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. This sort of pandering profit scheming is nothing new in Hollywood (although it is very disappointing – not to mention almost astonishing – to see people here defending it).

    But it’s not limited to Hollywood. Even in Japanese anime, White = universality. Animators design the characters with Caucasian features so that the series will break through worldwide. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. Just watch some of the classics, like “Dragon Ball”, and you’ll see. Although the characters are intended to be Asian, they’re changed to Caucasian for American and European consumers.

    As for Asians in the American film industry, unless there’s a role calling for an Asian ninja or an Asian clown like in The Hangover, who needs them? It’s not only offensive, but blatantly so. We’d rather cast white people with make-up and no martial arts skills, so long as it brings the profits in.

    And please spare us the Shayamalan interviews, thank you. He just wants to make money like all the others, so he’s obviously no one to look to for an explanation of anything.

  2. that bald kid is going to evolve into Hari Binder, and that’s the tvist in the tale. who’ll be laughing then. ahahahahaAHAHAHAHA

  3. By the way the Indian left was mostly ineffectual during the troubles anyway, that would be something also to talk about. My sense is there was difficulty dealing with a non secular community and also a community relatively well-off in need of some help. Some people stood there and excused the riots as reactions of poor people to the affluence of the dehli Sikh community, even though one of the areas hit was a poor neighborhood of Sikhs. There’s plenty to go around

  4. I’m sorry, I have to agree with all these people backing up Shyamalan. The media has had it in for him for the longest time, it is a little fishy and does stink of racism, actually. Also, he has made the film culturally diverse, there are good meaty roles for desi actors in there. Could that be what the western media dislikes so much?

    I think it falls to all of us as Desis to support Shyamalan here. He is one of the few (only?) successful desi directors out there. If we don’t support him, who will? If he gets cut, how will that help to change stereotypes or help asians get in to the business in the future?

    He is doing his best in an industry loaded against him. And we, as desis, turn on him too? It really is sad that desis are so lost that they can’t even see their way to support one of their own who is trying to fight the good fight against ridiculous odds. Every other race, in a similar situation, would back their man up, why not us?

    I, for one, am behind him 100%. he is not racist, and has made an excellent movie. Desis would do well to think about what has been said here.

  5. My take on reading Stein’s piece was that Time is throwing a bone to the race and national origin based anti-immigration camp. It has the same ideas as found in Brimelow’s Alien Nation and Lynn’s IQ and the Wealth of Nations. It didn’t strike me that Stein was trying to be funny given that there is an entire body of opinion making the same points to advance their point of view.

  6. M. Night Shayamalan is a South Asian director and I know my comment won’t sound politically correct but he is also a business man. I am not sure how much power Mr. Shayamalan has in Hollywood? But I think since he is the producer he should of casted more Asian actors he has the power but I guess money is his main concern.

    There is indeed a paucity of Asian actors in Hollywood but I think things are getting for Asian actors. John Cho, Kal Penn, Frieda Pinto and Dev Patel are all rising and doing very well in Hollywood.

    In fact, according to IMDB.COM Freida Pinto is making a lot of progress she’s working with Woody Allen and she may become a mainstream Hollywood star.

    I think the casting of the Airbender movie is racist but this is typical of Hollywood. Hollywood only cares about making money and the studio that provided financing for this film believed that white actors can attract a bigger audience than Asian actors. The white wash casting is not new this has been going on since the days of Lena Horne. In fact, Lena Horne wanted the lead role in the 1951 film Showboat but the studio gave the role to white actress Ava Gardiner.

    However, I am conflicted because I think Dev Patel is a good actor but he is also a South Asian man in a white Hollywood. Dev Patel needs to work he’s an actor. I actually think for Dev Patel this movie can show he has range. Prince Zuko is a lead role, the role is also a dramatic role and the box office for the film was $40 million this weekend so that’s a solid number.

  7. I have quite liked some of M. Night Shylaman’s films… The Sixth Sense and the Village in particular. His movies are very “mainstream” Hollywood, and are often very very white. His movies tend to follow some interesting and imaginative paths (i.e. seeing dead people, plants that kill, unbreakable people) and generally involve “sweet” white families at the center of the film. As an exercise, I imagine how the movie would change, if for example, the sixth sense has an Indian mother and son instead of white, and I don’t really see the main “umphf” of the movie changing what-so-ever.

    Thinking it over, I would generally agree that, unfortunately, Hollywood does practice institutionalized racism for profit-purposes. They feel people want to see white main characters, they give white main characters, and people buy the tickets. Their system is working and upheld by us, the masses, by our movie choices.

