Frequently Asked Questions
- General Questions
- Specific Questions Related to The Last Airbender
- Questions About Hollywood Casting
What is Racebending.com?
Racebending.com is an online community founded by fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Since our formation in 2008, we are now a grassroots organization dedicated to encouraging equal opportunities in Hollywood. To learn more, visit our Who We Are page.
How do I contact Racebending.com?
If you’re a member of the press, please visit our Press Page.
If you’re a reader, you can contact us using the information here, but please read through the FAQ first.
What does the term ‘racebending’ refer to and what does it mean?
The word “racebending” is a portmanteau coined by one of our co-founders. It’s a play on words that refers to the “airbending” and other elemental bending in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series.
The practice we’ve dubbed “racebending” on this site refers to situations where A) A movie studio/publisher, etc. has changed the ethnicity of a character B) with a resultant discriminatory impact on an underrepresented cultural community and actors from that community (reinforcement of glass ceilings, loss of opportunity, etc.)
What is Colorism?
We reference the term “colorism” frequently on the website. Colorism is a form of discrimination in which people are accorded differing social and economic treatment based on skin color. Colorism occurs across the world and can occur within an ethnic group or between different ethnic groups. In most entertainment industries–including Hollywood–lighter skin tone is given preferential treatment and darker skin tone is considered less desirable. Oftentimes, heroes are cast with lighter skin and villains are cast with darker skin.
Would Racebending.com rather have movie studios cast the best actor for the role or the actor who looks like or has the same ethnicity as the character?
Acting talent and ethnicity are not mutually exclusive–nor is acting ability some sort of innate racial trait. Any cultural or ethnic community in the United States will contain talented actors, so a movie studio should never argue that they had to choose between casting a talented white actor to play a character of color or an actor of color with terrible skills. There are equally talented actors of color, and they deserve the chance to represent their communities.
Why are people upset about The Last Airbender?
Our four minute video series breaks the issues down succinctly. We encourage people new to this site to check it out!
What is Racebending.com doing about the casting/cultural competency of The Last Airbender?
Our efforts include directly contacting Paramount and the production, speaking out and drawing awareness towards the production’s discriminatory casting practices (to the media, on university campuses, etc.) and connecting concerned fans to other media watchdog organizations. We are encouraging people to boycott the movie, so as not to financially reward the studio for discriminatory decisions.
What does Racebending.com do about other movies/books/etc. that “racebend”?
Racebending.com has expanded to monitor other situations where ‘racebending’ has occurred. We inform our members about the situation and occasionally take direct action. For example, we launched an email campaign when David Henrie was cast to play a Chinese American lead character in The Weapon. If you feel there is an issue in an upcoming movie that we should address, please contact us with more information.
How did Racebending.com get its start?
Racebending.com got its start through our sister site, Aang Aint White, a livejournal started by some anonymous folks (some with professional ties to the franchise) immediately after the principal cast was announced in December 2008. When the protest began to pick up steam, it became clear that a blog wouldn’t be enough, so we expanded to a livejournal community and eventually to our website, Racebending.com.
Are supporters of Racebending.com fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender? Can you guys still be fans if you’re critical of the movie?
Although we have received plenty of outside support, many of our supporters are fans of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series.
As fans of the original television show, we still hold the highest level of respect for the animated series and its culturally nuanced depiction of an Asian fantasy world. The cast and setting were virtually unique in American media as a celebration of people and culture of Asian descent. For American children, it was an opportunity to witness heroes and heroines of color – an opportunity that enriched all of us, regardless of ethnicity.
We wanted to support The Last Airbender film, but we cannot in good conscience support a production that reinforces glass ceilings by systematically excluding people of color from heroic lead roles.
Are you just a small group of vocal fans angry about changes in the movie?
We comprised of several thousand supporters in 50 countries around the world. Although most of us are fans of the animated series, our supporters also identify as students, parents, advocates, academics, and professionals. Our primary concern is the bigger picture–The Last Airbender is just one example in a long history of Hollywood discrimination. For many of us, seeing this kind of discrimination associated with our favorite series is what spurred us into taking action.
Racebending.com has represented the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom at Wondercon 2010. We have also presented at several universities, including MIT, UPenn, UCLA, and USC. We are also being studied by academics from MIT and USC as an example of social media and advocacy.
Why is Racebending.com making such a big deal out of the casting in a movie?
There are several articles on our website outlining why Racebending.com is drawing attention to the cultural competency practices of The Last Airbender. Our primary concerns regarding The Last Airbender are:
- The outdated and discriminatory practice of casting white actors to depict Asian characters.
