I’ve linked to Racebending before, in my, uh, only other article up so far, referencing how rarely Native actors portray themselves in popular media, and how that widens the disparity between the mass-consumed pop-cultural “knowledge” and appropriation of Native peoples and their history versus the realities of those peoples, cultures, history, and, often, awareness of their existence. I didn’t really talk about the actual Racebending movement, though– in quick summary, a group was formed, starting on LiveJournal, initially to protest the problematic casting processes for the movie adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (The Legend of Aang, internationally), since neither Paramount nor M. Night Shyamalan seemed open to discussion on the subject. The movement led to two Facebook pages (one shut down by Facebook for some dubious reasons) and their own domain, and expanded to include general discussion of race in casting American film and television, with an emphasis on Asian-American and Native roles (and a continued emphasis on Avatar).
For an excellent breakdown of treatment of race and gender in The Last Airbender (the movie), I suggest reading through this Racebending page. It gives a very thorough background and examination what was changed during the adaptation of AtLA to TLA.
Also, if you don’t want to filter through all that back history, feel free to read the bits I’ve highlighted below, because this post isn’t about ALL the loopy stuff that happened in TLA. It’s a lot to digest if you aren’t familiar with the fandom. To be honest, a lot of it is old news at this point. To be completely honest, I probably couldn’t do it justice if I tried, and especially not as well as it’s already been covered by the outstanding writers both posting for Racebending, and linked to by Racebending. Check ‘em out if you’ve got the time!
Soon-to-be-my-trademark-Cliff-Notes: Basically, what happened with casting the character of Aang, the series protagonist who is very obviously an alternate-universe Tibetan monk (Aang is a pacifistic, vegetarian monk, living in the mountains; his mentor, Monk Gyatso, and son in the upcoming sequel series, Tenzin, are named after the 14th Dalai Lama; Aang’s identity as the Avatar is actually determined using similar tests used to identify the Dalai Lama; etc. etc.), is the casting call requested “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” Noah Ringer, twelve years old at the time, who had zero acting experience, was selected by M. Night Shyamalan because to him, Ringer “felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him.” Read the rest of the interview, if you dare; there are a lot of contradictory messages in there that expose some of Shyamalan’s muddled view on colorism, race, and ethnicity, so if you need a breather, I’ll wait.
…Great! You’re back. I mentioned Paramount didn’t want a dialogue about the race of TLA’s cast, possibly because Shyamalan was already being Looney Tunes back-and-forth enough for both of them. I know, I know– you know. Keep in mind, the interview I linked to didn’t come out until two days before the movie’s release. Nobody had heard squat about Noah Ringer before then, there were no photos online, no videos on YouTube, nada. When pressed about the issue of “Who the hell is Noah Ringer” in the context of an all-white cast (Jesse McCartney was initially going to play Zuko), then of a white-protagonist vs. POC-antagonist cast (after Dev Patel’s taking on the role)– which is actually a reversal of the cartoon’s casting, bee tee dubs– Paramount was absolutely silent on the issue. They did attempt to kind of talk over Shyamalan’s cries of, “You just don’t get it! Zuko’s eventually a good guy, therefore, shut up!” by emphasizing the non-white actors who would be in the movie– who were then cut, naturally.
The movie came out. Noah Ringer, dressed up in his dashing Airbender ensemble was revealed to be… white. To no one’s surprise, but to many fans’ collective dismay.
Or so we all thought. Racebending brought the news to their LJ-friends and FB-followers Thursday before last: Noah Ringer: American Indian! WHAT A TWIST! Why, this changes everything! Paramount and M. Night Shyamalan sure showed us!
Except, no. As blogger glockgal says, “The film is not any less racist because of Noah’s casting… [p]eople of and communities of color aren’t interchangeable.”
