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A Chocolate Coating to make the Bitter White Pill Go Down Easier

A Chocolate Coating to make the Bitter White Pill Go Down Easier

I’ve been continuing to follow the casting controversy re “The Last Airbender” film by M. Night Shyamalan. The two main organizations of fans that arose to fight it, Aang Ain’t White and its sistercomm Racebending, have been working hard to try and get the word out about the casting and why it’s a problem, though they’ve run into a lot of brick walls. Some “The Last Airbender” (TLA) online communities won’t let them discuss the issue, dismissing their concerns as (wait for it… oh, whatever, you’ve heard this before) race wank. They’ve gotten no response at all from the film’s producers, beyond a vague insistence that TLA will be more diverse than the TV show was, somehow.

It took a professional advocacy group, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), to actually get a clear response:

The Director’s vision for this film is one of world, influenced and inspired by the Asian undertones of the series, and that is both diverse and inclusive in the make up of the four nations represented in the film’s cinematic world.

Early casting includes an Indian actor, born in Mumbai and raised in the UK and the US; a Persian actor born in Tehran and raised in the UK, Switzerland and the US; a Maori actor born and raised in New Zealand; a Korean-American actor, born and raised in Chicago; an American actress of Italian, French and Mexican heritage; among several others of varied nationalities from around the world.

The four nations represented in the film reflect not one community, but the world’s citizens. These societies will be cast from a diversity of all races and cultures.
In particular, the Earth Kingdom will be cast with Asian, East Asian and
Africans.

Emphasis mine. Now, to provide a little context for people who aren’t fans of the show and don’t realize what’s happening here:

  • There are no black people in the original cartoon. I’m OK with that, actually. As a fantasy and science fiction fan and writer, I get bombarded with all-white secondary worlds all the time*. It’s kind of refreshing to see an all-PoC one, even if those P aren’t my particular C. (Plus, opens the door for all-black fantasy worlds in the future.)
  • All the PoC actors mentioned above? Are going to play villains, bit parts, or extras. The three “heroic” leads are still white.
  • In the cartoon, the three heroes (represented by white actors) come together from two “good” nations to fight against an evil nation (represented by the Indian actor mentioned in the letter) which is oppressing and eventually tries to “ethnic cleanse” a fourth nation (which will be represented by “Asian, East Asian, and Africans”). So with this casting, we have two nations of heroic white people fighting genocidal brown people to save other poor downtrodden brown people. And black people. Can’t forget us when you’re casting victims.

So in the name of diversity, the film’s producers are ignoring the diversity that was in the original cartoon — characters who evoked cultures as wildly disparate as the Inuit, Mayans, Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Pacific Islanders, Arabs, Japanese, Tibetan, Ainu, and probably a dozen more. They’re replacing it with “Diversity: American Style”, in which all those ethnicities get lumped together into “one community” and stripped of agency, a few black and multiracial people get sprinkled on for flavor, and white people get the best parts and the most screentime.

I cannot begin to explain how revolted I am that black people are being used to justify this shit. Fortunately, MANAA explains it for me, in their response:

After dealing with Hollywood studios for the past 17 years, we are more than familiar with the justifications used to cast white actors instead of actors of color. Other film productions have previously used the same pretexts, touting diversity through the casting of supporting roles–but only after first discriminating in casting the lead roles.

MANAA is a strong supporter of studios’ efforts to increase diversity, but it is absurd to use that as an excuse to make a project more white and to say the original concept wasn’t diverse enough when the cultures of the four Asian nations clearly were.

Emphasis mine again. Because that’s the thing: there weren’t any white people in the original series, either. And clearly the producers were not OK with this, despite the many, many all-white fantasy worlds that already exist. So all their “diversity” bullshit is really just a cover for their primary goal, which was to shoehorn white people into this world. But the creepiness of this goal would’ve been far too obvious if they’d only inserted white folks, so they tossed in some other races too.

There’s no conscientious commitment to diversity in this. This is diversity done as an afterthought, an excuse, something to point out and shout, “What in the world can that be?” as a distraction. Then while our backs are turned, boot PoC from primary, non-stereotypical roles into their traditional place at the back of the bus.

