But Is It Racist?

There is a mutiny afoot in the Sepia Mutiny bunker. About half of us think that Joel Stein’s piece published in Time on Edison NJ was ill-humored garbage. The other half thinks it’s RACIST ill-humored garbage. I’m of the camp that thinks it’s racist. In the past few days the Desi blogosphere, twitterverse and facebookdom have been in uproar over this piece but what I find the most striking is the debate – “Is it or isn’t it racist?” What is it about the “R” word that makes us recoil and run to words like “stereotype” “bigot” or “xenophobic”? Why are we scared to call things racist?

I thought the article “My Own Private India” was racist – but then again, I come at things from a Critical Race Theory perspective where racialization is an inherent part of our history and narrative. It permeates through every aspect of living in the U.S., whether in how public policies and laws are implemented, healthcare is accessed or in a simple Time satire article. I think a lot of things are racist, more so than the average brown person, whether it be internalized, institutional or blatant. I think implicit biases are real, and people can be racist without intentionally doing so.

But instead of dissecting the Stein piece again, I wanted to highlight another racially controversial piece in the news. Today is the official premier of the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Last Airbender. The movie is based on the Nickelodeon anime-styled cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which is a cartoon heavily influenced by East Asian philosophies, there’s martial arts in it, and the cartoons are brownish Asian looking kids. But the controversy has been around the casting process of the movie. White kids were cast as the main three roles, and the evil people? Why they were cast as the Desis: Dev Patel (as Prince Zuko), Summer Bishil (Princess Azula), Aasif Mandvi (Commander Zhao) and Persian actor Shaun Toub (Uncle Iroh). Question is, is it racist?

Floating World had a fantastic piece on their blog about the history of face painting in the industry, and the use of white people in the entertainment industry to play people of color.

…”The Last Airbender” offends even more [than "Prince of Persia"] with its casting of newcomer/lesser known White actors over equivalent Asian actors to portray its starring Asian characters. The marketing reasons attached to famous actors does not apply here; instead, the marketing assumption is that White actors are more “capable” than Asian actors for pulling in viewers, with a possible secondary assumption in their “superiority” in acting abilities. This overarching assumption is the basis for an institutionalized racism innate to Hollywood’s long, long history of ethnic narratives. [floatingworld]

The blog goes on to show the casting call flyer where it states, “Who we are looking for: Boys, Age 12 -15 – Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” From the get go, the studios are setting an implicit preference. If it really didn’t matter what ethnicity Aang was supposed to be cast, why did they bother to name it in the flyer at all? It goes on to argue the good vs. evil angle of the casting for the movie.

Perhaps the greatest offense that the “heroic” characters are portrayed by lily White actors while the “villainous” characters are portrayed dark-skinned Indian actors in lieu of the fact that all the characters have distinctly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Inuit characteristics regardless of their “good” or “badness.” [floatingworld]

Good vs bad. White vs. Brown. If you watch the trailer – this is literally what it looks like – the good white characters are dressed up in light colored clothing and the dark evil characters are dressed up in dark and sinister clothing.

If the casting of the characters Aaang, Katara, and Sokka were so purposefully based on race blind casting – then how is it the casting of the evil characters just happened to be brown? In the cartoon version evil guy Zuko has a far lighter complexion than Sokka and Katara. Yet in this movie, Dev Patel is far darker than his cartoon counterpart. The people of the same tribe of Sokka and Katara are Native American and were cast with a distinctly East Asian/Native look to them, yet Sokka and Katara stand out in the tribe not looking at all like the tribe they are from.

The Last Airbender Cast.png

Desi, please.

This purports my conceit that Paramount blatantly reinforces racism at the institutional level, driven by innately racist assumptions and an ethnocentric desire to bundle Eastern culture – rich in history and human stories – into a big old Yellowface bowtie. Make it as pretty and shiny and “Asian-y” as you want – in the end, this movie is racist and a disrespectful slap in the face of the Eastern heritage it so wishes to profit off of. [floatingworld]

The kicker to all of this is that the director of the film is M. Night Shayamalan, a South Asian American. He should know better. Fine, maybe it’s wrong of me to hold fellow South Asian Americans to higher standards. Fact of the matter is he cast brown males that looked like him as the evil-doers. And that alone says a lot.