This is very similar to our stance when Prince Zuko was recast as Dev Patel. While this muddied the waters (people asking us “Are you happy now?” and “You can’t say it’s racist anymore!” as if tokenism should be enough to put us back in our place), it didn’t change the situation. The casting of Dev Patel did not change the fact that underrepresented groups lost a rare opportunity in the roles of Aang, Sokka, and Katara. It just made the discrimination reflected in The Last Airbender a more complex a version of discrimination that isn’t easy for many people to comprehend.
Racial ambiguity =/= lack of racism and/or colorism– which would be/is the case, if when the casting directors and Shyamalan were choosing who would play their version of the characters for TLA, they knew Ringer identified as NA but looked “generic” and “relatable,” i.e. “white.” I’ll get to that in a minute.
Now. Ringer is fourteen years old as of this writing. …Fourteen-year-olds aren’t exactly the most sensitive, intelligent individuals in the world. However, not only is it his right to choose how he identifies, and his right not to be interrogated and scrutinized based on that, but also we, as people privy to that information about his life, need to keep in mind that he is a child. He’s a young teenager, and was a younger teen when TLA was filmed, and the fact is that no matter how problematic his is-he-or-isn’t-he racial identity (which really isn’t any of our business, though public statements are made to the public) is, combined with the problematic racial issues surrounding the movie, not only would he be relatively powerless as an actor to do anything about it, but he would be even more so as a minor and newcomer. Ringer’s breakout role was probably also his lucky break, and, frankly, I would have jumped at the chance myself, were I his age and in his position.
While colorism (preference for or preferential treatment of a people with a certain range of physical coloration over another, independent of, though often overlapping with racism– in this case “whiteness” and “perceived whiteness”) is almost certainly at play in Noah Ringer’s casting, when it comes to his racial identity, whether or not he “looks” Native is immaterial. Stereotypical cultural images of a narrow phenotypic/genotypic range don’t help anyone, and don’t reflect on anyone’s racial or ethnic heritage. You may be surprised to find out– not all Native people look alike!! My sisters and I don’t even look alike. It happens. The cultural implications of casting an unknown who “looks” white rest with the casting director, as well as with a cultural standard both in Hollywood and internationally favoring whiteness, which reflects on the societies in which those subcultures exist and thrive. Being fourteen years for this world, and privileged within a colorism system to the point of potentially obfuscating racial labeling, doesn’t exactly set you up to be the most critical of said system, to boot.
Additionally, self-identifying as indigenous in America is a complicated issue both because of, to be generous, difficulties in maintaining tribal records and “proving” degree of Indian blood, and the American government’s varying policies on who “can” or “can’t” identify as what, as well as the cultural treatment of Native peoples and groups, and the trend of more privileged groups claiming partial Native heritage. I’ve mentioned the Pocahontas Exception of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, and the One-Drop Rule as a means of determining “white” vs “colored” in the US with an exemption for “Indian Princesses” (and their descendants). The other side of that is that, going along with those “reclassifications” of POCs in America, often if you were mixed and weren’t white/NA or white/fake NA, you would have to pick one label or another, since miscegenation wasn’t legal (under penalty of forced sterilization, to boot) or recognized. Families often chose whichever label was easier to live with, which, for example, actually led to a lot of mixed black/NA individuals choosing to be classified as black (NA people weren’t considered full citizens until the 1930s, there were a lot of forced boarding schools, horrible reservation life, etc.), and it led to a lot more trouble with things like census rolls, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s shoddy recordkeeping, etc.
I’m trying to say, it’s a complicated issue. But an issue being complicated doesn’t mean claims related to it are automatically suspect, or that a lack of “proof” automatically proves falsehood on the part of the person making the claim. Even in cases where legal protection can allow for invented Native heritage for certain persons, an offense being common doesn’t make it 100% prevalent. Also, no one has to prove anything to you. At all. Ever. For example: I have no way of obtaining a CDIB (at least, not yet, legally), but I’m still a Native person. I can also trace my family back to a known African slave, but I’m no more of a “real” Black person than someone who can’t. Historical documentation re: minorites hasn’t been high on the priority list for the American government, and that carries over as a social issue even to this day.