    Often when a movie has non-white main characters, it is a movie ABOUT race: The Great Debaters, Crash… etc It sends this weird bizarre message that non-white people on exist in this world as a way of exploring racism… they spend all day sitting around feeling wronged and/or doing crazy amazing things to break through the racism, if we are to believe these movies. Yet, most non-white people in America are doing the same things are white people: getting up, taking a pee, eating breakfast, going to work, etc. So it is just as likely that a cute little Indian boy with a bowl cut can see dead people as Haley Joel Osmond (or whatever his name is).

    I always kind of note when a few movies actually DON’T only show minorities because of “racism”. For example, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle has race jokes, and silly situations based on race (KUMAR, what does that like have five U’s in it?) but ultimately the film is about two 20-somethings who do too much pot, go to work (or not), and have to deal with their dads and girl’s they have crushes on. The two main characters were non-white (and h-o-t, especially Harold, sorry Kal Penn lovers) and it was not like “OH MY GOD LOOK EVERYONE– THESE ARE NON-WHITE PEOPLE!!” At least I didn’t feel that. Others?

    Another one lately was the new Karate Kid (I know, umm, kid’s movie… shh). This movie was about an American kid who moved to China, but wait, oh-my-god! He was black. The movie didn’t make it about him being “black” though (though kids asked him “can I touch your hair?”) it was more about him being a kid in a foreign culture and trying to figure out where he fit in (And deal with bullies, of course!). Oh course there was some cliched Chinese-exoticness about Kung Fu (Karate kid, about Kung Fu? strange but true). But overall I didn’t get the impression that this film was revolving solely around race/racism/racial identity.

    I hope that trend continues and more and more film makers will feel comfortable with non-white leads in more and more films. And that we Americans can find ways to encourage and support the change too.

  8. The reason movies with white actors don’t discuss race so much is because whiteness is viewed as the universal and people of colour are still at the margins.

    Mr. Shayamalan is a South Asian man and he does have power in Hollywood but he may think white actors can make him more money.

    Remember the Karate Kid movie got created because Jaden Smith’s father is Will Smith. Will Smith is probably the most powerful actor in Hollywood and Jaden is his son.

    I am not saying that Jaden’s movie would not be successful without his powerful father but Will Smith is just an extremely powerful man in Hollywood.

    Maybe movies like The Karate Kid will transcend race? Jaden Smith’s movie has made over $150 million dollars in North America. The Harold and Kumar series is very important because Asian American actors Kal Penn and John Cho are the lead actors. I guess Hollywood is slow to realize that there is more to the lives of people of colour instead of just talking about the issue of race.

  9. I don’t agree with the ‘poor Shyamalan, victim of Hollywood-context racism’ argument. I think it is one-sided and insecure. Shyamalan has gone beyond colour. He is a brand name unto himself. No lesser mortal, white, black or purple, would have succeeded in getting as much backing, money and publicity for any ONE movie in Shyamalan’s resume. Yet he survived. That one movie has bought him his legitimacy like no other. And if anything he may be a victim of his own early success but people believe in him over and over and over again. So I am annoyed that someone actually thinks he is a cause. Really? If only my children’s lives would turn out so well!

    I’d rather use my time and energy to worry about racism or classism that affects the taxi-drivers in my city than worry about somebody who could do anything they wanted for the rest of their lives.

  10. Yes Malathi, I hear what you are saying. Most people have more important things to worry about, I understand.

    But I think this is somewhat short-sighted. As a minority, if we wish to progress and keep progressing in the western world, we need people at the top who we can look at and say “he did it, why can’t I”. We also need them there to make it clear to the world we desis can do these jobs and do them well. This makes better futures for us and our kids, especially, because it breaks down barriers.

    If you allow people to bring Shyamalan down, then you only make it harder for all desis to progress in the future, thus, actually hurting your kids’ futures.

    People, especially desis, really don’t seem to understand any of these points.

    Also, to allow people to accuse him of racism (especially caucasians) is absolutely ridiculous.

    Do you think if he was the only jewish director in hollywood that jewish people would stand by and let him be called racist? Do you think people would even dare to call a jewish director racist?

    You need to support people like him, within reason, because it makes a better life for all desis, now and in the future.

    Why do people not see this obvious fact?

  11. The real one, With all due respect, don’t you think this sounds condescending?

    People, especially desis, really don’t seem to understand any of these points.

