it's that so many Hollywood Chinese are white.
But, of course, they were the best people for the roles, right? It's colourblind casting. It's the opposite of racism! There aren't East Asian actors. Chinese and Japanese people don't speak English and it would take so long to learn to speak English properly. People are racists for seeing race and wanting East Asians actors to play the few East Asian roles going around. They have a PC agenda, just like the PC brigade that are forcing the BBC to cast black people as the Doctor or now-newly-made-and-no-longer-love-intere
2. The "non-intentional" reinforcement of white privilege and supremacy culture embedded in media to Western PoCs in the same culture/society
When I was growing up in the 80s, the characters who looked like me and I was cued to identify with and see my place in the world was Sulu, yeah, from the 60s and female East Asian characters, who generally needed saving by the white heroes, from the 70s show M*A*S*H. I'm trying to think of another prominent East Asian character I saw on TV when I was a wee anna but I'm drawing a blank. I think there's definitely much wider representation on TV for my nephews now. Off the top of my head, I can name the tricksy Korean couple who pretended they couldn't speak English in Lost, Hiro and Ando, Cristina in Grey's and Sharon/no.8 in BSG. You'll notice that Cristina is the only character who is an integrated participant of the mainstream societies drawn in the respective shows. The others are still explicitly othered -- I still have a lot of problem with characterisation with East Asian characters but as there is a change in quantity, one can only hope for a change in quality, too. This is the kind of representation I would really like to se -- we all love Psych, a show that co-incidentally has two non-white leads and the characters aren't ghettoised or stereotypical; I can't wait till my nephews are old enough to watch Harold and Kumar.
(I also have a few choice things to say about how, in SGA, the straight, white male privileged writers have drawn Teyla as a recipient of white and animalistic sexual desire while Keller has been increasingly drawn as a recipient for romantic, take-home-to-momma-and-marry-her, perfect, understanding, one-of-us desire by several characters, epsseecially the writer stand-in and how explicitly racist that is; Mallozzi apparently wanting points for a dead retro-active lesbian PoC; my increasing resentment reading posts in fandom that posit I'm somehow not a... proper woman for not identifying with Keller because "she's just a geek girl, just like us" (I'm paraphrasing) wherein the value of "just like us" doesn't really feel like it applies to me at all but wow, that is a post for another day.)
For me, as you have just read, Avatar casting is just another in a long line of disappointments I have learnt to identify, to articulate and to ultimately accept. It wasn't easy to learn to do that, to talk about my own powerlessness against racism. Avatar, now, is just another example I can bring up in a conversation about racism, cultural appropriation, whitewashing and white privilege. For my wee nephews, though, this is one of the first in a long line of explicit and unequivocal cultural cues regarding identity and race that will shape their view of the world and their place in it.
This is the manifestation of white privilege, white supremacy ideology and culture that many white people blithely continue to deny exists. White people can so blind to this privilege, it's so much the norm that they really do believe it really is only another movie, another book, another policy completely unrelated to each other. That it just a coincidence that the privileging of whiteness and white culture continues, ensures white cultural dominance but there are no repercussions.
My nephews will either have to succumb to it or untangle it later in life but they are already being cued to believe, to *know* that non-white people/PoC have no place as active protagonists in mainstream culture, cultural content or society. They are being taught that culture, society and the audience really means white culture, white society and white audience. The default is white and the desires and goals of mainstream white society and their identification with a product or a policy is the most important and most privileged.
I have been told by a great number of white people, allies or no, that generally, nowadays, people aren't overtly actively trying to oppress PoC intentionally. This leads me to conclude that white privilege and disrespect and disregard for PoC is simply the default state for many. It's acceptable behaviour. PoC matter so little that there is very little need to consider and decide upon a course of action with us in mind. That being respectful of our feelings and our cultural identity matters so little that white people aren't required to act respectfully about cultures that are not their own, about sub-cultures that belong within our larger mainstream western culture. Asking questions, considering just how unbalanced representation is, asking for the same level of respect and consideration and privilege that white people are afforded, all of these things, our wants and desires are *special* interests instead of pan-human interest.
When PoC want to be represented, we will nearly always first be assumed "other", we are expected to be the sidekicks of our own stories and lives. It's up to the great white hope to save us -- not for us to save ourselves or choose our own fates. People who look like us do not have a place as lead actors, lead characters, active, central, plot driving protagonists. White people are leads in society, in culture, in their lives and in ours. It is perfectly normal and un-noteworthy that people who look like us have our cultural heritage taken away from us and sublimated to white people's expectations and desires. The value of characters and the actors who play people who look like us and by extension, ourselves, has always been and should always be judged and qualified through the white lens.