- Casting calls indicating a preference for white actors for leads; people of color for villains, secondary characters, and background extras.
- Culturally ignorant language used by members of the production (e.g. “If you’re a Korean, wear a kimono” and “I definitely need a tan”)
- The colorist implications of featuring a villainous nation with dark-skinned actors and heroic nations led by white heroes who liberate the “Asian and African” nation.
- Cultural appropriation of Pacific Rim cultures and the franchise’s core Asian concepts, despite a glass ceiling blocking off Asian American actors from playing lead protagonists.
Why is Racebending.com so concerned over just a kid’s movie?
The fact that The Last Airbender is being pushed as a family film despite its cultural competency and discrimination problems is exactly why we are concerned. The Last Airbender is a microcosm of how readily present discriminative attitudes are in society–even in children’s entertainment. We are concerned that these casting practices will be presented to children of all ethnicities as something acceptable, normal, and not a big deal at all. Some of our interviews with academics cover the impact these casting decisions might have on children in greater detail.
How do the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender feel about the casting or Racebending.com?
The creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender have said nothing publicly about the casting other than Bryan Konietzko’s declaration on his MySpace, where he wrote: “I have NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CASTING WHATSOEVER for the feature film.” Other people who have worked on the show, including a director, artists, and cultural consultants, have publicly expressed disappointment about the casting.
Are the characters in the Avatar setting ethnically Asian?
The Avatar: The Last Airbender series was established by the creators and Nickelodeon as set in a “fantastical Asian world.” The Intellectual Property Bible affirms that the world of the series is and should be authentically Asian, and cultural consultants were hired to ensure the depiction of the world and characters would be respectful. People who have worked on the original series have also affirmed that the characters were ethnically Asian.
The default physical appearance for all characters in live-action fantasy worlds is not and should not always and only be anglo-saxon, western European facial features and coloring–particularly not in a series like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which featured ethnically Asian Pacific characters and Pacific Rim cultures.
If the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender are Asian, why don’t they have slanty eyes, yellow skin, or accents?
In traditional Western Animation, Asian characters are often depicted with stereotypical features. Avatar: The Last Airbender employs a style of anime from Korea that does not use those stereotypical markers. In addition, the voice direction of A:TLA was advised not to use stereotypical Asian accents to depict the characters. Depicting Asian characters with a stereotypical accent is an old Hollywood practice that generally no longer occurs in modern productions with Asian and Asian American characters (eg. Disney’s Mulan, Jake Long: American Dragon.)
Are the characters of Sokka and Katara White, Inuit, or Asian?
The characters from the Water Tribe are largely inspired by circumpolar indigenous cultures, with some influences from Asian Pacific and Amerindian, indigenous groups. On a DVD commentary, the animated series creators noted that even Katara’s “hair-loopies’ hairstyle (not used in the film) is even an authentic Inuit hairstyle.
Circumpolar indigenous people hail from from Canada, Russia, Alaska, and Greenland. There are many Asian circumpolar indigenous people (from the Chukchi Peninsula), but not all circumpolar indigenous people are Asian.
Some of our readers have asked “if it really makes sense” for Water Tribe characters have darker skin than the other characters, even though they live in a cold climate. The real life explanation for why circumpolar dwelling people such as the Inuit have darker skin is explained by Vitamin D consumption, melanin adaptation, and UV light exposure. It is perfectly “realistic” for Sokka and Katara to have darker skin.
Some characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender have blue/grey/green eyes. How can they be people of color?
The creators of the series gave the characters eye colors corresponding to their “elements.” Airbenders have grey eyes, Earthbenders have green eyes, Waterbenders have blue eyes, and Firebenders have orange eyes.
That being said, people who are white do not have an exclusive monopoly on blue eye color. Many people of color also have blue/green/grey eyes. And one potentially “Caucasian trait” does not invalidate a person’s Asian Pacific traits or cultural identity.
What issue does Racebending.com have with the actors in The Last Airbender, especially the white child actors?
Our issue is not with the actors selected, but with the production, which did not think children of color were suitable to play in a movie based on their own cultures. We will, however, hold adult actors accountable for culturally insensitive statements, such as Jackson Rathbone’s assertion that he would get “a tan” to play Sokka, a person of color.
What are Racebending.com’s thoughts on the original voice actors for Avatar: The Last Airbender?