    When you say “allow people to bring Shyamalan down” you insinuate that at the other end, that he didn’t come up on his own; that there was a conspiracy (by some others earlier) to put him on top. You know that that is not true. Have faith in your man. He is not so helpless.

    Personally, I have never needed an Indian role model to take up, and survive in, fields where there are hardly any Indians.

  12. It was not meant to be condescending but then why do desis themselves actually accuse the guy of racism? It shows a blatant lack of understanding for the issue that I am trying to highlight?

    If you truly can’t see what I am saying or that there is any merit in it, then I can’t change your stance on that. But I hope people read what I am saying and see the absurdity of calling him racist. In an industry swamped by racism, they pick the lone successful asian director and accuse him of racism, it is laughable.

    The fact that the media have had it in for him for so long just highlights the fact that he is being targetted. But we will see – if all the critics and journalists who have called him out for racism do not continue to call out others in the future as aggressively and pointedly, then we will know it has been simply a way to bring Shyamalan down. Why would that be? (Could it be because he is Asian?)

    Also, the fact that I am even having to argue, amongst a bunch of desis, that he should be supported, within reason, just highlights how so many desis have lost their way and can’t even back up their own people when it comes to the crunch. As I have said before, no other race would turn on their own in the way that desis do, it is shameful.

  13. Why are you all surprised about bigotry in USA? It’s America! Two words, Madison Grant! That ol’ Yank’s words were gobbled up by a certain Hitler…check it out..

    I was offended by Whites browning up in Prince of Persia…now I just see it as the American Way…

  14. The reason some South Asians are upset at Shayamalan is because he is a South Asian American man with power in Hollywood and that`s rare.

    Shayamalan has the power to make movies about the Indian American or South Asian experience yet he chooses not to. Mira Nair she`s a South Asian director she is very well respected in Hollywood, she works with top actors and she casts Indian actors in lead roles.

    Mira Nair understands the importance of telling stories about South Asian men and women and helping South Asian actors to get work and critical acclaim. I loved the Namesake I thought the movie

    was wonderful.

    Shayamalan has a lot of power but he seems to care about making money. Of course, money is important because Hollywood is a business I guess helping Indian actors out is not his issue and I think that`s sad.

    It is kind of sad that Shayamalan always casts white actors in lead roles in his movies. It would be nice if Shayamalan would make a movie and a South Asian actor was the lead actor or actress in the film.

  15. Orville – are you even desi? Have you even seen how many asian people there are in this film? Mira Nair makes films, good as they are, where alot of the time typical stereotypes are propagated. That is ok with hollywood.

    However, in this film, Shyamalan has made the powerful villains indian, and America can’t stand that – We can’t have the darkies being powerful, that will never do.

    You guys really need to wtfu – seriously…

  16. and she’s married to a jewish guy, so she must be ok then…(in hollywood’s eyes)

  17. Taz if you seem racism in alot of things against brown people in the west. Do you also see racism in the muslim world against non-muslims. You can’t have both ways and I would like to see you discuss racism in your own community.
    Wow, I’m a douche bag cause I want you to cover racism from all different sides
    Due to the fact that, I think immigrants from Middle Eastern/South Asian when they come to the west over play the race card and at the same time ignore racism that people who share the same ethnic background or faith practice back in there homeland.

    You have said in the first comment that Taz has an obligation to cover racism by Muslims in the Muslim world, in the second that she has a responsibility to cover racism from all sides, and in the third that all immigrants from the Middle East/South Asia ignore racism committed by people from their same ethnicity and/or religion in South Asia/Middle East.

    South Asian Americans (or Middle Eastern Americans) are not racialized or have identities in the same way as people are in other places, including in South Asia / Middle East. Even among various diasporas there are significant differences (e.g. U.S./UK) or within the same by class or by gender or other religion or region or sexual orientation or other factors. So assuming some commonality on the basis of ethnicity or religion has very little use and is not really fair to us.

    More problematically, you started out by talking about ‘Muslims’ and then changed your language, but it wasn’t really clear that the underlying substance of what you were saying changed. It still seems to argue for communal categories, from South Asia, and still seems to be trying to find a way to target the writer of this blogpost for writing about racism in the United States.

    If you were targeting a writer with a Muslim name (I don’t know what Taz’s faith/belief is) for writing about racism by responding that that person is obligated to write about racism by Muslims against non Muslims or else they cannot have any credibility, that is among the most unfair things I can think of someone doing in this type of context.

    And if that’s what you did, I think you should be honest about it, discuss it in a way that shows that you’re willing to accept responsibility for your own actions, and, if it feels like you should, to show contrition. Above all, communication is really important, even if only to establish that communication about a particular issues is not possible.

