Whether Avatar is racist is a matter for debate. Regardless of where you come down on that question, it’s undeniable that the film – like alien apartheid flick District 9, released earlier this year – is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it’s a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people …

It is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.

Annalee Newitz

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I almost made it through the second half of 2009 without entering a single movie theater. But then, at a mega-shopping center in Palm Desert – a consolidation of luxury cars, Christmas consumerism, and plastic surgery – I joined three generations of family members to watch Avatar, the record-breaking Hollywood blockbuster at a time when there are no longer supposed to be record-breaking Hollywood blockbusters.

I was ready to be impressed by the computer-generated actors, the special effects, the fantasy flora and fauna of the planet Pandora. And, indeed, I was. I was also ready to be skeptical and even annoyed by the not-so-subtle social commentary of a $300 million film in need of mass public appeal.

I was less annoyed than I thought I would be. Avatar is most certainly a “Dances with Wolves in space,” as Cameron himself put it, but it is also a modern critique of “the abuse of power and creeping imperialism disguised as patriotism.” And just imagine how it must feel to be a US soldier having returned from fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan to enter a movie theater with an audience cheering on ‘the bad guys’ as they shoot arrows through the hearts of US marines. Here is how conservative columnist Nile Gardiner put it in “Avatar: the most expensive piece of anti-American propaganda ever made:”

When I saw the movie last night in a packed theater, I was disturbed by the cheering from the audience towards the end when the humans – US soldiers fighting on behalf of an American corporation – were being wiped out by the Na’vi. Washington is one of the most liberal cities in America and you come to expect almost anything here – but still the roars of approval which greeted the on-screen killing of US military personnel were a shock to the system, especially at a time when the United States is engaged in a major war in Afghanistan.

Imagine the public rage that would have been directed at Avatar and James Cameron if it had been released in October 2001. The fact that less than ten years after 9/11 mainstream America is now cheering on the oppressed as they fight back against the oppressors is something worth recognizing and celebrating. Cameron’s film elicits empathy and five years of Global Voices has taught us that doing so is no easy task.

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Then again, Avatar is only the latest in a long history of narratives in which a male character (always the embodiment of Western masculinity) from the oppressors joins forces with the oppressed and becomes their leader to fight back against amoral imperialism. I’m sure that there are earlier examples, but the first such film I can think of is Lawrence of Arabia, based on the life of T. E. Lawrence. Other works in the “join and lead the oppressed” genre include Dances with Wolves, Fern Gully, The Last Samurai, District 9, Dune, and surely dozens of others.

This recurring narrative was pointed out in a widely cited article, “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?” by freelance journalist and occasional academic, Annalee Newitz. The article does a wonderful job teasing out the appeal of a strange fantasy in which a member of an oppressive, imperialistic, unsustainable group abandons his own people to join forces with (and become the leader of) those they are oppressing. But I think it is a shame that such a well-researched essay then simplifies a complex psychological issue by dividing the world into “white people” and “people of color.”

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Analee Newitz at Harvard Law School. Photo by Beth Kanter.

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.

Why does Newitz, a feminist geek from Orange Country, describe us Whites in the third person singular? If she is going to divide all 6.5 billion people on this earth into just two categories, then isn’t it pretty obvious which bucket she falls in? By writing in the omniscient tone of academic commentator does she hope to transcend/escape race altogether? (Many of the hundreds of commenters on the article point out that it is filled with as much “white guilt” as the movie itself.)

Avatar’s “join and lead the oppressed” fantasy appeals to more than just Whites. My friends who most enthusiastically recommended the movie to me are what Newitz would call “people of color.” (Whatever that means.) You could call the fantasy “white” as Newitz has done, but you could also call it liberal, Western, hegemonic, or even universal.

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James Cameron first began working on the basic plot line for Avatar back in 1994. That is the same year when “Subcomandante Marcos” – likely a middle class professor of graphic design from Tampico – led an insurrection of what Newitz would call “people of color” in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Is Marcos white? He is if you ask most Mexicans. But if you ask proud Chicanos in Los Angeles, Marcos is a member of the oppressed. Marcos fulfilled the Avatar fantasy – turning his back on white, middle class Mexico to lead their insurrection against the oppressors, but without letting go of what Newitz refers to as white privilege – like appearing on the cover of Gato Pardo magazine.

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Che Guevara – the Argentine idealized hero of liberaldom – also came from an upper-middle class family until he joined forces with Fidel Castro to free the oppressed people of Cuba. In August 2001 a young leftist Dutch woman (cutie!) traveled to Colombia to join the FARC and fight for the poor and oppressed in Colombia. Perhaps most famously, John Walker Lindh joined the Taliban in Afghanistan and fought against US soldiers at the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi.

The “Avatar Fantasy” of leaving one’s own group to join and lead a marginalized community is clearly more than just fantasy. And, unsurprisingly, it is a dynamic that I am sensitive to because of my own work. There is no doubt that the Avatar Fantasy is pervasive in the development sector, and this yearning by development workers to be loved and accepted by marginalized communities often leads to strange relationships. The Avatar Fantasy also idealizes Newitz’s “people of color” as flawless, ecologically sensitive victims. In truth, I have yet to meet any community on earth that is flawless, or for that matter, ecologically sustainable.

So what is our lesson from Avatar and from its criticisms? Should those of us who grow up in hegemonic cultures disengage from all other cultures? What, for example, should be done in Guinea which is creeping ever closer to violent civil war? Should international activists stay involved in the war in Darfur? Should Google work with the Suruí to fight against deforestation in Rondônia?

Influenced by cosmopolitanism, I believe that we should work across cultural and linguistic divides to shape a shared human morality that is tolerant of group and individual differences. But I think that we should also be aware of the strange and unhealthy psychology of the “Avatar Fantasy”. Rather than giving up on our own communities to attempt to lead others – especially those we treat as “marginalized” – I believe that we can be most effective by combining local political change with global discussion toward a shared vision and common objectives.

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