(Some of my personal rough thoughts about Bryan Konietzko’s blog post on skin color and Avatar characters…excuse the stream of consciousness here)
First of all, this was an incredible post for a creator of any television series to make; it shows how much attention the the production places on fan feedback. Not all productions are that conscientious. Nor do all creators prioritize diversity or state that they are “all for social justice” (these are actually very controversial positions.) The post was thorough in providing resources to fan artists and explanations of color theory and how the show approaches contrast and lighting.
I am really thankful for this post, particularly since I’ve been in this fandom for a long time and experienced a lot of the stress and heartbreak around advocacy for diversity in this franchise. Particularly since Mr. Konietzko is so high profile, being willing to publicly write about these things (from the timestamp it looks like he finished at 2:30am)—especially in an interactive forum like tumblr— takes a huge amount of courage and willingness to be vulnerable, and to be open.
I definitely felt a swell of emotion when reading his post because like many Avatar fans, and like many people of color who consume media, I’ve learned to be hypervigilant about whitewashing in media and all the different forms it can show up in, from magazine covers lightening celebrities, to misrepresentative book covers, to the Banes, Khans, Tontos, Shredders, and Ongs in Big Hollywood.
The sting of whitewashing doesn’t come from the act itself but from the context in which these acts thrive in: colorism, shadeism, racism, etc. and all of it’s histories, legacies, and current manifestations.
I trudge all this up because I think Mr. Konietzko’s call to “inform, educate, open minds, and promote empathy and equality” is an important one! It’s definitely something I strive for in my personal, professional, and fandom life. There’s a ton of negative energy around jumping to false conclusions and around self-righteous condemnation. But I think where I personally fall short, and where I think many people probably fall short, is the “before you get your feelings hurt" part of the post.
That’s something I’m not able to control. Put me in an MRI scan or swab my cheek for cortisol and I’m sure my brain will light up.
Microaggressions like whitewashing are painful. It may be just a thrown pebble, or maybe just a pebble carelessly kicked up in the wake of someone else’s excitement, but those pebbles can still sting and I still flinch. Maybe not everyone else does—people can numb themselves or acclimate themselves from that sting. (I’d like to see how it looks in an MRI!)
I can’t control that part. I can choose how to react.
I can’t control how I feel about perceiving—because this is about perception—whitewashing. I can choose how to react.
How I’ve chosen to react has been very deliberate. I know how easy it is to come off as an extremist or to be dismissed over tone. The way I try to approach people is not dissimilar from what Mr. Konietzko is advocating for. But people express hurt and pain in a number of different ways, and over and over again people of color and their allies have been told how to express that pain in ways deemed appropriate for the very people who did the thing that hurt them…
I can’t suppress that sting I experience when I see whitewashing. I can only stifle my response. But sometimes no matter how friendly, no matter how educational, how enlightening you want to be, you still get called a racial slur or a gendered slur or both or all at once. How do you choose to react to that? When does the other person also share accountability?
I don’t know if fans will actually use the hex color for Korra to “police” other fans about their artwork; I’d rather that didn’t have to happen because I’d rather people fight the tendency to whitewash to begin with.
I look back at all of the sketchbooks I doodled in and I realize that about 60% of the characters I drew were white, 30% were Asian (I’m Asian American) and maybe 10% were other people of color. I reflect on the art classes I took when I was a kid and realized that not once were we assigned to draw a person of color; all of the models we were asked to practice on were white, all of the paintings of people we drew were white. As a result, I’m probably better at drawing white people than I am at drawing Asian people. I think about all of the coloring books I had as a kid and that perhaps aside from any Aladdin stuff the characters we colored were white. I remember being six years old and angry that my new marker set did not have a “skin” tone to color with even though there were 72 different markers including 4 different shades of brown.
And that’s just the art classes and art supplies and art education (which I was privileged enough to have at all), it’s not my grandmother yelling at me to put on a hat so I don’t turn “too dark”, it’s not being told I’m too dark for my ethnicity, it’s not the skin bleaching creams, and not the “color-corrected” glamour shots I took at the local mall, and it’s not wanting to look porcelain even though porcelain is fragile. That’s just the art skill set.
This shows up subconsciously when I doodle and color self portraits. Even when I’m consciously trying to be accurate to my skin tone (and really there is no excuse—my hand is like right next to the canvas/iPad/etc.!) I inevitably end up making myself a couple of shades lighter in a way that is completely subconscious. These internalized attitudes about skin tone are hard to shake. Which is why it is so important to recognize it.
So there’s the other side of it, the side where as a artist I also have to acknowledge my own shortcomings and my own tendencies to whitewash. (These resources suddenly become invaluable for creating Korra art.) No one likes to be called “a racist” because in our society we equate racism with being a bad person; if we don’t feel we are bad people, the instinct is to automatically resist such an allegation.
If someone tells you meekly…or screeches at you…that you’ve kicked pebbles at them in your excited race to create art, you can’t control that awful feeling that comes with being accused of perpetuating racism (something that may be against your belief system) but you can control how you respond.
If there’s anything I’d want to add to Mr. Konietzko’s post, it’s that.
If someone is trying to communicate with you that your art or your decisions are hurtful, no matter how they are going about doing it, they are coming from a position of vulnerability. Societal mores totally dump on people who raise concerns about things like sexism and racism, particularly more so when it’s viewed as something “trivial” like fan art. Starting this conversation about whitewashing and art is hard! Whatever way they’re trying to communicate, please try and approach what they are saying with empathy and an open heart. You may feel it is important to defend your art, but for them there may be something more at stake—they may be fighting for the right to be seen at all, to be represented, to not have their experiences with their skin tone invalidated. There’s so much to learn and so many things that still need to be bridged. Do this, and it becomes so much easier for people who are concerned about whitewashing to to do what Mr. Konietzko is advocating for.