I want black actors to get a paycheck as much as anyone, but I don’t like seeing my people used in such a transparent ploy to hurt other PoC. That shit doesn’t help any of us.

* And I have no problem with them, either! See? I like White People Movies!

29 comments to A Chocolate Coating to make the Bitter White Pill Go Down Easier

  • Stella

    That just reminds me of Firefly, how half the universe is Chinese but you don’t ever see any Asians, EVER. You hear the language (in swears) and see it written out but you never see the people. Whats up? Its like the people who love Africa for the Lion King atmosphere as long as they don’t have to see any Africans.

  • It’s stupid that I actually felt rather optimistic when reading the letter from the production company, but then again that’s what it’s designed to do. God, this is shaping up to be another 300, in all its violent imperialistic glory, only PG-rated and starring teenagers.

  • This is a complete fucking joke (er, the white-washing, not your blog post, which I completely agree with). I adored Avatar, because it had some awesome writing, and because it wasn’t Celtic-European-white bread! It was fantasy and being swept away to another world so completely because of the variety of the ethnicity was a very, very important part of it.

    As it is I have very little desire to see the movie, which is a shame because the original cartoon was so fantastic.

    I’m ready for Hollywood to stop treating us like we’re too close minded or stupid to be able to enjoy something that stars POC.

  • I can’t tell you how heartbroken our Avatar loving house has been seeing the travesty of casting that has been going on. My 6 year old is struggling to understand why they picked actors “that look wrong” as she put it, and my 10 year old is frustrated since one of the reasons he got the rest of us addicted to Avatar was the fact it was so very different from everything else out there (no monochromatic cast, strong female leads), and now he is really angry that they are ruin his favorite stories this way. I agree with him 100%. I’m tired of settling. I want to see actors that look like people from cultures like mine doing heroic things, having adventures, fighting great evils. I don’t need to be saved by the white folks. I don’t want my children to see people like them as only the villains or the victims like I did growing up. For this and many other reasons I am very angry at the whitewashing of Avatar, some days more angry than words can express.

  • Zero

    Wow.
    I just finished watching that cartoon online last week, and one of the first things I thought was that if they ever made a live-action movie of it, they’d never be able to get away with casting white actors for the lead roles.

    Silly me.

  • QoT

    As a (white) New Zealander, can I also say that no, Hollywood, having a Maori actor doesn’t make you diverse. Not when as soon as you take them out of NZ-made films and television they’re suddenly able to play characters of any race/ethnicity except Maori, and often just have Maori actors stand in as “foreign brown guy”.

    To cite Cliff Curtis’ (who’s been cast as Firelord Ozai) IMDB, “He has been cast as nearly any other dark-skinned nationality having played, among others, Mexican-Americans, Colombians, Arabs and Chechens.”

  • nojojojo

    Belated, Stella,

    Yes, it’s very much like Firefly. It’s a consistent problem in Hollywood, particularly in SF TV and film, and particularly affecting non-black PoC in a creepy-assed way. Black people at least get to be the token PoC, most times. Latina/os, Asians, and Native Americans don’t usually get to do even that much, though I think that’s finally beginning to change for Latinas/os (I’m thinking about “Ugly Betty” and “Battlestar Galactica”, though Adama wasn’t really Latino in that). But even when any of us are included, it’s rarely as the three-dimensional lead character; it’s so often as the unimportant, undeveloped nobody on the sidelines. Even in story-worlds that are supposed to be “ours”. (Thinking of Simba in the Lion King, who had a white boy’s voice — except when he sang. -_-)

    This is why I say that stereotypes do destroy lives, despite the protests of those who think they’re offensive but otherwise harmless. How many actors in Hollywood have been unable to make a living because they’re constantly relegated to bit parts? How many kids of color have unconsciously stifled their own dreams out of an ingrained belief — thanks to Hollywood — that they can’t be warriors, lovers, master strategists, The Chosen One, whatever?

    ::sigh::

    At this point they’ve begun filming, so it seems to me that it’s time to start organizing the boycott.

  • I’m so use to the “put-a-white-person-into-any-role-possible” theme.

    Growing up, I always was jealous. I mean, white people got to go EVERYWHERE – foreign countries, the past, the future (all those cool outfits alone – can still make me green). Meanwhile, my people were stuck (in movies) during slavery times, the 60s and break dancing.

