Who am I? I'm a Korean American and like so many other Asian Americans and Asians living outside their motherlands, we are seen as the voiceless minority. How many times in my life have I heard someone yell out at me "Why don't you go back home to China, Japan or Vietnam, where you belong?" Why can't they understand that we are home? Ask a Korean American who has gone to visit Korea and ask them if they felt at home? How could they? They face a different type of discrimination. The kind that says you may look Asian but you can't speak the language and you can't really understand our culture.
It's so hard to understand that this place I call home and that I’m so proud of, doesn’t necessarily share its pride and pleasure of having the world's most diverse community of different races and cultures. You won't see a lot of minorities gracing the covers of books, magazines or major movies. Not that there isn't any, just not a lot. And definitely less Asians than any other minorities. And then there's the fact that there has been a history of whitewashing in publishing and in theater that continues to this very day. The question I can't help but ask is why? We are already the minority. Why marginalize us even more?
Like so many others, I felt physically betrayed by the first cover of Justine Larbelestier's Liar and tremendously relieved to see Bloomsbury respond positively to reader outrage.
Looking at these two covers side by side, you have to wonder at the reason behind why a publishing company would whitewash a character who is supposed to be a person of color. I've read so many articles and blog posts about the controversy and the one rationale that always bothers me is the one that says people won't buy books with people of color on the covers. When they say "people" they mean "white people" right? But the thing is, do they even try? Or do they throw one token POC cover out there, give it barely any support, see that it doesn't do well, and call it a day. Change happens when we make what was once so different the norm. Representing diversity is especially important for publishers of children's books. Books are the gateways for the imagination. But the ones in North America are apparently only gateways for white children as minority children are relegated to watching wistfully from the side. We are left hoping for a token side kick or small character that we can relate to. But not the main character. Because even if the book has a POC as the main character, we can't be on the cover cause we won't sell the book. That's what this controversy meant to minority readers.
And then they did it again. See Black-Eyed Susan's post on Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore. The fact that Bloomsbury has fixed both covers is a positive change. We can only hope that it is indicative of a larger change in the industry. But we still have more to fix.
Many of you might have caught the recent trailer for a Paramount movie called The Last Airbender. It is based on a Nickelodeon television series called Avatar: The Last Airbender which is a wonderful animated program that celebrates the diverse culture of Asia. The main character is Aang as the Avatar, a young temple disciple that is clearly based on Chinese culture. The next two characters are Katara and Sokka, based on Inuit culture. And the antagonist is Prince Zuko, clearly drawn from Japanese culture. When I heard that Paramount was making a movie version and had hired M. Night Shyamalan to direct, I was excited. But then I saw the cast list and I felt punched in the gut.
The movie has been completely whitewashed so that the rich culture of Asia that made the television series so wonderful is now represented by white actors. I can’t help but wonder what this really means. I’m sad for my children who were shocked to hear that Asian faces weren’t good enough to portray an Asian character. I’m sad for this culture that devalues the contributions of their Asian citizens. They believed that to make Airbender more relatable to the white majority, they needed to put white faces in Asian roles. At least the original casting of Prince Zuko with Jessie McCartney was replaced by Dev Patel. But notice the one main Asian actor happens to be the role of the antagonist.
When Twilight star Jackson Rathbone got the role as Sokka, he said "I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan. It's one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit."
Hopefully it won't be as blatantly racist as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Unfortunately, some people have responded with the fact that since these are anime characters drawn with the big freaky anime eyes, that they couldn't possibly be Asian. That because this is an American production, these characters are in fact white. I have no argument for this but one. Watch the video and you tell me. It provides scenes from the show compared to real life pictures of Asia.
What this movie and the book cover controversies show us is that the publishing industry and the entertainment industry is still prejudiced against non-whites. It's up to us, the public, to show them that this type of racism won't be tolerated. The outrage around the book covers caused Bloomsbury to change both book covers. But Paramount has refused to listen to the outcries of the fans. You can help by boycotting the film here. If you are on facebook then join this page. Help us send a message to Hollywood that whitewashing is racist.
Last year, Pat Buchanan said "This is a country built by white people." He conveniently failed to mention that it was also built on the blood, sweat and tears of the non-whites. The American Indians who were robbed of their land, the black slaves who worked this land, and the Chinese railroad workers who helped connect this land. Mr. Buchanan, we will no longer be overlooked. We will no longer be marginalized. We will no longer be the the forgotten people. We will take our place by your side and proudly claim that We are all American. You can't get rid of us and you can't pretend we don't exist. We won't tolerate it anymore. We will no longer be voiceless.