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The Last Airbender – A Timeline of the Protest

February 18, 2011

Origin of the Animated Series


2002

Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko begin early concept work on Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Nickelodeon wanted to make a “legends & lore” type of show with a kid hero. That’s a genre we are very interested in, but we wanted to create a mythology that was based on Eastern culture, rather than Western culture.

Although “Avatar” isn’t based on a specific Asian myth, we were inspired by Asian mythology, as well as Kung Fu, Yoga, and Eastern Philosophy. We were also inspired by Anime in general. We wanted to create a story that inspired people’s imaginations and that had elements of comedy, drama, and action.”

-Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, Creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender

“We wanted to base (Avatar) on Asian culture and kung-fu and Eastern religion and thought.”
Michael Dante DiMartino, 2006

February, 2005
The animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender – marketed by Nickelodeon’s Marjorie Cohn as set in a “fantastical Asian world ” – premieres to critical acclaim. It soon earns a place as one of the most popular children’s shows on television, earning high ratings and garnering fans of all ages and backgrounds.
(source)

Avatar: The Last Airbender


January, 2007
Paramount Pictures, MTV Films, and Nickelodeon Movies announce the signing of M. Night Shyamalan to write, direct, and produce a trilogy of live- action films based on the series.

In an interview with SFX Magazine, Shyamalan explains he learned about the Avatar cartoon when his daughter wanted to be Katara for Halloween.

April – June 2008

Avatar: The Last Airbender Asian monks

Over a course of months, director M. Night Shyamalan says in multiple interviews that his interest in the Avatar lore was due largely to its “Buddhist philosophy and Hindu philosophy”.
(source; source; source)

Caucasian or Any Other Ethnicity


August, 2008

The Last Airbender Cast - Caucasian or any other ethnicity

Released casting call sheets for the four lead roles read: “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”
For more on the casting, click here.
(source)

December 9, 2008

Jackson Rathbone cast as Sokka in The Last Airbender

Entertainment Weekly leaks the core cast of The Last Airbender– newcomer Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone (Twilight) and pop star Jesse McCartney. None of the lead actors are ethnically Asian or Native American, resulting in fan outcry.
(source)

The Protest Gets Organized


December 11, 2008
The Last Airbender film protest - art by glockgal
A grassroots movement launches the “Saving the World with Postage” campaign, urging the public to write letters to producers Kennedy & Marshall at Paramount Pictures, and Shyamalan at his company, Blinding Edge Studios.

Over 200 letters are ignored and returned to sender. Campaign organizers are given out-of-date and conflicting contact information by Paramount employees, but fans continue to send in letters to the Kennedy/Marshall Company. This fan movement eventually shifts into Racebending.com, the full site gets it’s launch in February 2009.

There is no response.

December, 2008
A Facebook group for anyone protesting the white-washed casting of The Last Airbender is created. There are now 4,700 members.

January, 2009
Asian American artist Derek Kirk Kim creates a petition of industry professionals who plan to boycott the film.

Derek Kim on The Last Airbender controversy - Photo by Aaron AlbertWhat if someone made a ‘fantasy’ movie in which the entire world was built around African culture? Everyone is wearing ancient African clothes, African hats, eating traditional African food, writing in an African language, living in African homes, all encompassed in an African landscape…but everyone is white.”

– Derek Kirk Kim, author of Same Difference and Other Stories
(source, photo courtesy of Aaron Albert)


Shortly after, award-winning Avatar: The Last Airbender director Giancarlo Volpe applauds Mr. Kim’s message:

Director Giancarlo Volpe on The Last Airbender controversyThis blog entry sums up my feelings exactly. Thank you, Derek Kirk Kim for spelling out the situation so eloquently. ”

-Giancarlo Volpe, Avatar: The Last Airbender director
(source, photo courtesy of Kenji Yamaguchi)

Extras and Villains Wanted, Seeking Actors of Color


January 24, 2009
First Open Casting Call for background extras held in Philadelphia. Flier reads: “dress in the traditional costume of your family’s ethnic background.”

At the cast call, casting director Deedee Ricketts recommended extras emphasize their own culture.