    I’m not a strong believer in comment deletion but also not in people feeling hated, which is why I’m trying to respond here.

  18. I have noticed that talented female South Asian directors and writers are doing amazing work. The Canadian director Deepa Metha many of her movies focus on South Asian cultures and have South Asians in the lead acting roles.

    Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha make wonderful movies with South Asian actresses in the lead roles. At least Nair and Chadha give South Asian actresses the opportunity to shine in Hollywood. I love Bend It like Beckham and all of Mira Nair’s movies. So what if Nair married a white man? Mira Nair’s love life is her personal business. Mira Nair is a wonderful director she believes in giving South Asian women the opportunity to be stars of her movies.

    At least the female South Asian directors such as Metha,Nair, and Chadha see the bigger picture they want to tell stories about South Asian women and give them the opportunity to headline movies.

  19. It amazes me how some people don’t find Stein’s “article” racist but are quick to call Shyamalan one. Yes, it is unfortunate no east Asians were cast, but many east Asians are annoyed with only being portrayed as martial artists, so I guess complaints were inevitable, I don’t think the process was racist.. Even if Avatar was anime (which it isn’t), anime depicts its characters with features that are atypical of east Asians (not just the large eyes, but the sharp noses and jaws and large chests on female characters), so Shyamalan shouldn’t be the only one accused of bias, I would say he was just being practical. Either way, (I enjoy the TV show) the movie bored me. It seems people are much more comfortable calling a man of color a “racist”, because white directors overlook POC actors all the time and are rarely called out on it, I have honestly never heard so much harsh criticism about race pointed towards a director until now

    I also noticed that Indians ache to identify themselves with east Asians (calling themselves “south Asian” or just “Asian”) most of whom who want nothing to do with us and consider us the “dirty n!ggers of Asia”.

  20. Jenna have a look at this response to the stein article, aroguewriter.blogspot.com

  21. i watched all 3 seasons. after watching it have to say i find that the cultural parallels to asia were really strong…but the racial context was ambiguous, and it was obviously a really fantastical secondary world (something that was even made fun of in one episode as the characters expressed surprise that a king had only a regular bear, instead of a ‘platypus bear’ or something more exotic). if you want to get into the weeds it looks like the fire nation people were more based on japan than anything else (though this is really not true either if you go just by the names of some fire nation characters), so the casting of brown or light brown/dark white people wasn’t appropriate.

    when it comes to the connection between race/ancestry and values/culture i’m on the end which says that there shouldn’t be a strong necessary entailment of the latter from the former. so in the context of the fact that the cultural analogs in the world of the last airbender were a lot clearer than the racial analogs, in the particular instance of this movie i don’t think it rises to the point of objection (personally).

    that being said, the bias toward casting of whites for roles which are historically non-white is a real issue, and the original casting call was apparently geared toward whites. so i can see the offense, though i think people would be more open to it when the material is historically rooted and there’s something real and not imaginative to moor our arguments in.

  22. i’m not a big anime fan personally, and there are surely many reasons one could say that the avatar was not anime probably…but a lot of the stuff was pretty anime inflected from what i could tell (the way people ran and jumped, the emotion reactions to embarrassing circumstances, the hairstyles, etc.). i used to watch a lot of that stuff in the 80s as a kid. the characters were a lot less exaggerated than what you’d see in other stuff, ty lee being probably the most obvious case: http://avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Ty_Lee

  23. @Jenna:

    For the record, I find Shyamalan’s casting decision racist and Stein’s article even more so.

    And I have a lot of problem with Patel playing Zuko. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a fantastic actor, but casted in the wrong role, partly because his casting means the rest of fire nation is turned into South Asian actors. I can’t believe how anyone can’t see that’s something wrong with an South Asian (The usually brilliant Aasif Mandvi) playing a character named Zhao. It’s just wrong. And Yes, I will be equally angry if I see an east-asia guy taking a role over a South-asian actor if the character that’s written is named Singh or Tendulkar and have distinctively south Asian traits. I would love to see more South-Asian actors in Hollywood movies (I’m a big Kal Penn fan and I’ll definitely be seeing the next Harold and Kumar movie), but this is the wrong movie for South Asians to be casted in.

    And also remember, Patel wasn’t the first choice either. Some white dude (I can’t remember who) was.