While it is important to cast people of color to represent characters of color in all mediums, we are willing to give voice acting a freer pass. The voice actors are not a complete representation of the characters, as they only perform the characters’ voices. The voice actor for Appa, Dee Bradley Baker, isn’t really a bison, and Ash Ketchum from Pokemon and Bart Simpson from The Simpsons are voiced by middle-aged women. However, when characters in animation are depicted as people of color, we encourage studios to cast voice actors from those communities.
Why has Racebending.com labeled the character of Prince Zuko as the “enemy”?
For the purposes of the first season of the animated series and the film, Zuko is the primary antagonist of the main character, Aang. In the film, actors of color have been cast but only in antagonistic and ancillary roles, and this is a glass ceiling. In fact, the feature film markets Zuko as a villain.
Were the selected actors for the roles in The Last Airbender the best actors for the job?
By writing “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” on the casting sides for the lead roles, the production made their preference for Caucasian actors to play PoC clear from the beginning. (Normally when ethnicity is left open-ended, casting sides read “Any Ethnicity.”)
Jackson Rathbone and Jesse McCartney (the production’s first selection for Zuko) may be considered great thespians, but there are equally talented actors of color. When the production says these actors are “the best for the role” they are also reinforcing an appropriative glass ceiling. We believe Hollywood could have cast this film without reinforcing the glass ceiling, using equally talented actors of color. If in Hollywood, actors who are white are considered “the best” to represent people of color, then where does that leave actors of color?
70% of speaking roles in Hollywood go to male actors. 82% of lead roles in Hollywood go to actors who are white. This is not because they were always casting for the best actor and the best actor always happens to be white and male. This is because of discriminatory bias and not because women and people of color cannot act.
Why is Racebending.com advocating for actors of Asian descent to play the characters in the film if that would mean they would be playing a stereotype (martial artists)?
Casting actors who are white to play characters of color does not protect people of color from discrimination or stereotypes. We also believe the Avatar: The Last Airbender series took the proper steps to avoid being stereotypical, (eg: cultural consultants)–unlike the film adaptation.
Does the fact that M. Night Shyamalan is South Asian American impact Racebending.com’s position on his film at all?
Racebending.com believes that anyone is capable of making decisions with a discriminatory impact, regardless of their ethnicity, talent, and experiences–and regardless of their intentions. Our focus is on addressing that impact.
M. Night Shyamalan recently said that the film will be “the most diverse tentpole movie ever.” What is Racebending.com’s position on this diversity?
Racebending.com and other advocacy groups argue that there is a difference between diversity and equal representation and that this difference must be acknowledged.
Having a diverse palette of villains and extras is nothing new–Hollywood has upheld this glass ceiling for ages. The three heroic protagonist lead roles were still reserved for white actors. M. Night Shyamalan’s claim of diversity also does not address the production’s repeated culturally incompetent gaffes, including specifically casting for white actors to play the leads, cultural appropriation, and stereotyping (eg: Koreans come in Kimonos.)
The production has not acknowledged full impact of its actions. While actors of color are present in the film, they are not treated equally. Similar to a restaurant or store that employs people of color in the back room but places people who are white in the storefront, this production’s “diversity” is indicative of a glass ceiling. Glass ceilings with backfilled diversity are not indicative of true diversity.
What does Racebending.com think about Frank Marshall’s recent claim that the production of The Last Airbender did not create nor intend to use the “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” language?
We are very skeptical of this claim. Marshall told UGO.com that the “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” language was “not written nor distributed by the production, or the studio, but by a local extra casting entity that did not consult with either.” Yet, when this casting language was released to Breakdown Services, it came from the office Gail Levin, then-chief of Paramount Features Casting. The “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” breakdown was the most widely distributed casting language for th film’s lead roles.
The “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” language was used on several official casting websites, including the thelastairbendercasting.com site owned by Paramount and on Breakdown Services/Actor’s Access [source].
At Racebending.com we’re more concerned about the language–and the impact of the language– the production did use, rather than the language they meant to use. The production’s concrete actions had a discriminatory impact[learn more here.]
Does Racebending.com think the people involved in the production of The Last Airbender are racist? Does Racebending.com think fans of The Last Airbender movie are racist?
No. We are not in a position to judge whether any individual–unaffiliated with the casting or not–is personally racist.
What Racebending.com can assess is the production of The Last Airbender‘s cultural competency and the discriminatory or disparate impact of the production’s decisions. A film production need not have discriminatory intent or be “racist” in order to make decisions with a discriminatory impact.