Another troubling thing I noticed was that within the Racebending group, on both LiveJournal and Facebook, there was a lot of vitriol aimed at Noah Ringer not only for identifying as Native, but also for his choice of terminology to refer to himself (“American Indian,” as listed by Entertainment Weekly, though it’s not a direct quote and no tribal affiliation was mentioned in the blurb) and community members’ perceptions of him personally. To which I repeat that choice of terminology used to refer to oneself is everybody’s right, whether the individual in question prefers Native American, First Nations, American Indian, mestizo/métis, tribal affiliation, or something else. And using classist, Otherising language isn’t suddenly appropriate when referring to someone speaking from a place of privilege (Ringer, a child), especially when the group’s moderators have made it clear that such behavior is intolerable when referring to someone speaking from a minority experience (Shyamalan, the director, an adult, and a responsible party with some influence in the movie).
Another thing I found interesting was the speculation on Ringer’s status as a mixed-race actor, and the privilege afforded to him because of that. In cases of colorism, his privilege as a young man who at the very least “appears” white is undeniable, but “looking” white and/or being light-skinned isn’t an automatic side effect of nor is it exclusive to being of mixed heritage. In fact, the social concept of “fully” X/”fully” Y groups being superior to or more deserving than “hybrid” XY groups is racist whether or not colorism is at play. XY may be more privileged than second-class group X within the context of a Y-dominant culture, but as long as Y-dominant culture has systems in place to hold back X in a way that also holds back XY, XY cannot, without deceit or denial of X, attain equal status to Y. Even when traits associated with X aren’t readily apparent, an XY person still has to function within a Y-society and deal with prejudice against X groups while, possibly, not fitting in with X or Y, and having to choose to either accept and internalize anti-X-prejudice in silence at risk of losing their privilege within Y groups, or to stand up for X groups and potentially face rejection from both groups X and Y for not being [insert letter] enough. The honest-to-craw truth is that actors will be “assigned” a certain niche based on their looks from their first job, and while certain prejudices based on color and/or race will limit those niches to varying degrees, and that some of those niches will be wider than others and that sucks, and that some actors can break those imposed boundaries by popularity/talent/connections– being mixed-race doesn’t magically give you a “Get Out Of Jail Free” pass on any of those issues.
Unless I’ve been left out of the loop. I have been late paying my dues to the Collective Consciousness of Light-Skinned Girls Club. Maybe I missed that newsletter or something. Short version: questioning the “legitimacy” of how “ethnic” a mixed person is based on their being mixed (which smacks of ethnocentrism and an obsession with perceived racial “purity”) or based on the color of their skin (which is also colorism/reactionary colorism) is condescending and bigoted. Also, not all mixed actors have “white” privilege, and blaming that privilege on all mixed actors– or even mixed actors who get roles that could (and in some cases, arguably, should) go to different performers– isn’t fair and doesn’t examine the system and structures whereby that privilege is granted. Not that those actors aren’t also participating in the execution of that privilege, but their presence in Hollywood isn’t the only issue in their selection for ROLES in Hollywood.
I’m not condoning Noah Ringer’s casting as Aang, and I’m not apologizing for the casting directors behind that decision. I’m not saying it was the best choice, or a choice respectful to the original work, or that there weren’t clear racial/racist motivations for his selection. I’m also not saying minorities shouldn’t be represented, or represented by people who look like members of their respective groups, or who ARE members of those groups. I am saying, ideally, there shouldn’t be a cultural system where that is a rare occurence, and, ideally, participants within that system that actually have little control of its machinations (the actors), could be more aware and sensitive regarding perceptions of race and ethnicity when trying out for/taking those roles, because more diverse roles would be available.