    And I have trouble understanding how people could claim the characters, especially Aang are not east Asian. For goodness sake, Aang eats with chop-sticks. http://avatar.wikia.com/wiki/User_blog:The_888th_Avatar/Casting_for_The_Last_Airbender:_Asians_Disappointed Now, how many non-east asians uses chopsticks as their preferred eating utensil?

    But the biggest beef I have is Shyamalan’s claim that the movie is diversed in ethnicity and not ‘white-washed’. If he meant what he said, Patel would have been first choice to play Sokka, not a second choice for Zuko. If he meant what he said, the casting call for Aang would not read “Caucausian..and other ethnicity”, it would have been “All ethnics” And no, I don’t buy that Paramount didn’t know about that racist casting call. It’s a $150 Million for goodness, you would think they’ll pay attention to the casting call for the main lead. I would have gave Shyamalan a pass if he didn’t come out to say the things he’ve said. But judging from his words, it’s quite obvious that he only wanted Caucasians to play the lead roles (even Zuko’s)

    But no, I don’t necessary think that Shyamalan was a racist himself, but his casting decision definitely was.

  24. I’ll grant that the characters in the tv series aren’t overtly Asian.

    Although that doesn’t change the fact that they sure ain’t white.

  25. I can’t believe how anyone can’t see that’s something wrong with an South Asian (The usually brilliant Aasif Mandvi) playing a character named Zhao. It’s just wrong.

    see, that’s where we differ. i have relatives (we’re bengali) who have the nickname “jackie chan” because of how east asian they look (one of my aunts in the UK regularly has people speaking tagolog to her), but their names aren’t “east asian” (obviously). east asians are more homogeneous in appearance than south asians, but there are eurasians out there who favor their european sides and blasians who favor their black side, but who were raised in east asia and culturally east asian in totality.

    it’s obviously not realistic to have a brown dude with the name zhao, but neither is it “wrong” in any deep moral sense (to me). there are probably people out there who do think there’s something fundamentally wrong with that. that’s fine. i just hope people understand that not everyone shares their supposition as to the close connectedness of biological descent and physical appearance and culture.

    And Yes, I will be equally angry if I see an east-asia guy taking a role over a South-asian actor if the character that’s written is named Singh or Tendulkar and have distinctively south Asian traits.




    east asians or part east asians playing south asians.

    we discussed this before on the blog years ago (before you newbies showed up) and some people thought it was inappropriate for non-south asians to play explicitly south asian roles. i obviously don’t. this is separate from the issue of actors who need jobs and people doing “brown face” and such (though in both cases neither actors did brown face from what i could tell).

  26. m knight has stated that he knew he wanted the actress who played katara to play her beforehand. she was in the sixth sense.

  27. just to be clear if i hadn’t been

    1) i agree that there’s a real issue in hollywood using white actors when non-white ones would suffice, or even be preferable for reasons of verisimilitude or historical accuracy

    2) i disagree strongly with the form of objection whereby a particular biological ancestry entails a particular cultural configuration, or, the inverse (brown people must have the names singh, or those with the names singh must be brown)

    i understand that #2 is a statement of values. but, as an american and child of immigrants, there are many reasons why i think we should reject, in our own interests, and to be true to who we are as human beings (i.e., our existence has cosmopolitan antecedents by the nature of our parents migrating to an exotic land), the idea that ancestry has a strongly constraining hand in our own cultural choices. more generally the idea of a ‘bioculture.’ there are plenty of places in the world where biocultural assumptions are taken for granted, and until recently they were in the united states as well, and i think there should be some space in the world where people can recreate themselves without too much social opprobrium. that includes changing religion and names, or mixing & matching cultural elements without much consideration of ancestry.

  28. ” I also noticed that Indians ache to identify themselves with east Asians (calling themselves “south Asian” or just “Asian”) most of whom who want nothing to do with us and consider us the “dirty n!ggers of Asia”. “

    Well, “the dirty niggers of Asia” gave the beardless Mongoloids of east Asia their high culture in the form of Buddhism and shaolin martial arts. Just as the hairy big nosed white “barbarians” of Europe gave them science and technology.

  29. Whites in west will always use asians to potray negative characters, and visa versa in the East

  30. re lineage, I have a Sikh friend who appears to be Oriental. He was bullied by Sikhs for not looking like one, so shaved his Kes. Admittedly when one looks at him, he looks Malay or Burmese..which takes people unawared when he speaks Punjabi very well…so Looks don’t always corolate…

  31. “I can’t believe how anyone can’t see that’s something wrong with an South Asian (The usually brilliant Aasif Mandvi) playing a character named Zhao. It’s just wrong.”