We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire,” she said. “If you’re Korean, wear a kimono.”
(source)

The Last Airbender Casting Director Deedee Ricketts

One middle-aged black woman, clad in a denim jacket and black slacks, raised her hand. “Are you at a disadvantage if you didn’t wear a costume?” she asked, evidently concerned about her “non-ethnic” outfit.

“Absolutely not!” Ricketts reassured her. “It doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage if you didn’t come in a big African thing. But guys, even if you came with a scarf today, put it over your head so you’ll look like a Ukrainian villager or whatever.”
For more on the casting, click here.
(source)


February 7, 2009

Dev Patel as Zuko in The Last Airbender

Dev Patel (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) replaces Jesse McCartney as antagonist Prince Zuko. Studio attributes this change to ‘scheduling conflicts.’ Heroes of the film remain Caucasian actors depicting ethnically Asian/Inuit characters.
For more on the casting, click here.
(source)

February 7, 2009
The second background extras casting call is held for “Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean and Latino” people. At the audition site, fans stage a small protest.
(source)

Advocacy Groups Become Involved


February 11, 2009

manaa

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) sends a letter to producer Sam Mercer, voicing their concern and requesting a meeting. The letter is ignored until after filming begins, at which point it is logistically impossible to change the casting.

Paramount’s response argues that the casting (Caucasian protagonists and antagonists of color) makes the film “ethnically diverse and inclusive.” The question of the casting call wording is ignored completely.

MANAA’s subsequent attempts to contact Paramount are ignored.
(source)

February 16, 2009

ewp-wordpress-header-3

Casting call for adult principal roles seeks: “Chinese and Korean actors– MEN ONLY, age 30-60.” The East West Players (an organization founded by the late Avatar: The Last Airbender actor Mako) sends a letter to producer Sam Mercer requesting a meeting.
(source)

February 25, 2009
Casting call for backdrop/extras of “Mongolian, Cambodian or Laotian heritage” in Arlington VA, as well as extras of “Cambodian, Mongolian, Chinese, Korean and Thai Descent” in Flushing NY will be held on March first.
(source)

March 1, 2009
Auditions from the Flushing, NY Casting Call reveals that Paramount intends to cast according to the race of the lead roles. The war-like Fire Nation will therefore all be Indian or Southeast Asian; the heroic, oppressed Air and Water Tribes will be Caucasian.
(source)

March 13, 2009

Aasif Mandvi as Zhao in The Last Airbender film
Cliff Curtis as Ozai in The Last Airbender filmShaun Toub as Iroh in The Last Airbender film

Aasif Mandvi, Shaun Toub and Cliff Curtis have joined the cast of M. Night Shyamalan’s THE LAST AIRBENDER as Fire Nation characters, again confirming that the Fire Nation will be cast using people of color.
(source)

March 15, 2009

The Last Airbender set in Greenland

Filming begins in Greenland. Photo confirms that the Water Tribe’s village is Inuit-based. Though the Water Tribe scenes are filmed in a nation that is 85% Inuit, the original show’s dark-skinned heroic tribe remains cast with Caucasian actors.
(source)


March 25th, 2009
After several weeks of being given the run-around, MANAA finally hears back from Paramount. Unfortunately, by this point, filming has already begun, making changing the cast substantially more difficult. In a letter signed simply “The Producers” The letter argues that the cast is “ethnically diverse and inclusive” and goes on to list the ethnicities and country of upbringing of actors playing antagonist and secondary characters. According to the letter, “The four nations represented in the film reflect not one community, but the world’s citizens.” The letter does not address MANAA’s concerns regarding a casting bias or that the lead roles were changed from Asian/Inuit to white.

March 28th, 2009
Zazzle.com inexplicably shuts down the Racebending.com t-shirt store despite fair use protections.

