If you’ve seen Avatar and haven’t yet read Annalee Newitz’s article “When will white people stop making movies like this?” then you’re missing out. Avatar — putatively anti-racist, seemingly simple and beautiful and extraordinarily entertaining — is in fact, she argues, mired with subtle racial biases and white ethnocentrism.
These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.
Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.
To me, this is a bit too clever. Let’s remember that Avatar, at its heart, is a story about resisting white cultural dominance. That’s a good story to tell, and from the perspective of the liberal multiculturalist, the fact that we’re telling it shows that at least as a culture we’ve grown up from a time when we were actually, you know, proud of colonialist domination and the marginalization of the other. So in this core sense, Avatar is a victory (not a failure) of cultural liberalism.
Newitz asks us to stop telling stories about white people. But if you take the theoretical grounds of her analysis seriously then it becomes clear that that’s precisely what can’t be done — white people tell the stories they do precisely because they are white. That whiteness, the argument goes, is pervasive. There is no vocabulary outside of our own; there is no vantage point from beyond the world we stand on. And this is why we value ethnic and gender diversity in the first place: not because white, privileged directors like James Cameron refuse to tell racially unbiased stories, but because they can’t. White people are going to be making white movies because, well, they’re white.
And if you look at the story that’s clearly what the “avatar” device is meant to evoke. It’s a tool of transcendence. It’s the white man’s means of peering over the epistemological divide and seeing what the war is to the colonized indigenous. The avatar idea is cool precisely because it is so damn hard for white people to understand what it means not to be white.
So where does that leave us? To my mind, Newitz’s piece tells tells us as much about Avatar as it does about ourselves, or at least about the state of multiculturalist discourse. One of the most remarkable things about the Avatar backlash is that it has transcended ideological divides. On the right we have writers like Reiham Salam coming out with full-throated defenses of American-style capitalism. And on the left we have critics like Annalee Newitz charging racism. But both agree on one thing: let’s just leave the Na’vi marginalized people alone. In other words, both agree, but for entirely different reasons, that we should continue to ignore the ignored, continue to marginalize the marginalized. Odd, right? This is actually typical of the confused leftist position that any attempt by white people to protect or reify marginalized cultures is necessarily an unjust imposition of “white values”: it has this awkward tendency to converge with the rightist position that other cultures have less intrinsic value than our own. Both counsel nonintervention.
In my opinion, we we need to be more willing to tell Avatar-like allegories about the marginalized defending their cultural property. Understand that these stories are limited, sure, but then don’t take those limitations too seriously — or at least not seriously enough to stop telling the stories in the first place. Because otherwise the voices wouldn’t get heard at all. And that would be a shame.
Photo Credit: Flickr / Rego Korosi