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Racebending 101: Snappy Talking Points for the Discouraged

So...I've noticed that when people talk, or rather "complain" about racist concerns over the casting for "The Last Airbender" film a number of similar rebuttals pop up. Here's a talking points/cheat sheet for those who run up against these opposing arguments.

I'm getting them a lot and it's pretty frustrating. So I figured I'd prepare very quick, one or two sentence snappy comebacks, like glockgal did. Here are some basic examples, with more behind the cuts. Hopefully these help. They might even apply to *gasp* other movies.

It's just a kid's TV show/movie!
Yeah, kids are watching.
Got to get the colored kids desensitized to this kind of under-representation; might as well get them started early.

Why are you people making such a big deal out of this?!
Well, usually when Hollywood appropriates another culture but rejects actors from that culture, they still leave in one or two token minorities.
This cast has no people of color as leads at all, whatsoever.
It sends the message that the culture is good enough, but the people are not.
Oh, and um, kids are watching.
Edit: Since this thing was written several months ago, the production has cast people of color--as background, secondary, and antagonist characters. There is still a glass ceiling.

Category 1: I see no brown people in the cartoon! You must prove to me they're not white!

But there's no Asia or "Asians" in the Avatar setting, just "benders".
Then why did Nickelodeon initially advertise the TV series as set in an "Asian world"? Why does the Intellectual Property Bible affirm that the series is Asian? Why were cultural consultants hired to help create Asian characters, and why have people who worked on the production confirmed that the characters are Asian?

The show is set in a fantasy world, not Asia!
Oh, so the default physical appearance for all characters in live-action fantasy worlds is anglo-saxon, western European facial features and coloring?

Aang has huge eyes, not slanty ones! He doesn't look Asian (to me)!
He's a cartoon character.
Not all Asians have stereotypical, tiny, slanty eyes--in fact, the majority don't.
Are all of those Asians also "white until proven otherwise"?

Katara is actually a tan white girl, because she has blue eyes and only white people have blue eyes.
Some Asians do have blue eyes.
The creators of the TV show gave the characters eye colors corresponding to their "elements."
Airbenders have grey eyes, Earthbenders have green eyes, Waterbenders have blue eyes, and Firebenders have orange eyes.

But Aang has gray eyes! And white people have gray eyes! Asians have brown eyes!
Even if white people had an exclusive monopoly on non-brown eyes (which they don't) ONE potentially Caucasian trait does not invalidate all of Aang's dozens of distinctly Asian traits.
That's like saying the geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha wasn't really Asian because she had blue eyes and white people happen to have blue eyes, too. She was a geisha. Aang is a monk based off the Dalai Lama.

The characters don't have Asian accents or sound Asian, so they can't possibly be Asian.
Accents are regional. Hence Asian Americans with southern accents from Texas.
Most Asian American actors don't have accents. Does that mean they aren't really Asian?

Yeah, well, Katara acts like a normal American teenager, so her actress should be white.
(someone actually said this. really.)
So...all American teenagers, who act normal, are...white?
Non-white American teenagers...aren't normal...?
I'm so confused.

Category 2: Reverse Racism!!!

Why are you attacking the kid actors; it's not their fault they are white!
We're not.
We're criticizing the producers, who did not think children of color were suitable to play in a movie based on their own cultures.
It's not those kids' faults that they're brown, either.

So, are you saying that white people can't play Asians? Isn't that reverse racism? If these Caucasians are actors, then why can't they just "act" Asian through makeup and costumes?
Why can't Asian people act in Asian parts before they're offered up to non-Asian people?
It sends the message that white people can play more authentic Asian characters than Asians themselves.
Yellowface was the practice of 'acting' Asian. It promoted horrible and demeaning stereotypes.
Asian actors should have the same opportunities to play Asian characters as white actors have to play white characters.

The voice actor for ____ isn't a person of color, so the character must be white, too.
Yeah, and the voice actor for Appa, Dee Bradley Baker, isn't really a "sky bison."
The voice cast was still more diverse than the current movie cast.

