Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
As a diasporic woman of color, there are several themes in “Avatar: the Last Airbender” that resonate strongly with me, leading me to consider how the story and its characters affirm immigrant and diasporic experiences–in other words, the inevitable upheavals of imperialism and the kinds of resilience and strength it takes to survive that. After several rewatches, I decided to write a breakdown of how immigrant and diasporic themes in each of the Four Nations/ characters form a commensurate picture.
“Air is the element of Freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns, and found peace and freedom.”
People who follow my Tumblr know how much I love Aang and the Air Nomads. As a Buddhist woman of color, Aang’s narrative is especially poignant to me because his people (a pacifist community of monks and nuns with no organized military or wealth) were destroyed by genocide, making him literally The Last Airbender. Many historical peoples have been forced into diaspora through genocide, most notably Jewish people, but also the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, the Palestinian people, and so forth. Displacement through genocide creates a traumatic dilemma: how do you survive and adapt to a new way of life where you’re the minority, while at the same time upholding and honoring the traditions that represent your history? How do you preserve that history in the face of overwhelming violence?
There are several moments in the show that touch on this: Aang refusing to cover up his tattoos and conceal his identity, Aang shaving his head before the Battle of Black Sun and claiming his Nomad heritage, Aang’s poignant decision to give up his destroyed staff, a relic from his bygone people (and the defiance with which he tamps it down into volcanic earth) and Aang’s initial dismay at the changes made by new inhabitants to the Norther Air Temple. But perhaps most significant is Aang spiritual struggle with killing Fire Lord Ozai, and his ultimate decision not to. While all his close friends, as well as the spirits of past Avatars, urge him to be decisive in dealing with Ozai, Aang still refuses to repudiate the pacifist beliefs he grew up with. As the last of the Air Nomads Aang carries the burden of a lost people and his refusal to kill Ozai is the ultimate honoring of those people. Being a diasporic POC, you face similar decisions all the time (minus a Fire Lord and the end of the world of course). How do I move forward without erasing the past? How do I balance both? This is also where Aang’s Buddhism plays an important role. To quote from one of my favorite books on Buddhism, “The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation” by Nalin Swaris:
“The Middle Way of the Buddha is often understood as a halfway position between two extremes – a golden median; a pragmatic compromise. However, this is to fix the mind on the word ‘middle’ in a spatial sense. The Middle Way however is based on the clear comprehension of the conditioned co-arising of paired opposites or binaries. It is not a third position arrived at by a dialectical clash of opposites. It is a movement, a practical going through and beyond mentally and culturally constructed dualisms. It is cessation of the opposition of ‘this’ to ‘that’ and a ‘crossing over to the further shore of freedom.”
“Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through anything.”
I could write reams and reams about the Water Tribe. Basically, anyone who’s lived a diasporic/immigrant life knows that adapting to change while maintaining your core is essential to survival. Katara and Sokka butt heads many times during the show, but when things gets tough they have each other’s backs. Most notably, when Katara wants to help a small Fire Nation fishing village, Sokka reluctantly agrees because “You’re my sister, and I’ll never turn my back on you.” We immigrants and diasporic people may not agree with each other, we may yell and fight and scream sometimes, we may gossip and throw shade, but when our folks need a babysitter, when our neighbor’s parent dies and they need help cooking the funeral food, when someone loses their job and needs rent money, when someone’s evicted and needs a couch for them and their family: we’re there. These are survival skills that immigrants, especially immigrants of color, have had to learn in order to survive a world that’s institutionally stacked against us. Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe sacrifices her life so her people and their way of life could continue. If the diaspora is built on nothing else, it’s pure love and courage.
Apart from sticking together, immigrants of color also need to be pretty damn creative. When Katara’s trapped in the Palace courtyard with Azula, she uses her Waterbending to creatively freeze and melt the water around her opponent, thus strategically subduing her. When she’s trapped in a wooden cage, she bends her own sweat. Hama the bloodbender, whose story is a tragic yet common one in wartime, exemplifies the dark side of immigrant/diasporic life, when your identity is torn from you and all you have is hate and anger. I’ve felt that way too. It takes a ton of strength to survive diasporic living as a POC, and Katara’s story, the story of the Southern Water Tribe, is extremely important for those reasons.