April 1st, 2009
Frank Marshall, one of the producers, returns from Greenland and opens a twitter account. His first tweet:

Good to be back in civilization…”

Angry members of the public immediately begin tweeting him regarding the cast. In response, Marshall tweets:

The casting is complete and we did not discriminate against anyone.”
– Frank Marshall, Executive Producer, The Last Airbender

April 9th, 2009
MANAA responds, again requesting a meeting to “discuss the casting and depiction of cultures in the movie.” MANAA writes:

MANAA is a strong supporter of studios’ efforts to increase diversity, but it is absurd to use that as an excuse to make a project more white and to say the original concept wasn’t diverse enough when the cultures of the four Asian [and Inuit] nations clearly were.”

Paramount does not respond, and MANAA’s repeated attempts to contact Paramount regarding The Last Airbender and The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard are also rebuffed.

April 24th, 2009
Racebending.com begins to poll supporters for demographics including gender, age, and hometown. Responses begin flooding in from all over the world…over 500 in just one day! Results of the survey can be viewed here: Demographics of Racebending.com Supporters and here Racebending.com Supporters: Why We Oppose the Casting of The Last Airbender.

Former A:TLA staff members Speak Out

June 2009
Sifu Kisu, martial arts consultant on the animated series, begins to engage fans in the debate regarding the casting, through various forums on the internet as well as at San Diego Comic Con.

Sifu confirms that the character of Aang was modeled after his Chinese-American son.

Now I’m hearing people are so surprised that a Caucasian kid was cast as the Asian lead? SHOCKING NEWS!! Kinda like the Kung Fu TV Series when David Carradine beat out Bruce Lee for the lead. I mean goodness we all know David Carradine was by far superior in the martial arts compared to Bruce Lee, go figure.
– Sifu Kisu, martial arts consultant, Avatar: The Last Airbender

June 9th, 2009
Paramount broadcasts on The Last Airbender fan sites that it has cast Korean American actor Isaac Jin Solstein, age 13. Despite their emphasis on this casting fans are quick to point out that Solstein has been cast as “Earthbending Boy”– a character so minor it does not even have a name. An experienced young martial artist and Asian American actor, Solstein could just as easily have played one of the main characters…

July 3rd, 2009
Professor S.L. Lee, series calligrapher and cultural consultant, is interviewed on San Francisco radio station 94.1KPFA.

Since the 1960s, there [have been] a lot of immigrants from Asia. There shouldn’t be any problem of selecting from a very wide arena of candidates, to cast this film. I was very puzzled by why there are absolutely no Asian [actors]–other than South Asians as one of the evil characters. I feel that this is totally off the theme of the original TV show. The reason why this TV show is now a syndicated show is because of the idea of having different ethnicities involved, and so I think that should be the same with the movie.”
– Professor S. L. Lee, cultural consultant to Avatar: The Last Airbender

July 23rd-26th, 2009
At San Diego Comic Con 2009, members of the Racebending.com Los Angeles Street team hand out fliers, pins, t-shirts, and collect petition signatures. They even get to meet the series creators and see the newest Comic Con Avatar: The Last Airbender fan poster.
Aang the Last Airbender as depicted by Bryan Konietzko
An older version of Aang (the last Airbender) as depicted by co-creator Bryan Konietzko for a poster shared with fans at the San Diego Comic Con after the casting controversy.
The Street Team interviews several Comic Con celebrities opposed to the casting, including Jerry Holkins (Tycho) of Penny Arcade, Sandeep Parikh of The Guild, Gene Yang, writer of National Book Award finalist American Born Chinese, and Keith Chow, editor of comics anthology Secret Identities.


July 29th, 2009
Professor S.L. Lee, series calligrapher, announces that Chinese calligraphy–a cultural element so ingrained in the animated series it was included in the series logo–will not be used in the feature film.

July 31, 2009
Dao Le, Animatic Editor of the Avatar: The Last Airbender original animated series, speaks out:

It’s been a huge disappointment to hear about the casting for Avatar’s live-action movie. The show was heavily influenced by Asian culture, some of the characters were even modeled after Asian members of the crew.

But now, with the pre-dominantly white cast, it feels like all the Asian/Eastern influences, origins, what have you, were just a backdrop for these characters.