    It was a shock for me when I got older to realize how many other POC there really were in the world.

  • just checking in to co-sign with the disgust and impending boycott. I want to spit out the bad taste (you can always taste bitter medicine) and then smack someone.

  • This still makes me rage. Just the other day I found myself explaining, yet again, why brown-skinned characters in a ‘fantasy’ world do actually count as brown people! Sigh.

  • i think what’s worse, is that while many of us see this failure in casting so problematic, there’s still an overwhelming number of people who don’t see a problem with it. why? because they don’t see animae characters as asian–they think they’re white, despite the obvious social and cultural characteristics in the Avatar world. i find myself frustrated talking to these people.

  • Ico

    Joining Brownstocking to cosign with the disgust and impending boycott. Most of my family are fans of Avatar. None of us will be going to see this rubbish.

  • anna

    Excellent post! I’m completely fed up with everything to do with the movie, and I’m certainly not going to give them a single penny. It’s too bad — the tv show is fantastic.

  • On the Lion King: I admit I did love the Africanness of The Lion King, but for me, it’s not about Africa Is So Exotic, since Africa is my continent of origin; I was born there, and half my ancestry has been there for the last 400 years, etc.*

    I loved it because it was beautiful, as Africa is beautiful, despite its pain. (Also, the soundtrack has Ladysmith Black Mombazo on it. And Ladysmith Black Mombazo more or less automatically means it’s going to be good music.)

    The oh-so-white, oh-so-American voice actors were annoying and jarring, but to me that was as much a product of accent as skin colour… Goodness knows we couldn’t have a film with people who AREN’T AMERICAN, though, naturally. (Except, of course, Jeremy Irons, but he’s the bad guy, and Rafiki, but he’s the Magical Negro.) Mufasa got to be played by James Earl Jones. I genuinely believe that choice was made on the basis of James Earl Jones having the most magnificent voice available, but it’s depressing that one of the only non-evil characters voiced by a black person has to be the one with the iconic death.

    Anyway, Avatar:

    I’m horrified by the whole thing, and also that one particular friend of mine seems to be dismissing the race controversy around it (though we haven’t had a chance to discuss it yet, so I retain some hope that this isn’t actually the case, it just looks that way; still, there will be Words about it). I agree with you that Avatar without black people was fine – the Avatar world seems complete, to me, with all its cultural richness, without needing black people or white people to make it a Real World with Real Diversity.

    The world isn’t written in black and white – there are shades of brown in between.

    If anything, the whole argument about making it more diverse by what they’re doing rings false to me, because they’re almost invoking the oh-so-stupid “colourblind” argument – like, being !ethnicity is a bit like being a punk or a hipster, what really matters is the dress code, it’s not something that ties into ancestry and non-superficial identity at all. So you can have a random group of multiracial people because monoculture despite differences in heritage is just How Things Work.

    I think I’m explaining what I mean quite badly, here. It’s the thing where it’s basically assuming that race doesn’t matter, in this world or the Avatar’s, that nationality is enough.

    Which is stupid. I was born in Africa and grew up in Australia. I’m half-Afrikaaner, half-British by ancestry. (Grandparents on one side were from England and Scotland, not South-African-British, which is a whole different thing.) This does not make me the same as a person whose parents are both Afrikaaner, or both British. And it sure as hell doesn’t make me the same as someone who was born in South Africa to parents who were both Zulu, even if that person also moved to Australia at the same age I did and grew up here. Our experiences would be different, and our cultural identities would be different.

    * Where my ancestors actually lived in peace with the natives, for the record. It helped that that period of southern African history is marked by a pattern of different groups conquering each other until the Hottentots were wiped out and the Kalahari tribes moved into the desert because no-one wanted it enough to kill them for it. My ancestors basically took land that was useless for the purposes of the natives, and lived there in peace until the British came and set out to kill them because it turned out there was a possibility of gold under their farms. Welcome to Africa, where EVERYONE got screwed over by the British.

  • Mac

    It is such blatant tokenism I can’t even begin to express myself properly.

  • Avatar was a show I briefly sort of watched in college, (but felt ashamed about, since it WAS a kids’ show). These days I’m hearing more about it and want to go out and buy every damn season. But there’s no way in hell I’m gonna pay money to see them make it into another fucking “white people save the day” movie.