“Fire is the element of power. The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want.”
Even more important in Zuko’s narrative is the questioning of ethnocentrism, which is a requirement for immigrants of color but only a vague intellectual exercise for white people in imperialist nations. Immigrants of color have to see outside of ourselves, learn other languages, other customs, all the time, but our lives are never legible to those in power. Zuko was jolted out of his privileged perspective by being forced into an immigrant/diasporic life. He was forced to see the effects of war on everyday people, forced to hide his identity, forced to live in fear. He was confronted with the reality of the Fire Nation’s genocidal, imperialist actions. He was confronted, in effect, with the truth of the subaltern. Because here’s the thing: nationalism will never ever tell you the truth. Nationalism has meant the destruction of entire communities and people. As a Sinhalese woman, it took my own immigrant experience, my experiences with racism and being otherized, to teach me the pitfalls of nationalism and to help me realize that my own people, the ethnic majority of Sri Lanka, have been responsible for the genocide and disenfranchisement of Tamil Sri Lankans. Zuko’s line to his father “I’ve learned everything! And I’ve had to learn it on my own” is one of my absolute favorite lines spoken by a fictional character, because all of us diaspora kids of color know that feeling. Whether it’s accepting the reality of your own history, or finally confronting someone else’s, the diaspora teaches you, and afterwards there’s no going back.
“Earth is the element of substance. The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong, they are persistent and enduring.”
Toph’s story is different from the rest of the characters because she’s the only who’s not compelled or forced to leave home, but does so voluntarily to escape the stifling protectiveness of her parents. I think this too is an immigrant story. I know many desis who invented reasons to leave the country in order to escape oppressive familial situations. Like Toph, these women also have a certain degree of financial security and make a choice to leave, rather than being forced out due to war and genocide. For this reason, Toph is I think the most self-assured member of team Avatar, the one who’s most certain of her identity and her goals, and the one whose relationship to her parents is not marked by tragedy but by anger and resentment.
Toph’s stalwart confidence is another trait that’s extremely important for an immigrant life. You have to be strong and sure in who you are, because otherwise the world will literally swallow you up. Some of the most successful, powerful, dynamic immigrant women of color I know are women who’ve a strong sense of who they are, what their goals are and how to achieve them. Furthermore, leaving home tested Toph and made her even stronger in who she is; it’s doubtful if she could’ve invented metalbending if she was still living a double-life with her parents. I think Toph always knew, deep down, that she was meant for bigger things than Earth Rumble, and when she met Aang she saw her chance and took it. I didn’t leave home because I hated my parents, in fact it was really hard to leave them, but I also knew that the things I wanted to do, the things I needed to learn, couldn’t be found where I was. Sometimes, you just have to take a breath and let go, and trust that you, like Toph, are strong enough to meet the future.
“Understanding other people, the other Nations, will help you become whole.”
I complain about being a diasporic kid a lot. I miss my family like you wouldn’t believe. There are cousins I don’t see for years, who grow up on Facebook while the years go by. Sometimes I miss the feel of Sinhalese on my tongue so badly I talk out loud to myself. But there’s one thing I wouldn’t change about being an immigrant/diasporic person of color: it teaches you empathy, it teaches you respect, it teaches you strength and it teaches you creativity. You need all these things to survive and grow, to hold up your community and push yourself forward. You need to unlearn myths and lies, reform them to fit new realities. You need to respect the past but mold it for the future. In short, you have to “draw wisdom from many different places” while keeping true to who you are and where you come from.
I don’t know if the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender thought about these things when crafting this story; I think when a story is well told, with authenticity and love, it has the potential to illuminate many perspectives and strike empathy in many different people. Diasporic consciousness is incredibly valuable because it teaches us a different way of being, a way of interconnectedness and mutual love. Aang, Katara, Toph, Zuko and Sokka symbolize this perfectly: it took all of them with all their different skills, to end the War and restore peace and balance. A diasporic consciousness has the same power: to model a newer, more just, more empathetic way of life.