[…] I always believed they were Asian, or even mixed Asian. And that belief added a little extra pride in working on such a great show. The appreciation Mike & Bryan had for Asian culture, the interest it generated in the fans, gave me greater appreciation for my own culture.”
-Dao Le, Animatic Editor for Avatar: The Last Airbender


Paramount’s film The Goods Outrages the Asian American Community

August 14th, 2009
Paramount Pictures releases The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, which features a scene that incenses the Asian American community. The scene in question depicts the beating of an Asian-American man by car salesmen, evoking memories in the community to the real-life murder of Vincent Chin by Detroit auto workers. After a protest in front of Paramount Studios–a joint effort by several Asian-American groups, including the JACL, MANAA, and Racebending.com–Paramount pulled all advertising material for the film using the scene in question and agreed to meet with leaders in the Asian-American community to foster continuing dialogue on the issue.

On behalf of the studio, I want to extend our sincerest apologies to the Japanese American Citizens League and the greater Asian American community for the racially demeaning language used in the scenes depicted in the film.”
– Adam Goodman, President of Paramount Pictures

September 5th-7th,2009 A viral video criticizing the casting of The Last Airbender – unaffiliated with Racebending.com – runs on Dragon*ConTV throughout the weekend of the Dragon*Con convention. The video is played multiple times throughout the weekend before panels and at participating hotels.

dragoncon video


October 2009
Racebending.com comes into the possession of a few pages from the Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s “Intellectual Property Bible,” the guiding document members of the animated series’ production used to create the show. The Bible reiterates that the world of Avatar was always intended to be representative of the cultures of the Pacific Rim.

This is an ancient, fantastical Asian environment, primarily Chinese.”
– The A:TLA IP Bible

November 14th, 2009
At a meeting with Paramount Pictures regarding the depictions of Asian Americans in The Goods, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans brings up the casting controversy over The Last Airbender. The President of Paramount Pictures, Adam Goodman, is made fully aware of the public’s problems with the casting. Goodman promises to let the Asian American advocates at the meeting see a screening of the film well before before its release. Goodman tells MANAA that in all his years in the business, he has never seen such outcry over the casting of a character.

Racebending.com Hits the Road

November 21st, 2009
Racebending.com staff member Loraine Sammy is a panelist at the Futures of Entertainment Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT.) The protest against the casting of The Last Airbender is now being studied in academia as an example of social change in transmedia.

December 24th, 2009
In his December 23rd, 2009 “Answer Man” column, venerated film critic Roger Ebert publicly condemns the casting of The Last Airbender film as “wrong.”

The original series Avatar: The Last Airbender was highly regarded and popular for three seasons on Nickelodeon. Its fans take it for granted that its heroes are Asian. Why would Paramount and Shyamalan go out of their way to offend these fans? There are many young Asian actors capable of playing the parts.”
– Roger Ebert, film critic

January 8, 2010
Dark Horse Comics announces the publication of Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Art of the Animated Series, a hardcover book set to release on June 2nd. The book jacket reads:

[Avatar: The Last Airbender is] beautifully executed, a stunning masterpiece of animated storytelling that harmonizes Western influences with aesthetic inspiration drawn from a diverse array of cultures, including those of China, Japan, India, and the Inuit.

January 28, 2010
The Los Angeles Times interviews M. Night Shyamalan. No mention of the casting controversy, but the article again describes Avatar: The Last Airbender as a “fusion of Eastern philosophies and martial arts” and explains that Shyamalan was drawn to its Buddhist philosophies. The character of Aang is a “pre-teen, martial-arts version of the Dalai Lama” and Dev Patel is playing “the evil Prince Zuko.”

February 4, 2010
Paramount debuts the Super Bowl Trailer for the film and holds the first few screenings for test audiences.

March 6, 2010
Racebending.com presents two workshops at the East Coast Asian American Student Union Conference to a packed house of students at the University of Pennsylvania.

March 11, 2010
M. Night Shyamalan shills The Last Airbender at the Upfronts. The production of The Last Airbender flies bloggers from fan sites out to a press conference and a stay in a luxury hotel, the Tribeca Grand–a stark contrast to the production ignoring Asian American community and advocacy groups’ concerns over the casting and requests for a meeting.