    All of this crap where hollywood can’t trust that movie goers can be intelligent, has got to stop. It was a good show, people liked it, why change it to make it “more” palatable to white folks? As a white person, I’m offended they think I can’t relate to PoC heroes. Seriously? Do you think we’re all so lazy that you have to spell shit out for us? That we can’t use our imaginations to identify with Aang and Sokka and all the rest? We already watched it just fine when it wasn’t all about us, give us some fucking credit and make a movie (please!) that isn’t “niche” and doesn’t portray PoC in tokenized fashions.

    Damn it all.

  • TheDeviantE–
    i completely agree. white people can relate to the characters–and if not, so what? we have plenty of other characters out there to relate to.

    i watched the show too, even in college. don’t feel ashamed about watching kids shows. i still watch spongebob shamelessly, and i’m convinced that i’m supposed to. i’ve watched it since i was a kid, and a lot of the jokes are clearly written for adults–like the cameo by davy jones in the new episode–no ten year old knows who he is or why it’s funny–that’s for me to laugh at!
    the same goes for avatar. i think there’s elements in lots of cartoons that appeal to the kids they’re aimed at, but adults can find joy in them too!

  • Audacity

    I loved Avatar more than I can possibly say. There was never a better show for me to watch with my younger brother, a show that both of us loved and both of us could identify with, that I felt portrayed women as human beings to that young, developing man and that encouraged him to IDENTIFY with women, and that showed us that “bad guys” are not always just “bad” and that all life is worth something.

    I will not be seeing this horrible sham of a movie, and neither will anyone else I know. I hope someone gets organized boycotts and protests together!

  • One other thing I noticed in the casting of Africans as Earth Nation people: It’s totally a “captain planet” move. It reminds me so much of how Storm (in X-Men) and Kwame (in Captain Planet) are Africans and thus super de-duper in touch with nature. Oh and they’re brown and so is dirt it’s such a good coincidence! OMGEEZ.

  • dianne

    Off topic, but this made me think of something that gave me Hope for the Future that seemed worth sharing…

    Highlights High Five is a magazine for little kids and the characters in the recurring “Tex and Indi” stories recently magically became white with a new illustrator. My son was very upset by this and I emailed the publishers to express my concern. They emailed back to apologize and say that they were working with the new illustrator to address the problem, because the characters were supposed to be Hispanic, and that they wanted this to be clear to their readers. It was a bit more eloquent than that but – no excuses, no ducking the issue.

    Okay, Avatar on…

  • Westerly

    QoT wrote:
    As a (white) New Zealander, can I also say that no, Hollywood, having a Maori actor doesn’t make you diverse. Not when as soon as you take them out of NZ-made films and television they’re suddenly able to play characters of any race/ethnicity except Maori, and often just have Maori actors stand in as “foreign brown guy.”

    As a non-white person living in NZ? Co-sign. And I’m sick to death of seeing Cliff Curtis being the interchangeable and apparently universal ‘everybrownman’. Because all brown people look the same. *eyeroll*

    TheDeviantE wrote:
    “One other thing I noticed in the casting of Africans as Earth Nation people: It’s totally a “captain planet” move. It reminds me so much of how Storm (in X-Men) and Kwame (in Captain Planet) are Africans and thus super de-duper in touch with nature. Oh and they’re brown and so is dirt it’s such a good coincidence! OMGEEZ.”

    Ugh. But you’re right TheDeviantE. That’s totally what it is – Captain Planet for the 21st century, instead of it’s patronising brand of racist tokenism being left well behind in the 20th century where it belongs. Who on earth wants Avatar to be Captain Planet redux? *shudders*

    I know that the creators are American, as are the voice actors (who used to jarr on me from time to time, save for Mako, though it never made any sense for Uncle Iroh to be the *only* one with his accent, while the others including his own relatives had these broad, Anglo-Ammerican accents…)

    But visually, the ethnic and racial make-up of the Avatar world clearly doesn’t mirror North America’s so I don’t see what African Americans are doing in it, even as I appreciate that they get little representation (positive or negative) in Western fantasy. Is it really that hard to get Asian and Inuit leads for this?