    What’s wrong here is your own narrow mindedness. Do you also think it’s “just wrong” that so many millions of Chinese and other mongoloids have Anglo, Arab and Indian names? If not explain your double standard.

    Based on your reasoning it is wrong of the Chinese to give the Chinese name Zheng He to the tall, bearded Muslim eunuch who was their greatest admiral, explorer and adventurer…..

    I think Shyamalan’s great early success with the Sixth Sense went to his head and he has become a little too pretentious for his own good, but there is also no denying that the venom directed towards him is disproportional and probably has some racial hatred behind it. The haters must be grinding their teeth now for despite all the extremely hostile reviews the movie is doing much better in the box office than expected.

  32. As for the charge that Shyamalan is pandering to institutionalized white racism in Jewish run Hollywood, here is a point that should make the accusers think twice: Uncle Iroh of the non-white Fire Nation is played by a Jewish Iranian. Secondly, both his character and Dev Patel’s are the two real heroes of the series. Thirdly, the kid who plays Aang is not a white Caucasian phenotypically.

  33. @Ashoka

    Narrow-mindedness? How about having an understanding that East-Asians and South Asians are not interchangable purely because they are under the same banner as “Asian Americans”. They (East-Asians and South Asians) are equally beautiful in their own different way, but should they be considered and treated exactly the same? No. I, for one, loved “Bend it like Beckham”, but if the story suddenly changed the leads to an East Asian family, just say to suit China’s market, I’m sure I would get extremely angry.

    It was never about fulfilling a quota like an Affirmative action (Let’s put enough Asian Americans in the movie so they can shut up!), it’s about staying true to the original material (which was brilliant in the first place). And I will say it again, if there was a movie that the original character that was South Asian, and that character was rewritten to give to an East Asian purely to impress the Asian Market (Japan, Korea, China whatever), I would be equally as angry.

    If staying true to the material in terms of race/ethnics was never an issue, why wasn’t Patel given the role of Katara? He’s a much better actor than Rathone, and looks way closer to the original character as well. That way they could always cast a cute Indian girl to play Sokka as well (which would satisfy Night’s daughter as well)?


    I’m a bit too young to write about the Jungle Book when it was released, but I remember watching the cartoon and to me, that role should be given to a South-Asian Actor over Jason Scott Lee any day of the week. The only movie I’ve watched of his was the Bruce Lee movie (and he was pretty good in it). I just looked at his wiki and WTF, why would anyone cast him as Aladdin? That’s just ridiculous.

    In relation to name argument, I will still find it hard to swallow if it was a distinctively say Chinese-looking person playing a character with an indian name if it was a major role, especially there are equally as good, if not better South Asian actors around.

  34. “Narrow-mindedness? How about having an understanding that East-Asians and South Asians are not interchangable purely because they are under the same banner as “Asian Americans”. “

    It is ridiculous to see a desi (assuming you are one) getting all worked up over desis playing roles that you assume should go to east asians. I don’t recall any east asians getting so agitated over Jason Scott Lee playing the role of Mowgli the Indian jungle boy, or over the quarter Chinese and zero Indian Keanu Reeves playing the Indian Buddha. Methinks you are just pandering to mongoloid chauvinism. Sad.

    I think that part of the reason so much hatred is being directed towards Shyamalan iis because for the first time the tables have been turned. Same reason why there is so much irrational hate directed towards Obama.

  35. I’m beginning to see the points brought out here by Ashoka and others. I think there is nothing wrong with desis trying to support Shyamalan when it seems like the whole of the western media has it in for him. I think most races would back their man up to some degree. And why does everybody have it in for him with so much hatred and vitriol? I think the racist angle has to be explored.

    To me, he is just a normal desi guy who has done well for himself in a white-dominated environment. We should be celebrating the guy, not trying to bring him down ourselves. He provides a role model and shows people in the US that desis can be trusted to be hired into these types of roles. People like him make our lives and our kids’ lives better in the future just by being there. They also provide inspiration for indians all over the world. Every race in the world would see that and try and back their man up, why not desis? There are plenty of people who want to bring him down, for all kinds if reasons, why do you want to help them?

    Also, and I think what really rankles is that people have suddenly woken up and decided that maybe hollywood is racist and they have decided to put Shyamalan on the spot for that. Now, firstly, hollywood has been racist since inception, and I don’t remember any of these (mostly white) critics/ journalists giving a damn about all the miscasting/ racism/ stereotyping that has been going on and still goes on today in all forms of western media, not just Hollywood. Yet now they decide to pick up on the successful asian director in hollywood – that really stinks.

