July 03, 2010

Minorities aren't quite American

Michael Le, cofounder of Racebending, makes a good point about why casting matters--because whites consider non-whites to be second-class citizens:

An Open Letter to Racebending.com Detractors

By Michael LeAbout once a month, someone asks me some variant of this question: “Where are you from?”

“San Diego,” I’ll say.

“No,” comes the response. “Where are you REALLY from?”

There are more folks of Asian descent living in the United States than there are people in the entire country of Holland. My English is flawless (insofar as I’m a Californian with zealous overuse of the word “like”). Many of the folks who ask me this question I consider friends. And I’m not saying “Oh, look how racist everyone is.”

What I am saying is that Asian Americans aren’t really thought of as American. One of my close friends has a straight-up Brooklyn accent. He was telling a coworker that he used to serve in the army.

The response?

“Oh, cool. The Chinese army?”

It’s easy to draw comparisons between the Airbender casting and an English actor playing an Irish one, or a Spanish actor playing an Italian actor. But it’s not really the same, and the reason is that Hollywood and media don’t consider whether an actor is Irish or Spanish or English. They think of that actor as “white.” The same is not true of actors who are Asian or Latino, who have to fight over the few roles specifically written for those ethnicities. And a lot of times, even when a role is steeped in Asian culture, even when a role is based on real-life individuals of Asian descent, those roles still go to white actors.
Plus some helpful statistics:Over the last ten years, 86% of Paramount’s lead actors have been white. In fact, of the 54 films released or announced for 2010 and on, 83% of Paramount’s leads are white males. From 2000 to 2009, Paramount didn’t produce a single movie starring a Latino, Asian American, or Native American actor. There’s a phrase for numbers like these: glass ceiling.Comment:  I imagine Latinos get the same kind of comments: "How long have you been here? You speak English so well!" I imagine Indians get a different but related set of questions: "I didn't know you people were still alive. Where's your teepee and horse?"

In all these cases, the presumption is that white is the norm and non-whites are somehow less American. Even if they've been here a long, the presumption is that they're not part of the system. They don't live in regular America; they live on a reservation somewhere. They don't pay taxes; they get government handouts. And so forth and so on.

If you ask people, sure, they'll say minorities are the same as everyone else. I.e., the same as "real Americans." But I bet their real feelings would emerge if you took a confidential poll. "Who's more patriotic?" "Who's more religious?" "Who's more likely to defend America?" I'm betting most people would say whites, even though the actual answers probably would be minorities.

Casting reflects pro-white bias

And the relationship to casting? When 86% of films star whites and most of the rest star blacks, other minorities are getting left out. These minorities are essentially invisible in the media, which is why they don't register in people's minds. "Oh, you're Asian? I can't remember the last time I saw an Asian. Where are you from?"

The solution to not seeing minorities is to see them. On the screen and in other media outlets. Given their percentage of the population, minorities should appear 30% of the time. Given how entrenched the "white = American" meme is, it wouldn't hurt to feature minorities 50% of the time or more.

Whether M. Night Shyamalan realizes it or not, I suspect this kind of "white = American" thinking permeates his mind. Why did he decide to make the Inuit-based Water Tribe white? Why did he choose Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz even though the Last Airbender reviews have said they're mediocre at best? Because he was making an American film, not a foreign film, and American films have whites in them. If you want to see a film that isn't "diverse" (i.e., white with minorities added), he might've thought, move to China.

For more on The Last Airbender, see Asians Protest Last Airbender and Dismissing the Pro-Airbender Arguments. For more on minorities as second-class citizens, see Mainstream History = Pro-White Propaganda, Buchanan:  US "Built by White Folks," and How People See Blacks (and Indians).

Below:  Don't worry, it's an American film. It stars a white guy.

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