Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about representations of race in media. This is partly because I personally cringe every time I see a commercial for The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp as Tonto, but I know there aren’t wide-spread protests about it, and many Native Americans seem fine with his representation (though others do find it offensive). So, I find myself asking, “Is it okay for me to be offended as a non-member of the minority being represented? Am I just showing my liberal white guilt when my first reaction to Johnny Depp Johnny-Depping it up as Tonto is to smack my forehead and ask how anyone thought this was a good idea?” I’m not sure I have the answer, hence why I ask the question.
Another reason racial representation has been on my mind lately, especially as it pertains to fandom, is due to representations, and the reactions to those representations, of my favorite character from one of my favorite shows, Young Justice (RIP). This character, Artemis Crock, was half-Vietnamese with naturally blonde hair. Largely due to this unusual genetic combination, representations of this character, both in the companion comic and fan art are constantly being criticized as “whitewashing” the character, even if the artist makes a clear attempt to show Vietnamese facial features. Seriously, it seems there are some users on tumblr whose only occupations are seeking out representations of this character and arguing whether or not they’re offensive.
Now, changing representations of established characters is something I covered in my last post about “adaption rage.” But, I’ll be expanding on it here.
If we look again at Young Justice, the creators of the show wanted to introduce racial and ethnic diversity to a show. For the bulk of the first season, they relied on two characters to add some diversity. The first was Aqualad. Instead of using the pre-existing Aqualad character, Garth, who was depicted as white (and sometimes grey-ish), the show creators invented a new Aqualad, Kaldu’ahm:
I haven’t seen too much back-lash about this decision, as Kaldur is both a popular character and the original Aqualad, Garth, has appeared on the series and in the comics. There is also little-to-no backlash over another change the creators of the show made to the racial identity of another character. Artemis Crock, as I described above (half-Vietnamese) is not the original version of that character. In fact, if the animated show had gone with the original races of all its characters (excluding Miss Martian, but not really) the show would have been 100% white.
This is where fandom can get a little tricky on the subject of racial representations. Often, fans of the original are just as, if not more, offended by the simple fact that some new-comer made any change to a character they loved. This is why you get certain geeks who flip-out at the idea of making traditionally white characters black. And, the more iconic or well-known the character, the more backlash there is for any change. I doubt, for example, there would be such a dearth of complaints if the show had dared make Dick Grayson, the original Robin, black.
So, why are people so angry about whitewashing a character that was initially white?
I am all for social justice and breaking down ignorance and oppressive, hurtful social constructs, particularly when the path to that is to inform, educate, open minds, and promote empathy and equality. I am not a fan of self-righteousness in any form and I struggle to keep from drifting in that direction with my own views and convictions. The internet provides a great platform to call BS on a lot of things, and I encourage people to use it for that. But now that you have the official local color swatches of these characters’ “normal” skin tones in the image above, I can assure you that using it like some Behr color chip ammunition to lambast every fanart depiction of Korra that doesn’t match #a08365 is a flawed pursuit. Ask yourself if any of the things listed above in this post might be factoring into a color variation before you shoot from the hip with your judgement. And if the depiction of Korra in some fanart is without a doubt offensive to you, consider phrasing your response in a way that could help them see it your way. Art is hard! Maybe he or she is trying to get the hang of painting and working with color (skin being one of the hardest things to master). Maybe he or she is still ignorant to the worldly views that are obvious and significant to you. You could take this opportunity to turn it into what they call in parenting “a teaching moment.” You could open some eyes and educate someone who might turn around and share their enlightenment with many others.