    The more I think about it, the more it stinks. And I’m not alone, there is a growing number of people who agree with me. I wish more desis would see the point here.

  36. quasi,

    the thing is, most of us brown folk, even those of us on the other side of the joel stein debate, have been backing shyamalan up from the beginning. as the steady, but inexorable decline from the sixth sense progressed, we nevertheless continued to back him up to the talwar hilt.

    over the odd johnnie walker tonic we may have muttered “is he on bhang?”, but even after “the village”, we spoke no ill of our celluloid prince. however, when he puts out a “lady in the water”, he’s on his freaking own. 110 min of narcissistic, self-celebrating drivel (and “sideways” paul giamatti instead of “john adams” paul giamatti) is grounds for immediate revocation of his brown card and decade-long phillim phrobation.

    i sincerely hope that he does ascend back to the heights of his freshman foray, and am an advocate of community support; however, just like it’s ok for african americans to constructively criticize obama, it’s ok for indian americans to tell “night” that he needs to get his act together. fake friends tell you what you want to hear. real friends tell you what you need to hear.

  37. Satyajit Wry,

    Ok fine, let’s just assume you hate the films. Let’s let that slide (although I don’t necessarily agree).

    But why has noone addressed the fact that he is being called out for being racist when Hollywood has been racist for decades? Don’t you think that is a little bit off? Why has he, and only him been called out for this so vehemently. And also, the racism he probably had to put up with to get to the position he has got to makes the charges against him, as I say, ridiculous and offensive. So, if you insist, tell him that his movies suck, if that’s what you really believe and you aren’t just mimicking what the media tells you to, but to call him racist is just rubbish.

    Thanks for throwing in all those nice stereotypes about asians (johnny walker etc) – are you sure you are even desi?

  38. I am just wondering something here, and maybe I am just out of the loop but I keep hearing comments about how people (America?) has “had it in for” M. Night Shyamalam or that people have accused him of being racist since the beginning. I am just wondering if someone can give me a few example’s because I only heard things such as his movies being billed as “M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village” (etc). As far as director’s (etc) go, I always thought Shyamalan got a lot of media attention for being considered a edgy and new director (for awhile). People were in love with his early films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, even Signs and the Village. It was only when his story-line got somewhat tired that things started to wind-down (oh, what’s the “surprise ending” going to be this time?).

    I personally never heard anyone diss him for his race or “have it in for him” because he is Desi-American. I HAVE heard people complain about some of his storylines or hoaky endings (Why did the aliens in Signs choose earth if water kills them? All that technology and they can’t protect themselves??)

    I am just wondering if people have examples of “having it in for him” or racism against him?

  39. quasi, come now, no need to descend in to ad homs. i’ll just let that pass. the point of those remarks was to note that it’s ok to laugh/critique ourselves. one of the commenters in anna’s post “cow dung” had a link to joel stein piece pointing out how there is a straitjacket when it comes to discussing race. Using that as a platform, it’s easy to see a possible motivation for his india piece. considering i’ve been frequently bracketed with the likes of yoga fire, rob, and lupus solitarius, i really don’t think my nationalist credentials need be questions

    as for the substance, the point isn’t that i hate the films. i wholeheartedly enjoyed the sixth sense (we need more movies like this), was indifferent to unbreakable, was disappointed by signs, was irritated by the village, and was appalled by lady in the water. the point is that he’s been coasting since the sixth sense and it’s alright for his feet to be held to the fire. in any event, from the media reports on this, the industry itself is being critiqued. shyamalan isn’t at the center of it and in many cases is defending the producers by noting that he himself is asian. is he a company man? yeah likely considering he’s still reemerging from the disaster at disney where he insisted on full creative license. but please point out where i called him racist. the blog link that asked questions of shyamalan’s motivations is obviously free to ask those questions. but if you read the content of it, they left it at that.

  40. Quasi, I don’t think the race-based frustrations around Avatar are necessarily levied at Shyamalan. It’s just that the source material does seem quite East Asian. If you’re an aspiring Asian actor I don’t think there has been a better opportunity to find leading roles that fit you (of which there are very few) than something based on Avatar. The fact that White actors were cast in all the main roles really does seem like a slap to the face.

    I don’t think it’s racist necessarily, but it is somewhat problematic.

  41. Hello, this is in response to those who’ve watched’ Avatar; The Last Airbender’ and anime and view the characters as either ‘ambiguous’ or ‘Euro-centric’.

    I suggest you watch this video, as it explains it very well.