In the case of The Last Airbender, the production’s decisions–whether deliberate or inadvertant–have reinforced glass ceilings in Hollywood. The idea that Hollywood casts films with a glass ceiling is well established and has been studied extensively both in academia and by professional organizations including the Screen Actor’s Guild.
Similarly, we are not in a position to judge whether any individual fan is racist and going to see the movie is a personal choice. So many people who loved the series don’t realize that when they are supporting the live action movie, they are also indirectly supporting discrimination. Our goal is to raise awareness and inform fans that they can boycott the movie if they do not wish to financially reward the production for making decisions that have resulted in discrimination. We hope that one day, fans and media consumers will not have to choose between supporting a franchise and taking a stand against discrimination.
How does Racebending.com feel about ‘colorblind casting’?
Racebending.com absolutely supports casting a role without considering an actor’s ethnicity, with a few caveats.
One is that ‘colorblindness’ should not be a free pass to ignore race, ethnicity, or culture altogether. A system that does not recognize race will also become unable to recognize when race-based discrimination does occur. And, given that in American society–and particularly in Hollywood–the default color is white, organizations like the Media Action Network for Asian Americans have found that when the ethnicity of a character is not listed in a casting call, old habits die hard and actors who are white may be preferenced anyway. Colorblindness should not be used as an excuse to ignore disparities or discrimination in Hollywood.
Another caveat is the double standard. This occurs when studios cast characters of color in a “colorblind” manner, but do not cast characters who are white in a “colorblind” manner. In this situation, studios select actors who are white to play characters of color (usually the lead) but actors of color are rarely selected to play characters who are white.
Lastly, it is important for studios to recognize that actors of color and actors from other underrepresented groups represent their communities. Nothing is stopping Hollywood from casting an abled-bodied actor to portray a person in a wheelchair, a male actor to portray a female character, and a white actor to portray a person of color–but there is a great distinction between an actor portraying a character, and an actor representing for an already underrepresented community. It would certainly behoove movie studios to take representation into consideration when casting for roles where the character’s identity as a member of an underrepresented group factors into the portrayal.
Is Racebending.com saying that white people can’t play Asians? Isn’t that reverse racism? Shouldn’t actors be able to play any role?
Casting characters of color with white actors sends the message that white people are more qualified to represent people of color than people of color themselves.
“Reverse racism” isn’t endemic in Hollywood right now; quite the opposite. There are actors of color actors equally as talented as the white actors selected to play the roles in The Last Airbender–except Ringer, Peltz, and Rathbone have other lead roles (white leading characters) open to them and actors of color do not. 82% of lead roles in Hollywood go to white actors. Less than 2% of lead roles go to Asian actors and less than 1% go to Native American actors.
Asian American actors should have the same opportunities to play Asian characters as white actors have to play white characters.
Does Racebending.com believe that only people from a certain group should be able to play characters from that group? For example, what does Racebending.com feel about British actors playing Italian characters?
Again, we’re examining double standards applied to actors of color in Hollywood. Advocate Helen Zia wrote: “To further suggest that Equity advocates the narrow-minded view that Jews can only play Jews, or Italians can only play Italians, or any similar casting that is drawn strictly along racial or ethnic lines, totally distorts the issue. Jews have always been able to play Italians, Italians have always been able to play Jews, and both have always been able to play Asian. Asian actors, however, almost never have the opportunity to play either Jews or Italians and continue to struggle even to play themselves.”
In addition to not seeing these movies, why launch letter writing movements, protests, and the website?
Racebending.com believes that it is important for media consumers to put studios that discriminate on notice. We are vocally protesting and pointing out that the kinds of casting practices used by The Last Airbender and other films are embarrassing, discriminative, and inappropriate. We hope to show the film industry that consumers will no longer stand for discriminative casting and that these practices are no longer financially viable.
What if casting decisions are driven not by racial discrimination but by financial motivations? Perhaps moviegoers would not see a movie without white actors?
It is certainly patronizing if Hollywood believes that most viewers are so intolerant and narrow-minded that they must need a white viewpoint in the story in order to ‘get it’. American audiences have happily embraced films like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Slumdog Millionaire, and they also fell in love with Avatar: The Last Airbender even though all of the characters were people of color.
By casting The Last Airbender the way they have, Paramount has lost revenue from minority families excited by the prospect of a kids movie where their ethnicity is represented, people pleased that casting was done in a culturally competent manner, and all the fans who are boycotting the film now. Financially-driven discrimination is still discrimination, and would be unacceptable in any other industry.