There are a few things you should know about me before I start ranting. I am a white heterosexual Christian cis male middle-class American. I am a member of the majority in pretty much every area of life. I am privileged in ways that it took me a long time to fully understand.
And racism still pisses me off so much I can’t even see straight.
I admit to being fairly ignorant of the concept of privilege for most of my life. And I know that what I’m about to say won’t mean as much as if it had come from the fingertips of somebody who truly understands oppression. But I still have opinions on this, and if you don’t want to read them, get out now. This is mostly related to drama on Katrina’s blog, but a lot of this has been stewing for a while so I’m letting it all out.
Also, if my white privilege causes me to say anything ignorant, feel free to correct me (politely, if you can).
I am a member of the Korra fandom. “Racebending” has been an issue in the Avatar fandom since M. Night Shyamalan directed the abysmal The Last Airbender, casting white people in the main roles, erasing pretty much all the references to Chinese culture, and generally making things really awkward for everybody.
One of the hot-button issues right now that tends to draw out all the assholes is the issue of “whitewashing” Korra in fanart, drawing her with lighter skin and blaming it on a trick of the light. One artist recently responded to criticism on this by drawing Korra and shading her pitch black. I’m talking literally black as coal.
This did not go over well.
Fandom racism is something that a lot of people aren’t even aware of until they’ve vomited their unconscious hatred out for all to see, or at least I’d hope so. And the thing is, I can deal with the trolls and diehard racists because I can write them off as simply ignorant, but there is another group of people who grate on my last nerve.
You’ve seen them everywhere. The people who say, “Oh, this is the 21st century: race isn’t an issue anymore,” or “We’re all human, why can’t we all just get along?” They intrude on any serious discussion about racism and turn it into an argument on whether the discussion should be had in the first place since we’ve “obviously” moved past all that in our modern age of puppies and unicorns and diversity where everybody is happy and not talking about things makes them not exist.
This is, very frankly, utter bullshit.
The main problem with this argument mostly has to do with when it’s used. It is always, always, ALWAYS introduced to change the subject and avoid actually discussing the issue. It’s a convenient way of saying, “I don’t want to talk about this because it makes me uncomfortable so nobody should talk about it” without actually coming out and revealing what a selfish ass that attitude makes you.
Here’s another common defense I see a lot:
“I didn’t mean to whitewash! I wasn’t even thinking about race!”
Exactly. You weren’t thinking about it. That is precisely the problem.
This one is most commonly trotted out in situations like the one above, when a fanartist draws a character with caucasian skintone instead of their actual color. However, it can express itself in other situations as well.
A couple days ago, somebody I follow “fancasted” Jennifer Lawrence to play Artemis Crock from Young Justice. I can see the thought process here: Lawrence played a badass archer in The Hunger Games, so she’s obviously the perfect choice. Except that Artemis is half-Vietnamese, and was in fact based on the niece of one of the producers, who has blonde hair and is half-Korean.
Now, a lot of you might not see the problem here. It’s not like this person was an actual casting director with the power to make it happen; she just thought it would be cool.The race issue never even entered her mind. But that is exactly the problem.
There is a concept called the default human being which proposes that, given no indication otherwise, we tend to imagine fictional people as belonging to our own race. The THG connection is actually interesting, because of the whole debacle with fans of the book crying foul that Rue was portrayed by a black actress even though it said in the damn book that she was dark-skinned. I didn’t even read the books and I know that thanks to fandom osmosis. But it didn’t matter, because given no visual reason to believe otherwise, these people imagined Rue as a little white girl, and nothing could change their minds.
It’s not that they meant to be racist, at least not what they thought of as racist, which consists of wearing sheets and burning crosses in the front yard, or making people use different bathrooms. And yet thousands of people launched hateful vitriol in the direction of Amandla Stenberg, a prepubescent girl, just because she didn’t match up to the image they had in their heads.
And that’s the problem here: unconscious racism IS STILL RACISM. What lesson do you think Hollywood is taking away from this whole debacle? The sad truth of the matter is that the reason so many racial stereotypes exist in Hollywood is that part of appealing to a wide audience means appealing to their prejudices, whether those prejudices are conscious or not. They’ve learned that if they don’t cater to all our preconceived notions, their movies won’t make money.
And that’s why, even on a “fancasting” level, this is an issue because it starts with thoughts, or lack thereof. And the fact that so few mixed-race actors get enough exposure to immediately leap to most people’s minds says a lot about how internalized Hollywood’s racism is. A lot of film students have dream casts already in mind before they even shoot their first movie. How many of those do you think include POCs?
You may not have meant it, but that doesn’t reverse it or excuse it. You can apologize all you want for elbowing me in the face, but that won’t stop my nose from bleeding.
I don’t think a lot of people understand how important role models are. As I explained at the very beginning of this post, I am in no conceivable way a minority. I can look at literally any movie, television show, book, comic or video game and find myself represented. Other people can’t, and that’s what’s wrong.
Make no mistake, what we put in our popular entertainment reflects the values we hold as people and as a society. Greg Rucka was making a different point when he said this, but it still applies so I’m including it anyway:
Art – and even if that art is commercial art, produced for entertainment – feeds and is fed by the society that consumes it.
Movies, TV, books, comics, video games: all of these and more are meant not only to entertain, but to communicate ideas that can’t be expressed in a straightforward manner, but have to be explored through observing people and how these ideas affect their lives. And race is one of those ideas.
It’s important for Korra to be a POC because there are children out there who hate their own skin. Skin-bleaching is a common practice in a lot of countries where “whiter is better,” and there are actual commercials for skin-whitening cream in countries like India. The one I just linked to literally says, “The obstacle to my dream job was my skin.” People are willing to physically damage their skin just because somebody told them a lie and said that dark skin is not beautiful. Seeing a character who is dark and proud is a very powerful message to send to a child, because ideas take root deep within us and affect us more than most people would like to admit.
The “we’re all human” defense is bullshit because it ignores the fact that not everybody feels that way, and people receive different treatment regardless of how much you try to ignore it. The Declaration of Independence might say that “All men are created equal,” but nobody ever really talks about what happens after that, when that person is raised in an environment where others are treated better while they are treated worse and they grow up to resent the ones who receive better treatment.
Skin color affects the environment in which you’re raised and the experience you have in the world. Period. There is a scientific theory called Umwelt which posits that animals in the same environment can experience very different worlds because their senses pick up on different things, as illustrated by this xkcd comic. Everything about you determines how you view the world, and how you’re treated by it.
And that’s why characters like Korra and Artemis are so important. They provide a positive example for POCs everywhere to look to and say, “That’s how it’s done.” There are other characters too, like Ultimate Spider-Man’s Miles Morales, Jaime Reyes from Blue Beetle, and Monica Rambeau from The Avengers and Nextwave. YJ even has another dark-skinned blonde in Aqualad. But characters like these are the exception, not the rule, and until that changes, race will not stop being an issue.
To anybody who’s made it this far and isn’t part of the choir I’m most likely preaching to at this point: I get that it can be difficult to see people calling you out on reinforcing racism, even if you didn’t mean it. But saying that the thought of race didn’t even cross your mind sends the message to POCs that you don’t feel like they’re even worth that thought.
And that’s why this is so very fucking important.