My nephews will learn, in time, like I have that it's okay for TV, books, governments, policy to erase us, erase our faces, our presence, our contributions, our history, our joys and our suffering but take what we have achieved and made. They will learn that not only is this acceptable, mainstream audiences and society will side with the voices that tell us this. They will learn that white people are culturally, socially, politically expected, conditioned and cued to only identify with other white people. My nephews will learn that white society, on the whole, will not question their belief in their "natural" rights nor question their own privileges over those who do not look like them; they will not question why they think PoC are strange and foreign. We may have been born in the same country and speak the same language but the shape of our eyes and the colour of our skin will always make us the people they wish would stop whining and go back to our "own country".
This is what a great deal of white cultural content will tell my nephews covertly and overtly while they grow up. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. This is the same lesson I learnt at society's knee, too. I think, I believe that my nephews will have more choice and characters who look like them and people who look like them in society to look up to than I did when I was growing up but it's still, it's not enough.
3. Examining the assumption of executives and fans who say white audiences can only be interested if white actors play the leads
Let's put a pin in the fact that East Asian films, dramas, anime, manga, manhwa and other kinds of media have a huge following Europe and America. Let's pretend for a moment that films like Ringu and Ju-On and Old Boy didn't do big business, let's pretend that the Last Emperor and The King and I (with Chow Yun Fat) didn't do well. Let's pretend that everyone and their sister didn't go to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Let's pretend that people don't know who Nodame is or who Son Goku is and nobody loves on Korean boybands and Rain didn't beat Stephen Colbert. Let's stick a pin in that and pretend for a moment none of that happened and take a look at the assumption that white majority audiences won't watch non-white people in lead roles.
Out of all the defences of this casting decision I've seen, I can't believe that I'm actually seeing this one. The assumption of content producers and defenders to say that white people are only interested in other white people. What does that assumption say about what white people believe about white people in general? This is an assumption of racism that many white people very loudly insist doesn't exist any more. It can't go both ways and Hollywood has to decided whether they are reacting to the actual audience expectation or that they cueing the audience to what they should be doing and wanting.
* * *
Let us put aside the question of blame because I don't want to have an argument about how some people believe they have nothing to do with society, governments, history, how they have never affected by society, how they've worked hard for everything they've ever achieved, believe never received any kind of privilege, white or straight or class or gender or able-bodied, and how they or their ancestors never oppressed any one.
If you accept, even a little bit, that there is a pattern, a culture of oppression and privilege, the optimist in me does not believe that the reaction would be, oh, this is the way the world is, forget about it, I don't care.
We can deal with the signal itself and fix what's wrong with it or we can continue to waste time with attacks on "hypersensitivity", "PC agendas" and distract the issue at hand by blaming people for listening and comprehending the message so clearly. The latter "can't be fixed, hasn't been fixed for the last 50 years because it ain't broke" has been tried and tested and PoC and allies are still here, still talking, still pointing out that there are huge problems.
How about we try working together on the first way now? You can be an ally, you can act and educate yourself and commit yourself as many good people have done and have achieved so much in the past few decades or you can choose to look away and pretend this isn't happening. I, we, don't have the power to stop you or even affect you meaningfully because we aren't granted that amount of power.
All throughout this autumn, the papers, conversations and livejournal was full of talk about change. Change we can believe in, we want change. I want it, too.
I want it for a seven year old East Asian British mixed race boy, living in the 21st century in a society that keeps telling us that racism is over, that we are racist for seeing colour or talking about race. I want it for a seven year old boy who can't quite pass for white because of the shape of his eyes, the colour of his skin and the bridge of his nose. I want it for a boy who is facing the first in a long line of disappointments, who is now becoming more and more aware of voices from even his cartoons and tv shows telling him he's not good enough because he's not white.
I want change.
If my frothy ranting has left you wanting more intellectual and concise arguments, please go read:
- aang_aint_white, where there is information about a co-ordinated letter-writing campaign, with people posting the content of their letters as well as lots of useful links.
- aang_aint_white also has a picspam that shows just how Asian influenced Avatar and its characters are [here]
- vagabondsal's take
- glockgal addresses the most commonly-seen kneejerk racist responses
- round up of links about the casting
- broaches the idea of getting media coverage
- I also want to point you to a documentary called Hollywood Chinese, which is directed by Arthur Dong and looks at the representation of Chinese in American films over the ages. If you go to the site, there's video clips and explanation of the documentary as well as director statements and even a study guide (heh!). I saw it quite recently and I can only urge you to watch it if you get a chance. Or, you know, want to buy the dvd.