All that drama aside, though, I have to question what Ringer’s motivation is for suddenly going out of his way to make it clear that he is, in fact, Native– and what Entertainment Weekly’s motivation is for both publishing the statement, and possibly having pursued the matter themselves. Several have commented that it may be being said after the movie’s premiere (and exit from theaters) due to the impending (now-recent) DVD and BluRay release, in a way to try and ease some of the (due) AtLA fan hatred for TLA, a desperate gesture of appeasement Paramount didn’t think they would have to make to try and boost sagging sales and make back some of the money spent on production of a doomed movie. Personally, I’m not sure Paramount’s that dumb that they would keep a “trump card” of the “REALLY WE’RE NOT RACIST AT ALL” type until, literally, the last possible promotional second, when from day one of the movie’s pre-production there has been talk of boycotts and protests– from the only surefire target market for an Airbender movie– due to readily apparent racism in casting practices.
The Entertainment Weekly article stating Ringer is “of American Indian heritage” (no tribal affiliation is specified, though that could be an omission either on Ringer’s or the magazine’s part), and the YouTube video embedded therein, says Ringer’s next project is Cowboys & Aliens. Hmmm. Here’s a quote from the wiki page on the film (emphasis mine):
The Year is 1873. Arizona Territory. A stranger named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) with no memory of his past stumbles into the hard desert town of Absolution. The only hint to his history is a mysterious shackle that encircles one wrist. What he discovers is that the people of Absolution don’t welcome strangers, and nobody makes a move on its streets unless ordered to do so by the iron-fisted Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). It’s a town that lives in fear. But Absolution is about to experience fear it can scarcely comprehend as the desolate city is attacked by marauders from the sky. Screaming down with breathtaking velocity and blinding lights to abduct the helpless one by one, these monsters challenge everything the residents have ever known. Now, the stranger they rejected is their only hope for salvation. As this gunslinger slowly starts to remember who he is and where he’s been, he realizes he holds a secret that could give the town a fighting chance against the alien force. With the help of the elusive traveller Ella (Olivia Wilde), he pulls together a posse of former opponents — townsfolk, Dolarhyde and his boys, outlaws and Apache warriors—all in danger of annihilation. United against a common enemy, they will prepare for an epic showdown for survival.
In my opinion, it’s more likely DreamWorks/Universal is covering their asses after casting a relative unknown in a “cowboys-and-Indians” movie, whose only other performance was both a flop and universally reviled for what was really blatantly racism. After some Googling, it appears Emmett, the character Ringer plays, is in fact one of Sheriff Indy’s children, and therefore very likely white; but to be honest I am unfamiliar with the comic and probably won’t be checking out the movie (I have this thing about history), so there could be a major “Secret Mulatto Mestizo Baby” plot in there that I wouldn’t pick up. Or maybe, Emmett is a new, updated, “movie” version of an established character– apparently, the only child in the comic is Apache. Shock of shocks, a movie whitewashing an already predominantly white cast in an adaptation of a comic book– with convenient affirmative-action-approved “we’re-not-racist” set dressing background extras (“Real Native Americans: Longer hair a plus!”). Combined with a timely, unprompted, public announcement about the personal life and heritage of an actor involved with said movie? Quelle horreur!
Or maybe Ringer’s character is a racist (or just in a racist movie), or there are problematic depictions of indigenous characters in-movie, or possibly there’s use of redface/brownface already at play, and his publicist and manager are advising him to cover his own ass. He doesn’t want to be typecast as that guy who’s always whitewashing minority characters to get the roles himself, now.
Or maybe we’re jumping the gun, here. Maybe Ringer really did just feel an urge to set the record straight, or maybe his heritage (true or not) just came up in conversation with an EW interviewer. However, one becomes increasingly aware, as a minority– of any kind– the personal is political. If young Noah Ringer wasn’t aware of the role his heritage would play in his career, then there were plenty of adults in his personal and professional life who were, and may have been willing to exploit it. Who knows? The whole thing could be completely innocent. I lack experience with Hollywood’s inner machinations, after all; but the experience with fourteen-year-olds I do have says otherwise.