    And the fact that the leads will remain reliabley white is going to be all the more laughable when there is a riot of convenient ethnic ‘colour’ in the background. If everybody else is not white, then how (and why) the heck are they there? Is Toph (Earthbender) going to be the magical, (yet inexplicably) white girl in a sea of brown fellow Earthbenders? If so, are they going to try and pass her off as an albino?

    How the heck is this even going to make any sense whatsoever? I love the illogical lengths people are willing to go to and the knots they are willing to twist their mind into in order to uphold racism.

  • Zahra

    That thud you heard was my head hitting the keyboard. Just when you think it couldn’t get worse…

    Can I just add how much I hate hate hate the casting of PoC as villians in otherwise white worlds? Sci-fi & fantasy is so rife with this–and also more likely than many other genres to create Outright Evil villains and to kill them. (I’m not talking about Avatar the animated series here.)

  • mm, and can I add, as a Black person: um, this isn’t going to make the NAACP happy. So, forget the patronizing, “throw a Negro in there” attempt, and show ATLAB how it’s supposed to be shown. I enjoyed it, all the way until the end (sniff) without once thinking, “Gee, where my peeps at?”

    Dag!

  • I’m really glad they’re not doing Book Two, because you just *know* they’d cast a deaf actress as Toph. What? She’s not blind, but it’s almost the same thing, right?

    Gah. I’m just sick about this, and especially about the fact that it’s being directed by a PoC.

  • I’m with you on this. I love Avatar; it’s one of the few animated shows I can watch without my sentiments being completely disturbed by sexist, racist, homophobic, or other disgusting undertones.

    I declare the movie a failure as long as it has a single white actor in a leading role. This is equivalent as trying to cast Storm (from X-men) as a white woman. It requires changing the story. Since the mythology of the Avatar-universe is very obviously not European-based at all, inserting those of European descent into the main leads completely changes the story. Not only that, the point you brought up–brown people killing brown people–infuriates the ever-loving hell out of me.

    You’d have to be eight different kinds of stupid to not realize the huge racist problems inherent in white-washing a story about non-white people and their cultures and then casting non-whites (doesn’t matter which non-whites, because the other is the the other, right?) only in major roles in which they are the villains. I wish I could say that this is rare, but it’s inherent in almost every major action movie.

    It’s a total double-standard. If Hollywood was producing a movie about the French Revolution, they would not cast an obviously non-European person for the role of Louis XVI. They’d never ever do it, because it would obviously be historically inaccurate. But historical and cultural accuracy is only important for whites, right? No problem, let’s just cast mostly white people to play roles that are obviously not for white people. Otherwise, you’d have to cast those icky non-white people and pay them and see them be visible in Hollywood as real actors instead of disgusting caricature of non-white exotic backwardness!

    Barf.

  • Redd

    Sammi wrote:
    “Where my ancestors actually lived in peace with the natives, for the record. It helped that that period of southern African history is marked by a pattern of different groups conquering each other until the Hottentots were wiped out and the Kalahari tribes moved into the desert because no-one wanted it enough to kill them for it. My ancestors basically took land that was useless for the purposes of the natives, and lived there in peace until the British came and set out to kill them because it turned out there was a possibility of gold under their farms. Welcome to Africa, where EVERYONE got screwed over by the British.”

    Sorry Sammi, but No. The land your ancestors took was not “useless for the purpose of the ‘natives’”. Those “natives” you refer to moved around. Just because they weren’t there when you arrived, doesnt mean it wasnt theirs or wasnt wanted or wasnt used. Those “natives” were mankinds early environmentalists: use the land for a while, move on to let it recover. Your take on history is analogous to a thief coming accross a house whose owners have gone to the coast for the summer and deciding that the house is now his because it is “useless for the purposes of the [owners]“. I think not.

    There’s an ole African proverb that’s apposite to your take on African history. It says: “Until the lion tells its tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter…”
    So yes, your history books may glorify your hunt, but be aware that they dont record the lions roar…

  • Tac-T-Karl

    Darn…actually really like the cartoon series and was kind of amped to see it, alas, I shall not. Thanks for the heads up…now to explain it all to my lil sis (who watches the show with me all the time)…cosign Jenn’s comment…

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