    After you’ve watched, come back and say what you think then.

  42. Yet again, the question is dodged by the apologists. Why is Shyamalan being targetted now when clearly Hollywood has been racist for decades and nobody has reacted as venomously before? Why him, why now, why this movie? As I say, it stinks.

    If the charge of racism is levelled at Shyamalan, then it is certainly warranted that that charge be levelled back at whoever is calling him racist. So, I put it to you that the critics and journalists may be the racists and are trying to bring Shyamalan down because of his skin color.

    Some genius up there was wondering who has been commenting on Shyamalan as racist – there are so many links I don’t know where to start – try googling “last airbender racist” and see what comes up – there are plenty.

  43. Thanks for that great comment S Ensmeyer – you truly are a genius – well done! But don’t bother coming back – I think you have said enough.

  44. If you’re an aspiring Asian actor I don’t think there has been a better opportunity to find leading roles that fit you (of which there are very few) than something based on Avatar.

    Maybe, but e Asians have expressed annoyance at only being portrayed as martial artists in Hollywood numerous times in the past, why can’t people realize there would have been complaints either way?

  45. Why is Shyamalan being targetted now when clearly Hollywood has been racist for decades and nobody has reacted as venomously before? Why him, why now, why this movie? As I say, it stinks.

    Did you not bother to read my comment?

    Some genius up there was wondering who has been commenting on Shyamalan as racist – there are so many links I don’t know where to start – try googling “last airbender racist” and see what comes up – there are plenty.

    “Last Airbender racist” is not the same as Shyamalan as racist. In almost every case they’re talking about the studio, not the director.

    Maybe, but e Asians have expressed annoyance at only being portrayed as martial artists in Hollywood numerous times in the past, why can’t people realize there would have been complaints either way?

    That doesn’t make sense. The source material is about a vaguely Chinese/Tibetan kid learning martial arts (although in this case it’s more like witchcraft and wizardry with kung-fu stances.) The complaint is that the movie is deviating from the source material in a way that exemplifies racial bias.

    A lot of Asians really loved the Avatar show because it was rare to have identifiably Asian kids be the main characters in cartoons. Not it is debatable as to how identifiably Asian the kids were in the cartoon. But the fact that Asian kids could see the characters as being representative of them in the first place says a lot about how far we’ve come.

  46. so i watched the movie. the exposition really sucked. cartoon is much better. after watching the movie the whole racial element seemed just confusing, hurried and incoherent. like a lot of the movie. the casting of a bunch of arctic native people in the background with the white protagonists was kind of dumb. it would have been all right if they just went all white with the southern water tribe like they did with the northern (though i notice everyone in the northern water tribe were brunette, as was the case in the cartoon).

    many of the comments in this thread have coherency than the movie.

  47. @S. Ensmeyer, the casting for this film was FAR from colorblind (and that has it’s own issues of being nice in theory, but poor in practice). The casting call read ‘Caucasian or any other ethnicity’. The fact that Caucasian is singled out and ‘other’ is lumped together shows a clear bias and preference for Caucasian actors. A ‘colorblind’ casting call would have read ‘All Ethnicities may apply’. Every casting agent that has been spoken to on this subject has stated that when a casting call reads like the former, they don’t contact their non-White clients because it would be pointless to do so, as the preference for White actors is clear and thereby, a waste of time for non-White because they will NOT get hired.

    As for the acting; along with everything else, the actors performances have been panned by everyone, from critics to average movie-goers as stale, lifeless and wooden. Nicole Peltz (who played Katara) was specifically requested by M. Night, as he’s stated in interviews that he ‘couldn’t make this film without her. Jackson Rathbon, cast as Sokka… well, it’s fairly obvious why he was cast; to draw in the ‘Twilight’ crowd and otherwise fans of his.

    As for Noah Ringer, who was cast as Aang, he has NO previous acting experience. M. Night stated as much in an interview he had last year where he stated that they sent Ringer ‘to be trained up a bit as an actor.’ That for many people was NOT a ringing endorsement for him. Yet HE was cast as the lead role in a major film?

    ALL casting decisions were M. Night’s own. He had total control over this project. That’s not to say that he wasn’t also trying to please the hire-ups over at Paramount. His career is on the skids and failure to make returns on this movie (for which it will have to make $580 million to be considered a financial success, given they spent over $280 million on everything, including international advertising) could very well spend the end of it. He hasn’t had a hit film in ages and people just don’t trust him to make a really good film anymore. These days, having his name on anything spells doom for the project.