Whitewashing and The Legend of Korra

Hey everyone! Earlier this week Bryan Konietzko posted a fantastic piece over on his tumblr regarding the topic of race, skin color and whitewashing in The Legend of Korra (and to an extent Avatar as well). It all started about a week ago when he posted this image, a “behind the scenes” look at one of the scenes in Book 2 of Korra as they were all sitting down to watch it.

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Bumi, Kya and Tenzin in Book 2.

Now many people, like me, simply got excited to see that we’d be getting an episode that had all of Aang and Katara’s children together at once! But other people had different ideas when they saw the picture… which prompted this reply by Colin Heck, Director on The Legend Of Korra.

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For those of you who don’t know, the complexion of cartoon characters actually is a fraught issue these days, especially when it comes to characters from Avatar and the movie that was based on it. The issue is big enough, in fact, that Bryan decided to follow up on Colin’s reply with a more in depth look at both light theory and the children of Aang and Katara. Here’s a snippet from his post;

This past Friday I published this post which featured a photo of a monitor showing Katara and Aang’s grown-up children, Bumi, Kya, and Tenzin. Later that night at work I saw Colin’s answer to an anonymous “ask” (I can’t figure out how to link or reblog it properly in my browser, so the screen shot at the top will have to suffice). It is a shame the anonymous asker drew an incorrect assumption based on one image created in relatively uncontrolled conditions, and I feel that Colin’s answer hit the nail on the head.

Normally I would leave it at that. I prefer to stay out of this type of discourse on Tumblr and let the large body of work Mike and I have put out there over the years speak for itself (which obviously DOES NOT include the gross misinterpretations and misrepresentations of our work in this guy’s work). There’s nothing perfect about me or my work, but I am proud of it and the diverse, inclusive, atypical-for-American-TV world it portrays and the characters that populate it, and what it means to many people all over this globe.

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But, like most people, I don’t like seeing the spreading of misinformation, nor being falsely accused of something, nor fans of Avatar and Korra believing we have let them down regarding a very sensitive issue when they are mistaken. The claim that “none of Katara and Aang’s kids share Katara’s complexion” is unequivocally false. Kya’s color model shares the exact same skin color as Katara’s; Tenzin’s skin is a touch darker and less saturated than Aang’s; and Bumi’s is just about in the middle of his siblings’. I made a color swatch chart above, with all the colors taken directly from the characters’ normal color models. I included Korra’s and her parents’ skin tones on there as well, just for reference. I also compiled screen shots of all the characters with the color picker open, sampling their skin tones. You can see for yourself that Katara and her daughter Kya share the same color code: #bd916f

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Depicting diverse characters is an issue that is very important to me. But as an art director, depicting a variety of lighting situations, light temperatures, colored light sources, color atmospheres, contrast levels, dynamic ranges, tinted filters, tones, styles, moods, exposure settings, diffusion levels, etc., is all very important to me too, all in an attempt to make great, inspired, sophisticated, beautiful art that reflects something of the complex world in which we live.

He then goes on to discuss color theory and the complexity of human skin when it comes to depicting it in both 2D and 3D environments. For those of you who can’t be bothered to read his whole post or look into color theory, here’s the gist; the color of any given object (or character) is dependent on a number of factors. This includes but is not limited too the light sources present in the environment around them. Characters in a moon-lit field, for example, would look different than characters sitting in a candle-lit room. This is because the color of light given off by the moon and a candle  are different.

It’s a pretty basic concept really. If you shine a colored light onto an object then the color of the object will look different. Easy. Only the situation becomes exponentially more complex when you begin factoring multiple sources of light (and color) as well as shadows and different levels of shading. It’s hard work to say the least.

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He then concludes it all by both praising the ability for people to use the internet to call out such injustices as well as urging them to not use the color swatches he posted as a sort of “holy grail” for the characters in question…

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 his or her enlightenment with many others.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of all there is to discuss on this topic in this overlong post. But I urge you to consider any number of the factors listed and described above before you jump to false conclusions, get your feelings hurt, or lash out with self-righteous condemnation based on a variable rather than a constant.

Love, Bryan

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why both Avatar and Korra are turned out to be some of the best shows of the last decade. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great shows out there with wonderful characters; but it takes a certain kind of creator to really bring a setting to life. Bryan and his team end up dealing with a LOT of issues that the people making say, SpongeBob, never have to deal with. Despite it all though, they not only manage to handle these situations with patience and understanding, but do their best to platform off them to educate people.

It would have been all too easy to just reply to the comment with a simple “It’s a cruddy iPhone photo, just ignore it.” Or perhaps even worse, just ignore the comment entirely until the internet gets a hold of it and it’s blown WAY out of proportion! Yet Bryan and his team are not only committed to creating fantastic shows, but also dispelling any ignorance or lack of understanding they feel they can tackle. They might be the directors and creators of a AAA television show on a major children’s network, but they are also teachers and educators at heart that truly care about the world and characters they create (as well as their fans)!

The television industry could use more people like Bryan; and I, for one, intend to do whatever I can to support them in both their current and future projects.

So be sure to keep that in mind this Tuesday when The Legend of Korra Blu-ray hits a store shelf near you. 😉 These guys could use all the money you can throw at them…

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3 thoughts on “Whitewashing and The Legend of Korra

    1. That’s like claiming every country that speaks English is English. Please tell me you’re joking.

      Besides the world of Avatar goes beyond just “Asian”; it includes influences from Chinese (Earth kingdom), Japanese (Fire Nation), Shaolin (Air Nomads) and Inuit (Water Tribe) cultures just to name a few. Lumping them all into “Asian” just because Chinese was the predominant written language in the show is a little ridiculous.

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