March 15, 2010
Facebook shuts down the “People Against Racebending: Protest of the Cast of The Last Airbender Movie” Facebook group without warning for being “hateful, threatening, or obscene.” Jeff Yang of the San Francisco Chronicle launches a new group demanding that the Facebook group be restored. The group of supporters swells to over 500 supporters in 24 hours, including support from authors Maxine Hong Kingston, Derek Kirk Kim and Tak Toyoshima. After supporters send Facebook messages, the group is restored the next day at 8pm.

The Casting Controversy Draws Increased Media Attention

March 24, 2010
Paramount releases the full length trailer for The Last Airbender.

March 30, 2010
M. Night Shyamalan is interviewed by UGO.com and calls the film “the most culturally diverse tent-pole in history.” He is dismissive of what he calls “ironic” complaints about the casting and says that the diversity of the cast is “more than [fans] could have expected.”

It is revealed that Paramount reneged on its promise to give the fan sites and online journalists a video of the March 11th meeting to post publicly with their readers. Instead, the fan sites cobble together a transcript from their notes and recordings that day.io9.com also posts its transcript of the March 11th interview with M. Night Shyamalan and other fan sites follow suit.

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans blogs in response that “M. Night Shyamalan misses the point.” Several other websites, including the Los Angeles Times – Hero Complex, Racialicious, SlashFilm, ScreenCrave, etc. also take note.

Racebending.com responds with an email directly to the President of Paramount Pictures, Adam Goodman. The letter points out that M. Night Shyamalan misconstrued and was dismissive of public concerns, and requests a meeting between Paramount, the production of The Last Airbender, Racebending.com, and other advocacy groups.

April 1st, 2010
UGO.com interviews Racebending.com staffer Michael Le..

April 2nd-April 4th, 2010
Racebending.com hosts an exhibitor table among other fan tables at WonderCon 2010 in San Francisco, CA. Over a thousand people visit the booth and over 500 people participate in an online photo petition on the last two days of the convention.

On the same weekend at AnimeBoston in Boston, MA, fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender present on the film adaptation during the A:TLA panel.

April 5th, 2010
Racebending.com receives a response from Adam Goodman, President of Paramount Pictures. In the letter, Goodman asserts that “Paramount has been in an ongoing dialogue with Asian American advocacy groups such as the Japanese American Citizens League and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans to address similar issues outlined in your letter…Our work with the JACL and MANAA is an ongoing collaboration; one which we feel has been productive on both sides.”

April 7th, 2010
Los Angeles Times Comments Blog notes the fan dissent over the controversial casting of The Last Airbender.

April 8th, 2010
Producer Frank Marshall responds to the Michael Le interview on UGO.com by blaming what he agrees is “poorly worded and offensive” casting language “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” on “a local extra casting entity” that did not consult with the production or studio. (This, despite the fact that the language was used on the official Paramount thelastairbendercasting.com website and the casting language was for the LEAD characters and not extras.)

April 12th- April 20th, 2010
Racebending.com writes Mr. Goodman to request a meeting with the producers of The Last Airbender for Asian American advocacy groups.

On April 16th, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans expresses concerns that Goodman has not followed up on promises from the November 2010 meeting.

On April 20th, Goodman writes back to offer Racebending.com an opportunity to screen the film: “Increasing diversity is important to us. We understand that Asian Americans are underrepresented in film and television and we sincerely want to be part of a solution.” Goodman’s letter again ignores our repeated requests for a meeting or any kind of follow up directly with the production of The Last Airbender.

April 21st, 2010
Backstage Magzine, one of the most prominent actor/casting/trade magzines in Hollywood, publishes the first article on the controversy to include interviews from all sides of the argument: Airbent Out of Shape

April 22nd, 2010
The production of The Last Airbender announces that the film will be converted to 3-D for it’s release.

April 28th, 2010
Racebending.com presents with MANAA at Cal Poly Pomona.

April 30th, 2010
Racebending.com followed up with Adam Goodman through a brief email on April 30th to confirm that we would be interested in a screening of The LAst Airbender. We do not receive a response until we send a follow up email in June.