Dev Patel.jpg

So I’m calling it. I’m saying this movie version adaptation of The Last Airbender is racist. There was no outright hate speech said about one race to another. No name calling was had. But an event does not need to be outwardly explicit for racism to exist. When the studios chose to adapt an “Asian” cartoon and yellow-face the White cast, that was clearly an example of institutional racism. When they had an “open” casting call but chose White actors and actresses, it was a form of implicit bias towards White people. The casting of Asian Americans as secondary roles and backdrop was clearly a form of tokenism, or in other words, let’s cast people of color in lesser parts to make those protesters happy. Throw them a bone, give them a token. As for casting brown people as the evil fire-bending peoples, its clearly taking a stereotype and running with it. Finally, as much as it hurts me to say this, clearly Shyamalan has some internalized racism issues he has to deal with. Especially if he’s going to be influencing millions of people world wide with his movies.

Back to Stein’s piece. It was anti-immigrant, clearly a xenophobic piece. But was it racist? To me, yes it was racist. By virtue of it being a xenophobic piece, it was a racist piece. There was institutional racism with the way Time magazine let a piece like this through their filter and published. There was blatant stereotyping of the Desis living in Edison NJ, as well as the perpetuation of the model minority myth. Just because it was a satire didn’t give it a free pass to not be called racist – satires can be racist, too. Just because it was unintentional doesn’t give it a free pass, either. Our American history is wrought with unintentional racism.

Why does all this bug me? Why did I let the debate around one word affect me like this? Because, change needs to happen, now. We need to voice our dissent, now. We need to not shy away from words like “racism” and instead name it like we see it. Then move the dialogue forward. In the end, this may be a minor issue. The Last Airbender will be on the Blockbuster shelves within no time considering the reviews for the movie are that bad. Stein’s article will get lost in the recycling bin. In the end, these really are minor issues and we should be focusing on the bigger and badder fights out there. But I don’t just write on Sepia Mutiny because I like brown people. I write on Sepia Mutiny to tell the counter narrative of our South Asian American community. We are putting words in the form of a blog to narrate our community. These two incidents have had a profound affect on the South Asian American community, if only reminding us how the outside mainstream America perceives our community.

I’ll respect our differences. I understand that your definition of what is racist is different than my definition of racist. But I’m going to continue to call it like I see it. And promote the petition put out by SAALT to Time magazine. As well as personally boycott The Last Airbender and encourage others to do the same.

Don’t just take my word on not going to watch The Last Airbender. Angry Asian Man did just did a review on the movie, and his take away message? “You might not have to boycott this movie — it’s so bad, it could boycott itself.”

Things got heated on ANNA’s blog post on Stein’s piece. Let’s play nice in the comments here and have a fruitful dialogue.

This entry was posted in Community, Film, Identity, Musings by Taz. Bookmark the permalink.

About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

205 thoughts on “But Is It Racist?

  1. Yoaga Fire,

    Can you read? have you read any of those reports talking about the studio? All they say is that the film and M Night’s casting is racist.

    What I still can’t believe is that I have to explain to desis that they need to stick up for each other in the face of people trying to bring them down.

    The whole world has it in for him and you so-called desis can’t even back the man up. This is why our countries get colonized.

    I’m done with this blog, and bothering to try and convince you guys. The notion of trying to find some desi solidarity is long gone. Your forefathers and ancestors would be ashamed of you uncle toms.

    One day, you guys might wake up and realize that what I am saying is true. In the meantime, just keep swallowing the white party line and be a good little immigrant.

    Greta job guys, well done.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with quasi – well said.

    It truly is a sad state of affairs. No other race in the world would be so unsupportive to one of their own. They would understand the importance of having role models – not just for themselves but for their kids too.

    And I bet if they asked their parents/ grandparents/ forefathers/ ancestors what they think, they would agree with quasi and I.

