Racebending and Integration
Earlier today, the Facebook group People Against Racebending: Protest of the Cast of The Last Airbender Movie was removed by Facebook. The group has been around since the early days of the protest (Dec. 2008) and as of last week had almost 6,000 members.
For anyone who isn't up to speed on the issues here, M. Night Shyamalan's movie adaptation of the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender made no small stir when it whitewashed the diverse ethnicities of the original characters. And if you're thinking that, as a Hollywood movie, that just means they sought out the best actors they could get, and just couldn't find minority actors of the calibre, no. Go take a look at the egregious casting calls that make it very clear they were actively seeking white actors in preference to "any other ethnicity." And if you're thinking simply, oh that's horrible... again, no. That's segregation.
As far as I know, no-one else has been putting that name to this state of affairs in the media. But I do know that the people at Racebending.com saw it as important enough to protest. As one does in this day and age, they set up a Facebook group as a virtual gathering of voices raised to object.
Now here's the email they received:
From: Facebook (generic notification email)
Date: Mon, Mar 15, 2010 at 12:38 PM
Subject: Facebook Warning
To: (personal email redacted)
If you have any questions or concerns, you can visit our FAQ page at http://www.facebook.com/help/?topic=wgroups.
The Facebook Team
This is utterly abhorrent. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, this is not some trivial little issue of under-representation in the media. This is not about "political correctness." This is not about "quotas." This example in particular brings that home, in the elimination of ethnic diversity that has taken place, and now -- now -- the closing down of protest: that this is about the fucking active exclusion of the abjected from the mainstream. So the faggots can play the Gay Best Friend, and the niggers -- and I use that word as a mark of the fury I feel that this is how people of colour are still being treated -- can play the Magic Negro. And the Asians can play the shopkeepers and token friends and sage advisors. But never the hero.
There is a word for what this is.
The Last Airbender movie is not just a movie. In an earlier post on my blog, a sentiment repeated in one of my BSC Review column, writing from my own queer perspective, I said this:
"Segregation still exists in the media, in the movies and the TV shows, where the abject is absented, where there is the default and the deviant, the "normal" and the "abnormal". In the media, in the mainstream, the default is white, straight, able-bodied, and so on. And those of us who watch those media, as members of any group abjected on the basis of some marker of deviance from that default, we thirst for stories in which we are represented. We thirst for the art and entertainment that refreshes and replenishes. Sometimes we have our own water-fountains to quench that thirst -- queer television, queer cinema -- movies and shows that deal with our lives, our issues. This is good. But as long as we are excluded, as long as we are allowed into the mainstream only when it is "important to the story," as long as we can walk into those stories only to carry out set roles in service of the white, straight, able-bodied heroes and heroines -- as Magic Negroes or as Gay Best Friends -- this is still segregation."
The Last Airbender is a water-fountain with a sign above it reading WHITES ONLY. Worse, The Last Airbender is a water-fountain that was once accessible to people of all colours, over which that sign has been nailed: WHITES ONLY. And what was the Facebook group People Against Racebending? That Facebook group was no more and no less than a crowd gathered at that water-fountain to raise their voices in protest, to say in no uncertain terms: this is unjust.
In closing down that protest, Facebook have become the latter-day guard dogs of segregation, sent in to break up a peaceful demonstration. They have become the National Guardsmen firing over the heads of those whose only crime is to take a stand. They have become the policemen turning the water-cannon on the crowd of concerned citizens whose cause is, as it was in 1969, only the justice and equality of integration. They have become the willing enforcers of an inequitable and iniquitous social order of segregation.
If you say to me that this comparison is unfair, that the whitewashing of a mere movie is trivial when held against the tangible injustices and outright persecution that the Civil Rights movement fought against, I would say to you that in every movie, every TV show, every novel, every story is the water of life. I would say to you that fiction refreshes and replenishes the soul. I would say to you that art can bring hope where there is despair, transform sorrow into joy, inspire action in place of anger. I would say that without the water of life our souls can only shrivel and die within us, but with it... with it we may blossom and bring forth the fruit of the greatest of human endeavours. I would say to you that Martin Luther King himself knew the importance of integration in the media when he personally urged Nichelle Nichols not to give up her role as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, when he told her she could not, that it was vital to have this role model for black children and young women.
"Once that door is opened by someone," he said, "no one else can close it again."
Oh, but The Last Airbender has set a guardian on that door. Facebook has set a guardian on that door. And where one has turned away those who would enter, the other has turned away those who would protest that refusal.
I say again that this is SEGREGATION and there is no place for it in the 21st century. There is no fucking place for it in the fucking 21st fucking century. There is no excuse. There is no justification. In the age of social networking sites, to close down a protest group as "hateful, threatening or obscene," where it has done no more and no less than take a stand against segregation -- this is to turn the water-cannons on a peaceful crowd. Even if there is incompetence at play here, it is incompetence that has made itself the willing enforcer of prejudice. If it is ignorance, it is ignorance in the service of such injustice that there is no defense for it.
I call out Facebook for what it is: segregationist.
I call out The Last Airbender for what it is: segregationist.
I call out M. Night Shyamalan for what he is: segregationist.
I call out Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Pictures for what they are: segregationist.
I call out any who think this state of affairs is acceptable, who think the whitewashing of this major Hollywood movie makes no difference, who think that Facebook is entitled to shut down the voices of the abject on these most spurious of grounds. To dismiss the cause of integration, even through complacency, is to condemn the abject to the continuance of the system. If not by active support then by passive acceptance, those who would shrug this off are validating segregation with their indifference.
These are the water-fountains of today, that men, women and children are being turned away from because of the colour of their skin. And I will be damned if I'll stand by while the water-cannons quash dissent. I sincerely hope that others will join me in acknowledging this for what it is, not mincing words and offering mild condemnations, but pointing to the cold hard truth of those signs that read, WHITES ONLY. I'll say it again, and I'll keep fucking saying it until segregation is dismantled and integration stands in its place.
We will no longer be turned away from the water-fountains, for the water is the water of life, and it is and must be for all who are thirsty.