Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When you're too good not to be white(r).

This is a post on three instances when you're too good not to be whiter.

(Taken from Otago Daily Times.)

Story 1 - That's Jeff Ma on the left.

He was a very smart Asian-American kid, who at some point of his life at MIT decided that he could outsmart the the game of 21 by counting cards. So he and some other very smart Asian-American mates bandied together, headed down to Las Vegas to count their way to riches.

It was. A. Lot. Of. Money.

Enough of a-lot for someone to write a book about him, which led to Hollywood making a movie about the book, lead starring the very cute Jim Sturgess, who's on the right in the photo. Resemblance between Ma and Sturgess?

Not much.

Because somewhere along the line, someone exercised a little creative genius and rewrote the story: Kevin Lewis (in-book)/ Ben Campbell (in-movie) is a very smart Caucasian-American kid, who at some point of his life at college decided that he could outsmart the game of 21 by counting cards. So he and some other mates (mostly Caucasian-American) bandied together, headed down to Las Vegas to count their way to riches.

It was. A. Lot. Of. Money.

Enough of a-lot for people to want to rewrite your identity into something more palatable for the general masses who have been told that only certain identities and looks have more selling power.

Well, at least they kept the penises. Farmer help us should they'd gone all crazy by reimagining a woman there instead.

Story 2 - In a more fictitious universe, there's the Nickelodeon cartoon series, "Avatar: The Last Airbender". The story has all sorts of culturally period Asian settings and mysticism, with the key character, Aang, looking quite a bit like a Shaolin monk (see picture above; dude who looks quite a bit like a Shaolin monk--yeah, doesn't take a PhD in anthropology to spot, ya?). Not to mention, Chinese calligraphy and pugilistic moves are featured throughout the show. There's also a strong hint of Inuit identity in two of the major 'Water Tribe' characters as well.

It's a very popular show, so like any popular work of art, book, cartoon, comic, video game, stage performance that has an inkling of a narrative, it has to translate into a celluloid blockbuster. (Of course, it has to! What do you mean why!? Question does not compute...) However, during that translation, Asian and coloured actors and actresses died of what comedienne, Margaret Cho, terms SARS (Severe Asian Racism Syndrome), so the producers and casting crew ended up with this:

(Image from

Oh.... All the coloured artistes who could have more important roles died, but lots survived for the minor roles of bad guys, of course. As is anti-hero Zuko's role, played by Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008) fame. Because darker-skinned people evoke more terror in the hearts of many people, ya?

(Question: who scares darker-skinned people? Racists, I wager.)

Story 3 - That's a movie-still of the most divine Jake Gyllenhaal and the very pretty English actress Emma Arterton, in their respective role as a Persian prince and Indian princess. (True fact: Persia's current day Iran.) They're from the movie "Prince of Persia" (2010), which is based on--if you have been following my point about 'good anything = good movie'--the very popular computer game of the same name from the 1990s.

(Images taken from Jordan Mechner.)

True, the computer game was no history lesson to take home to your kids. In fact, judging by the cover art of the game itself, this was just some Orientalist's dream, where you get all the culture and food of an exotic place without having to actually have the burden of factoring in the people from this place too much. (Maybe video games really aren't all that good for kids?) But in the two decades between 1989 and 2010, you'd think people have figured out that there's something really wrong about the Prince of Persia arch.

Oh, by the way, they did of course cast Sir Ben Kingsley, of half-Indian, half-white parentage as Teh Ev!l guy Nizam in the movie. He gets the dark under-eye liner, menacing goatee and doubly ornate wardrobe evil exotica treatment. Kinda like Boris Karioff's Fu Man Chu from the "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932).

(Nizam from IMDB; Fu Man Chu from

The problem here is that Hollywood is a really big machine that churns out so much material that is so widely marketed and shown everywhere. The Hollywood content is not some accidental, small option at the movies, instead they are the main spread in our movie culture for a lot of people. That sort of long-term normalising is the reason why, even though we still don't have a lot of Caucasians in our midst, it is really difficult to not factor them in our imagination, hence the prevalence in seeing Caucasian models selling anything and everything. And it has seeped so deeply into our consciousness that it's actually not a big deal when we do meet them living in our neighbourhoods or working alongside us as well.

Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, spoke quite recently about her experience with "the single story", of growing up reading English books by English and American authors, meeting other people outside of the Nigeria who have perplexing impressions of her and where she comes from. In the middle of it, she points out quite correctly, I think, the (suggestion) of power that gets embedded in the narrative, which really isn't a new idea but I guess it bears minding:
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called "American Psycho" and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers. Now, obviously I said this in a fit of mild irritation.

I would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. And now, this is not because I am a better person than that student, but, because of America's cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America. ("The danger of a single story," Jul 2009)
In summary, don't be a Stupid Gherkin you people in your boardrooms talking up ideas about the next movie, television and story. The world is full of stories to be told, and contrary to what you think, a good story can probably sell itself without your white-washing it--not just simply by putting only white people on screen, but also making everyone look a certain type, or talk a certain way (Singapore, I'm looking at you too!). The exposure to more representation can only be a good thing, then maybe brown spectre turkeys don't have to protest against the rail-thin, snow-white fair beauty regiment of contemporary culture, cats don't have to deal with daily racists pretending that they're beyond racism (or "micro aggressive racism", if you will), and you wouldn't have to change a goat's name because it doesn't fit right inside your little non-United Colours of Benetton world. And a badly-drawn, male unfeminist pig feels obliged to write a whole meandering blog post, on top of looking for matching pictured about this.

Now, imagine that!

+++ is the official international protest movement that's calling for a boycott of the movie "Avatar: The Last Airbender". Pledge your boycott if you agree that the movie-makers have quite a serious case of all-sort-of-fucked-up, and believe that there's room for other coloured folks to take up screen time in more diverse roles.

18 Mighty Mountain Warriors urges best in this skit:


  1. Masterful! And really fucking horrible. There is like more really fucking horrible every time I turn a corner.

  2. Ooh how did i miss this article! It's brilliant. bravo, my porcine friend! did a whole list of subtle racism/stereotyping in older Disney movies, akin to avatar :D I shall endeavour to find the link for you guys

    - The Poultrygeist


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