    You guys are so wrapped up in being what you think you are supposed to be that you can’t even see your way to supporting one of your brothers.

    What is wrong with you desis – get yourselves angry and FIGHT BACK. Don’t just let these things slide.

    I too am leaving this blog – it is a sad excuse for a desi blog and frankly, I’m sorry I ever looked at it.

  3. quasi,

    let’s just sum this up:

    1. m. night shyamalan had been criticized long before Airbender was released on wholly legitimate grounds. as i said above, and as even linzi pointed out, shyamalan’s own ego is the cause of his decline in fortune, not some conspiracy by the old boys network. just look at the controversy surrounding the produciton of LITW at Disney. we can separate that from the racial episode that is currently associated with him.

    2. supporting desis means just that: supporting. what you are advocating is a blanket rationalization of all desi incidents all the time. but just as there are sanjay guptas on the one end whom we cheer, there are anand jons on the other (though we hope their population is miniscule). indian-americans are ultimately still americans. the political identity and responsibility as citizens, or in this case, critics of culture/cinema, shouldn’t automatically go out the window simply because someone shares the same ethnic background. I sincerely hope shyamalan’s fortunes improve and have always castigated the crab mentality that some among us have. but can you honestly tell me you would pull a community-wide OJ campaign for anand jon?–god no. community support doesn’t mean we throw common sense out the window.

    my common sense tells me that shyamalan needs to get back to the basics and focus less on vanity projects–which by his own admission this was. so please, end the uncle tom taunts of everyone who expresses a different opinion than your own. this debate has managed to funnel together “secular congress party supporters who admittedly know nothing of maoism” as well as “hindoo fundamentalists” (who have frequently been banned on this site for passionately defending legitimate, mainstream, tolerant, conservative political positions). Neither side deserves this taunt, which frankly, if we really want to get racial, is disrespectful of african americans as well. and my being a proud indian american doesn’t mean i can only have indian friends. i have plenty of black friends who are, surprise, children of sociologists. trust me, none of them would appreciate the use of that literary device in this debate. So if we want racial sensitivity, let’s practice what we preach.

  4. the real one and quasi -

    I just don’t understand your way of thinking.

    I don’t know what to think of the Airbender/Shy issue tbh. I don’t know much about the cartoon; from reading the this entry it seems the characters are not specific to any ethnicities…just based on imagination. The cartoons characters are not specific to east asian characters and they don’t even look east asian – i mean look at their eyes? They look more south asian or caucasian or black. Anyways so I was leaning that M.Knight shouldn’t be put down b/c he cast non east asian characters.

    But then realizing in his casting call, they specified caucasian first – well, that to me means M. Knight was pulled into the pressures of already eurocentric hollywood. It’s unfortunate he fell for that pressure. I would never go toward Taz’s attitude and call him out on internal racism. But I do believe he, like many directors and producers, were pressured by the bottom line and that often seems to mean in hollywood having white leads.

    I think it’s great that the Indian American community can criticize M.Knight and we should and it shows our strength. I don’t agree with the “UT” and internal racism characterization, but I’m glad some Indian Americans validly can say, hollywood needs to change and M. Knight has, I’m sure, some power over the casting so he could have helped in this change.

    And in this blog, I know that the bloggers have asked not to use that crap phrase – “ut” as well as “fob”.

    Sorry, I can’t stand when some communities cannot criticize and self-analyze themselves. They usually come from societies that I think are incredibly insecure in themselves and do not have freedom speech.

    To me, the fact that Indian Americans have valid criticisms of M. Knight, not ad hominem attacks – the casting call says a lot to me, shows a security in their culture and position and not a weakness.

  5. “quasi” and “The Real One” are the same troll. They have been banned. Using multiple handles on the same thread is a pathetic way to make it seem as if your poorly-taken point has support. We ban for it, on the first strike.

    Using the utterly creative insult “Uncle Tom” will get you warned once if we’re in a forgiving mood, then banned. Stay on topic and make your points in a civil fashion or this thread will be closed.