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Noah Ringer: American Indian

November 11, 2010

As many of you are aware, there was a recent article about Noah Ringer. It discusses his future as an actor, and also includes one revelation pertinent to the racebending.com The Last Airbender protest:

“Ringer, who’s of American Indian* heritage, still lives in Dallas with his parents.”

*(Racebending.com confirmed that when asked by Entertainment Weekly reporter Karen Valby about his ethnicity, Noah Ringer self-identified as “American Indian.”)

So. What exactly does this mean?

  • Does this statement negate everything that racebending.com was protesting for the past two years?
  • Is Paramount truly the noble upstanding, legally moral studio for remaining mum about Noah Ringer’s heritage, in both public interviews with Marshall and Shyamalan as well as in letters between the Paramount Pictures President and racebending.com?
  • Should racebending.com pack up shop and close our doors, as this news of Ringer’s heritage effectively negates everything we stand for?

The organizers have discussed what this news means, and here’s what we’ve come up with:
What does this mean for kids and for adults who want to see people of colour in lead, protagonist, hero roles? The debate still continues about Aang’s ethnicity, regardless (or perhaps exacerbated by?) of Ringer’s background.

For the entirety of the production and release of the film, Ringer was presented as a white person who Shyamalan “felt” was “mixed race with an Asian quality to him.” This was never disputed or debated by the production. In the conversations Asian American organizations and Racebending.com had with Paramount, including with the President of Paramount Pictures, both parties operated on the premise that Ringer was white. But in lieu of ambiguous ethnicity, white should not be the default. While we don’t presume to doubt Ringer, we wonder why his heritage was hidden and obscured by Paramount Pictures, while other actors’ backgrounds were flaunted by Shyamalan in his TLA-defensive interviews. In short: why were we, the movie-going public, allowed to assume that Ringer was (the default) white?

What this says to me is that a) Ringer is racially ‘ambiguous’ enough to play Aang (or as Shyamalan says, has “an Asian quality”–whatever that means–which apparently should be good enough); and, b) therefore race in A:TLA is unimportant/irrelevant, and anyone can play anyone.

Our efforts were never just about hiring minorities. Our concern goes beyond just “presentness” of minorities. There are many films that have actors of colour who play the roles of sidekick or bad guy or Extraneous Person #253. Racebending.com still stands by our opinion that Aang was Asian. Minorities are not interchangeable, and further tokenism in film is not our goal. The argument that there was a minority in the film playing one of the any whitewashed minority role…so we should shut up and sit down–why should we when so many characters were still whitewashed? When the film perpetrated so many racial stereotypes–depicting black and Inuit communities as helpless victims, depicting Asians as villains, idiots, traitors and massage ladies?

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.

Racism is not always overt or deliberate. Even with the best of intentions, a film can still have a discriminatory impact and send racist messages. The film is not any less racist because of Noah’s casting, because:

A) People of and communities of color aren’t interchangeable.
B) The cultures showcased in the original Avatar: The Last Airbender saw their roles greatly diminished in the film.
C) Katara and Sokka are still clearly brown in the animated series and clearly white in the movie.
D) The Last Airbender depicts situations of colorism, where heroes with light skin condescend to people with dark skin, and fight brown bad guys.

Our primary concern is fair and accurate portrayals of people of color and Noah Ringer identifying as American Indian does not change our concerns about The Last Airbender.

Minorities are not and should not be monolithically interchangable. The presence of a minority lead does not change the stereotypes reinforced by The Last Airbender.

We are happy that he is proud of his heritage and hope he will play American Indian characters in the future – seriously how awesome would it be to see a Native American child character hero?!!? – but the issue is that thousands of children across America still saw Asian and Inuit characters whitewashed and/or presented as white.

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In case people have not yet read this opinion on The Last Airbender in relation to Face Painting, we highly recommend the read! It breaks down the history in discrimination quite well.

Categories: The Last Airbender

About the Author

Loraine Sammy is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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