Friday, December 12, 2008

All the world's white, the rest of us merely live in it.


My name is Willow and I'm upset, confused and feel incredibly insulted. There are several conversations happening right now about the Avatar: The Last Airbender live action casting. And I keep seeing stuff like this:

"But there's no ASIA in that universe, so how can they be ASIAN? Plus, Ang is so light skinned and he has big wide ROUND eyes so he's obviously white & Zuko is at least mixed. But really the Fire Nation is the only one who's anything remotely Asian...."

And it hit me really, really, REALLY hard that white people have absolutely no problem with the central villains of the piece being Asian. But the heroes (and one anti-hero) are so OBVIOUSLY white (or at least half-white).

And on top of that, it hit me that even WITH the trappings of the fantasy ghetto; the architecture, language, names, writing, symbols and marital arts of East Asia it was never obvious to this group of people that this was a Non-Eurocentric, non white-centric fantasy.

I'm reminded of seeing a sliver of a post by Elizabeth Bear where she ended up having to prove that there are black people who have red hair and freckles by posting PICTURES. Because someone couldn't quite take the author's word on her work that her characters were. not. white.


I'm trembling at the realization that because I don't want to write about characters of colour in ethnic fantasy ghettos - then my characters won't be seen as not being white. If fricking AVATAR characters aren't obviously Asian, then what the fuck hope do any characters I write have?

If I say brown, will everyone who is white think 'Oh, they have a tan'?

If they're dark with anything but brown eyes, will that been seen as further proof of their whiteness in the eyes of everyone who isn't me?

Do my male characters have to be big and muscular and very dark skinned with no name in order to be a person of colour?

Will my hero, no matter what, be seen as white? Because all these people need is a honky is the only thing white people can see? Because that's what they're saying about Avatar. That of course Aang is white. He saved the day!

I am shaking in my anger and my fear and my mind blown wtf and... I think, my hatred. Right now I seriously, seriously hate white people. No doubt this feeling will pass, especially as seeing how I have relatives various groups in the world would look upon as white. And I love those relatives dearly.

But right now? I'm hating.

I hate the fact that two very white guys, went out of their way to create a non-white, non-Eurocentric fantasy world and apparently for quite a few people, they failed in that task.

I hate the fact that people are bringing up LOTR as a defense of seeing whiteness in Avatar. As if LOTR wasn't primarily about a Euro-centric, specifically British-centric white mythology as Tolkien himself wanted it to be..

I hate the fact that unless you're as dark as burnt walnut with a flat nose and bright white teeth and big lips - then in fantasy you won't be seen as being of colour.

I hate the fact that unless someone specifically refers to a character in stereotypical, caricature terms they won't be seen as Asian.

I hate that there are so many people who cannot see how they're using white as the default.

I hate that there're people asking me why I'm upset, cause skin tone doesn't really matter, what matters is the heart of the story.

I hate and despair.

ETA: A Letter Writing Campaign Against Avatar:TLB's White Casting


  1. This has pissed me off so much! And I hate how so many white ppl are like "ppl are white until proven otherwise in a court of law"... I mean it just doesn't occur to them that maybe THEY should be the one with the onus to prove a char is white rather than "well there's not enuf evidence to prove he's NOT white, so we should go with white".

    And the "omg they're not on Earth".. well in which case there's no WHITE ppl either right? It's hilarious how it's just so default "if there's no Asia, there's no Asians, but there are ALWAYS white ppl on other worlds, Star Trek taught me that!"

  2. The whole thing is super-WTF to me because even as an outsider, it's BLATANTLY OBVIOUS to me that everyone is supposed to be Asian-flavored. I can't understand how someone can look at that world and think, "Hmmm, yes, these are clearly a bunch of whitefokes."

    I can only hope that the letter-writing campaign has some effect, because this is STUPID.

    (And makes me worried about my webcomic project of "fantasy story with no white people.")

  3. First of all, thank you for writing this. Once I've sent this comment I'm actually going to go link to it on my own blog, because you've so clearly stated EXACTLY what I've been trying to get across to people these last few days: that "white as the default" is NOT okay, and that this kind of whitewashing does real harm to real people.

    If you haven't already seen, some of us are trying to come together and do something about this:

    I'll be linking to your blog, as well. We need to get the word out on this, and your help in doing so is very much appreciated!

  4. Aang Ain't White:

    I've seen your protest letter posts, I believe I linked to it in a prior entry. And I'm hoping to post my own letters this week (rain this past weekend did me in).

    I'm glad my words spoke to you. I've just been so angry - mostly at the same thing; white as the default but it's ok if the 'bad guys' are Asian.

  5. This.

    And then I am reminded of Tarzan, King of the Jungle. Glory. Last Samurai. Dances with Wolves. Even Kill Bill.

    Because at the end of the day, white people see themselves as the center of the universe, and we exist only to provide them with music, food, clothing, spirituality AKA, "culture" to dabble in.

    We are producers of things to be consumed- our existence like the animals of the Bible, was made manifest by the Creator to serve their whims and needs, including to provide them with forgiveness and love and reassure them that "Racism is over" (TM) and to be grateful we were not all slaughtered in the colonization.

