Awesome review of white privilege in Avatar and other recent scifi
This review, by Annalee Newitz of i09, is spot-on. I wish *I* wrote it.
Some of the highlights:
— “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…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.”
–> I take this to be the key claim in the review. Whites want to appropriate the experience of being non-white, but yet retain the privileges of whiteness. White people can never really “go native,” b/c they can never, no matter how fervent or earnest their wishes, fully renounce white privilege. They will always be seen – and thus treated – as white. Importantly, because of their whiteness, white people can “get away” with the very same things that are cited as reasons for the inferiority/pathologization/continued marginalization of people of color. For example, white women as heads of household is seen as a sign of women’s liberation, whereas black female heads of household are seen as evidence of pathological family structures in black communities.
— “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.”
–> So the problem here is that whites still assume privilege in their new “native” role – they assume they’ll be the leader, they’ll be the ones to “liberate” these poor natives, and that the natives can’t liberate themselves without the advanced knowledge/values/technology of white/Western/human civilization. In other words, whites assume they’ll be treated like the Ewoks treat C-3PO, not as they treat Han and Luke.
— “…we’ll need to stop thinking that white people are the most “relatable” characters in stories.”
–> The problem here is, obviously, that the movie business assumes a normatively white, male, straight, generally bourgeois audience. More problematically, it assumes that people can’t or won’t identify with characters of lower social status – perhaps going even so far as to assume that minority audiences don’t want to identify with underprivileged characters like them, but with privileged characters/ideal/normative characters. I agree with Newitz that, especially in scifi, privileged audiences should be asked to identify with aliens (esp. b/c there’s no harm really begin done here – by asking people to identify with fictional groups/characters, you avoid problems like glossing over history, minstrelsy, etc.). Perhaps scifi should teach us how really super-hard it is to identify with beings whose experiences we don’t share, how really super-wrong it is to try to assimilate their experiences to ours, how really super-problematic it is for whites to assume that we can colonize the knowledge and experience of non-whites. (PHIL 3227 people — think about the Ang article here…Which, for all y’all not in the class, is Ien Ang’s “I’m a feminist, but…”).