May 2nd 2010
The Los Angeles Times publishes an article on the controversy, On the set: Casting of ‘Last Airbender’ stirs controversy. The article only provides quotes and information from the production, no advocacy groups were contacted.

May 11th 2010
SciFiWire publishes two dueling editorials asking this question: Does Last Airbender Discriminate?

Racebending.com co-founder Marissa Lee argues:

“If not in a franchise like The Last Airbender, then what other opportunities do actors of Asian and Inuit descent currently have to star in Hollywood blockbusters?

Ian Spelling of SciFiWire argues:

“Was it truly Shyamalan’s duty to do what no one else has been willing or able to do?”

May 25th-May 28th, 2010

Several media outlets cover the casting controversies behind Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender. Articles about the controversy, with direct quotes from Racebending.com, are published by CBC Canada, The Los Angeles Times, The UK Daily Telegraph, The Associated Press and over 50 other media outlets. Racebending.com is also interviewed on the BBC World News Update.

Protesting the Discrimination in “The Last Airbender”

June 9th, 2010
In his June 9th, 2010 Answer Man Column, American film critic Roger Ebert answers another fan question about the casting of The Last Airbender and the practice of “racebending” and “whitewashing” in general.

June 18th, 2010
Racebending.com launches our letter-writing campaign against The Last Airbender. Supporters are encouraged to write local and national film critics to inform them about the casting controversy. These letter writing efforts are noted by the Washington Post, CNN, and many other news outlets. Over 25 reviewers and news outlets note the casting controversy in their coverage of the film.

June 19th, 2010
Racebending.com staffers attend a book signing with the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender at Golden Apple Comics. We hand out wristbands and fliers to fans in line, and present the creators excerpts from emails Racebending.com received from fans of A:TLA positively affected by representation in the animated series.

Mike and Bryan sign a book for Racebending.com supporters:

June 28th, 2010
Asian American community leaders and Racebending.com attend a screening of The Last Airbender arranged by Paramount Pictures President Adam Goodman, two days before the film’s premiere. This screening is hardly the early screening promised to Asian American leaders in November 2010. Screening attendees are appalled by the depictions of people of color in the film.

Racebending.com staff members attend this screening and give feedback to two Paramount representatives present after the screening. Unfortunately, the Paramount representatives refuse to disclose their names or positions at Paramount. Attempts to follow up with Mr. Goodman receive no response.

June 30th, 2010
Roger Ebert again “tweets out” about The Last Airbender:

ebertchicago: The best writing I’ve seen on the racist casting of “The Last Airbender.” Devastating. http://j.mp/bz5zbI

July 1st, 2010
The domestic release date of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.

Avatar: The Last Airbender actor Dante Basco speaks out about the casting controversy on his blog:

“The fact of the matter is, in Hollywood… it’s not fair. It’s not fair at all, the tables are tipped unfavorably for ethnic actors. The percentage of roles for ethnic actors to white actors is something to the effect of: in 100 roles, there may be 12 roles for black actors, maybe 7 for latin actors and only maybe 2 for asian actors.”

Racebending.com, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, the Korean Resource Center, Avatar: The Last Airbender fans and other concerned members of the public gathered to protest the discriminatory casting of The Last Airbender in front of theaters in Seattle, Wash. and Hollywood, Calif., staging live protests of the film on it’s opening day, July 1st, 2010. The protest is covered by the Los Angeles Times, Fox News, ABC News, NBC news, and more.

Aftermath…

The Last Airbender goes on to earn a domestic gross of $131 million, despite the film’s $150 million production budget. Because Airbender‘s advertising budget was $130 million, the film barely makes back it’s $280 million total budget through overseas markets. Over six months later, a sequel to the film has yet to be put in production.

On July 21st, 2010, Nickelodeon announces that a sequel to the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series has been put in production, Avatar: The Legend of Korra. Although no new spin-off content for the movie franchise is planned, Dark Horse Comics announces an ongoing comic book series based on the Avatar: The Last Airbender series in February 2011.

Categories: Featured, History and Concepts, Press, The Last Airbender
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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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