    Oh Thank Whitey!

  6. Bankuei:

    Hey, long time no see.

    Your comment reminded me of John Jenning's, The Hole: Consumer Culture a graphic novel I promoted in the 1st PoC in SF Carnival.

    I can't find the quote now, probably because the book preview doesn't show that part anymore. But he talked about hip-hop, for example, was created by blacks as a mode of self expression only to be co-opted by whites, redefined by whites & sold to whites to make money. He had an interesting way of saying how the music industry is built upon the backs of slavery and how culture co-opting is just another form of imperialism.

    We were product then, we are meant to be product now.

    That's what I'm seeing with the Avatar Live Action casting. That's what 'Prove to me that in another world, these people -aren't- white' says. It says, we've come in, we're co-opting, STFU already.

    And it's a mentality. Because the creators of Avatar: The Animates Series are both white. So it's not so much about who creates it anymore. Anything positive & respectful must be co-opted and pre-chewed and stamped with the imperial seal.

    I couldn't go to theaters to see The Forgotten Kingdom. I wanted to see Jackie Chan & Jet Li on screen together. But not when it all centers around a white boy being The Chosen One. It was amazing to me that a film so full of visual cues to Hong Kong cinema (just in the trailers alone) couldn't have a young Asian, specifically Chinese, boy at the center.

    The Last Samurai just made me think of Shogun, the book and the mini-series & The Laura Croft movies. Croft goes all over the world and there are always minority figures there to make her a cup of tea, give her clothes plus supplies and help her in HER mission to save the world. Even when they know more about what's going on than she does.

    Exotic locations, mysterious philosophies/religions, ancient societies & civilizations - all just a backdrop.

    Creative taxation without representation? Or is it just that white folks annex -everyone-?

  7. Aside from the basic level of insidious where the fiction is built around a white normative just because...

    I think it goes deeper to the issue of needing to reinforce that white normative belief- in the same way sexism continues to work because men have to keep reminding themselves (and everyone else) that the world has to revolve around them.

    In this case, it's about controlling who gets to have full fledged heroes. Ultimately, heroic fiction is an empowerment fantasy, but in the case where we're looking at folks already empowered, it's about a reinforcement for them and a disempowerment fantasy for us. It's about reminding everyone where they belong in a "perfect world". (and very often, the source of our villainization coincides with what is blamed at destroying the perfection in the fantasy)

    It's playing out the oppressive message of "If only you people would...(get back in line)". Hence why in these fantasies, "good" little POC/women serve their betters and "bad" ones get killed (especially lesbians).

    All of this serves well when it comes to real world political stuff, because then you have a population well indoctrinated with the hierarchy expectations.

    We don't "need" to rationalize why it's ok for police to shoot someone 58 times without any evidence they were a threat- the rationalizations have already been made in fiction and fantasy. The people have already been explained what's expected of them, and the typical punishments already enacted over and over, so you don't have to think when it comes to perpetuating the oppression.

    And not thinking? That's how it keeps going.

  8. As a white male, I am baffled and dismayed at the Avatar casting (and at the white-centric comments like those above). I love Avatar for many reasons, one of which is that it is SOMETHING ELSE. I like my Anglo heritage just fine, but I've always seen myself as a small piece of a very large human jigsaw, and I like it that way. I like the idea that when I step outside my door, I will meet other people, not so I can consume or co-opt their cultural products, but so I can enjoy SOMETHING ELSE. I eat Indian food to taste spices, not to feel "ethnic" or "cultured".

    And the worst part is, I don't know how to talk about these things anymore. Is this some sort of guilt or shame or embarrassment (at this cultural imperialism)? Is it even appropriate for me to say anything, being white? Is that just another sort of pseudo-racism? I have no idea. I'm lost.

  9. josephrobertlewis:

    While I appreciate the parts of your comments that are a support for a more multi-ethnic Avatar: TLAB Movie - the rest of your comment is asking both for cookies and pats on the head and for Anti-racism 101.

    I don't do 101.

  10. This is an awesome post, and I linked to it in response to yet another "But it's faaaaaantasy! There's no Asia in Avatar-land!" comment.

    It's so true, and it's saddening and sickening that Hollywood came in and took this show, which Bryan & Mike researched meticulously and did a pretty good job at not crossing the line into Exotic Orientalism, and fucked that all up with their all-white casting.

    And the kids with the "But I never saw them as Asian" make me want to cry. I hope I was never that clueless as an idiot teenager, but I probably was. Thank whatever I found some pants (even if they fall down sometimes, I'm sure.) Hopefully these kids will grow up and find pants, too.

    (Not asking for cookies or head pats; just trying to balance my cynicism with a little hope: maybe *this time* it'll get through to them, since eventually I realized what an idiot I was (and still sometimes am), maybe they will too.)

  11. This is nothing new; various white folk have insisted that anime & manga chars look white for years. Characters drawn by Japanese creators, with Japanese names, who live in Japan. But obviously the Japanese so idolize Caucasians that they draw all their chars to look like Caucasians. You know, with two eyes and a nose and a mouth and hair. Unmistakably white! After all, only white people have eyes that take up two-thirds of their heads...