Maybe the selected kids just happened to be the best actors for the job?
Except by writing "Caucasian or any other ethnicity" on the casting sides, the production made their preference for Caucasian actors clear form the beginning.
Normally when ethnicity is left open-ended, casting sides read "Any Ethnicity."
These guys labeled non-Caucasian kids as 'Others.'
The casting side for extras reads "All Ethnicities". See the difference?

Saying "Whites aren't allowed" is racist.
We're asking for a diverse cast that is actually representative of the source material. It's not about boycotting 'whites.'
Caucasian actors are all that are allowed in the film right now, it's the minority actors who aren't. That's not racist at all?

Category III: Shut up whining minorities! I don't see color!

Racism isn't a big deal anymore; grow up. Obama is president (because he didn't use his race as an excuse to be lazy!)
Obama is one African American out of forty-four Caucasian American presidents and that isn't simply because all non-whites were lazy.
Even Obama has faced racist treatment and rude comments--and he's the President of the United States.

My friend is a minority and doesn't think this casting is racist.
Just because you know someone who thinks it isn't discriminative, doesn't mean they speak for all of us.
Your friend's opinion and minority status do not immediately invalidate our points.

Minorities just need to stop whining.
And just bend over and take it. Yes.
It might not be pretty to hear about discrimination. It's even harder to face it daily.
Whining is how we were finally granted the right to sit at the front of the bus.
Stop whining about our whining.

Category IV: Well, that's show business for you!

The producers and studios weren't racially motivated in casting only white actors, just financially motivated.
So...you're saying it wasn't ideologically-driven discrimination, just financially-driven discrimination.
It's still discrimination.
That makes it acceptable, how?

No one will see the movie if the movie stars or heavily features unknown minority actors.
So...Disney's success from the High School Musical, Wendy Wu, and Cheetah Girls franchises don't count?
Avatar was popular even though there were no Caucasian cartoon characters in it.
The kind of people who won't go see it if there are no white characters will probably be turned off by the Asian setting, too.
Who would go see it?
  • Minority families excited by the prospect of a kids movie where they're ethnicity is represented.

  • People pleased that casting was done in a culturally competent manner.

  • All the fans who are boycotting it now.

It's patronizing to believe that most viewers are so intolerant and narrow-minded that they must need a white viewpoint in the story in order to 'get it'.

It was doomed when M. Night was attached to the project, anyway.
Maybe so (yeah, probably), but it wasn't both doomed AND riddled with discriminative casting practices until recently.

But it was going to suck anyway! You should be happy they didn't cast Asian actors--they dodged a big bullet!
How magnanimous of studio executives to protect minority actors by denying them job opportunities. I guess I should be thanking them!

What difference will this letter writing movement even make?
It's better than saying nothing.
By saying it's inappropriate and refusing to see the movie, we're trying to put the producers on notice.
We're letting them know that this kind of casting is embarrassing, discriminative, and inappropriate.
We are showing the film industry, hopefully, that we will no longer stand for discriminative casting.

OMG it's just a movie. It's not a big deal!
Yes, it's just a movie.
But it's also a microcosm of how deeply ingrained these discriminative attitudes are in society, especially when many people are so casually dismissive of these hiring practices.

It's a big deal to those who do not have opportunities to star in film due simply to their ethnic appearance. Avatar was supposed to be an opportunity for children of color. It would have given them a chance to see actors who look like them star as heroes instead of sidekicks.

Yes, it's just a movie. For young, impressionable kids, of all people.

I really loved the television show and this franchise. I loved the message of peace and cultural inclusion and harmony that Avatar was teaching kids and families.

To see Avatar corrupted instead into a symbol of discrimination, blocking opportunity to those rarely given any, is incredibly depressing.

Especially since this discriminatory casting will be presented to children of all ethnicities as something acceptable, normal, and not a big deal at all.


So what's the hypothetical happy ending here?

M. Night apologizes and says "OMFG! So sry! We'll cast all Asians/Inuits, kthnxbi!"

And then everyone on the planet sees the movie, it makes bajillions of dollars, topples Titanic as the best grossing movie EVAAR, and then...?

I kinda hope this happens, because I am so down with copying that marketing strategy: find an IP that people love, publicly violate it, then apologize, "fire" the cast you weren't really going to use anyways, pay them their hush money, and then crap something out for story, plot, dialogue, characterization, effects, etc. Lesson: watch the grosses closely on this movie for more possible avenues of audience exploitation.

PS-Keep fighting the good fight.
There is no happy ending. The contracts are probably already signed, with the exception of one main character. The studio made decisions, probably anticipating a little bit of criticism from one or two quarters, but not enough to scare them off from actually casting like this.

Hopefully this movement will send the message that a target audience is watching, a target audience does not approve, and maybe they or some other studio will regret or think twice the next time they want to cast insensitively. There are many situations where silence is construed as approval, so I figure, even if we can't change anything, we can still show our disapproval. A lot of protests operate under those parameters. It's still better than nothing; it's still better than just sitting by and idly letting it happen.
I agree, grievances must be aired.

However, when the movie bombs, will it be the casting director's fault, or Shyamalan's? More importantly, who will get blamed for it?

Worst case scenario: it's box office boffo.

The protesting HAS been getting attention. Maybe the casting directors will consider changing it?

Oh, and just one thing! Are Asians really minorities? There are more of them than any other race. Feel free to correct me if I'm saying something wrong.
This definition is somewhat dated, but it generally explains the term 'minority' for both America and (somewhat, although it's 'visible minority' in) Canada. I can't speak for other Westernized countries.

MINORITY GROUP = A group typically numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a state, in a non-dominant position, whose members--being nationals of the state-- possess ethnic, religious, or linguistic characteristics distinguishing them from the rest of the population. Typically, members of a minority group share a desire to preserve their culture, traditions, religion, or language. A minority group can sometimes be a numerical majority in a minority group position. Minority group status is not a matter of numbers; it is determined by the presence of distinguishing features such as discrimination. Central features characterizing a minority group are:

* The members of a minority group suffer various disadvantages at the hand of another group;
* A minority group is identified by group characteristics that are socially visible;
* A minority is a self-conscious group with a strong sense of "oneness";
* People usually do not become members of a minority group voluntarily; they are born into it;

[Source, A.J. Jongman & A.P. Schmid. Monitoring Human Rights. Manual for Assessing Country Performance. Leiden, LISWO, 1994. 350 pp. + software, p.257 (from Part III:Glossary, which defines some 750 terms).]

Edited at 2009-01-18 04:39 pm (UTC)

in short

"Minority" isn't just about sheer quantity of number. Yes, many people on the planet are "Asian." Asia is also the largest continent and has (irrc) 37 countries.

Population-wise, people of Asian descent might be numerous. (In the United States, though, Asians only make up 4% of the population.) But when we talk about the definition, we're not talking about quantity, we're talking representation. Asian Americans in the United States have been traditionally discriminated against. They have faced many social disadvantages and are not proportionately represented--especially not in media, despite being huge consumers.

In the avatar-fans group I tried to distinguish between why getting a "tan" is not the same as being "brown" or a minority. At the end of the day, when production wraps, the tan comes off. The actor becomes eligible for all of the Caucasian roles that are blocked off to other minorities. It's not the same. It's not something you can shed or escape. It is something easy to ignore, and that's why we're making a ruckus.
Dude!! I need to post this at the top of my original Avatar FAQ post, in case people don't feel like wading through all my stuff! This is brilliant stuffs. *YAY FOR YOU*
Beautifully written rebuttals, hon! This pretty much sums up most of the arguments I've been getting across the internet. This is going to help out so much and I intend to quote these with credit. *nod nod*
The voice actor for ____ isn't a person of color, so the character must be white, too.
Yeah, and the voice actor for Appa, Dee Bradley Baker, isn't really a "sky bison."

I officially love you.


My freaking God, these are brilliant. Thank you so much for these answers, I needed them so badly. I was starting to think I had failed for not being able to have the answers.

I love your brain. xDD

Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart, I sincerely thank you.