The following is a well written article about the writing of race. In particular it focuses on writing the descriptions for characters who already have an established ethnicity that gives a non-white skin tone but instead describing them as tan. Not only is it factually inaccurate but racially insensitive and offensive to some.
Like the characters Katara and Sokka from [Avatar: The Last Airbender], Korra clearly has darker skin than many of her counterpart characters. It is very rare for a woman character to be the titular character of an action show; even rarer to see a woman of color with dark skn doing so, given the colorist society we live in.
A number of fan fiction stories, fan arts, and blog posts have described or depicted Korra as “tan,” “tan-skinned,” “tan-colored,” or even “with a tan.” To fans who care about diversity in media and in the Avatar fandom, this is really hurtful and painful to see. It’s a callback to when Jackson Rathborne, the white actor cast to play Sokka in the film adaptation The Last Airbender, joked to press who had brought up fan concerns that he would simply “get a tan” to darken his skin to play Sokka.
Beyond Rathborne’s words is the context behind the word “tan.” Once used simply to describe a pale brown color (tannin from oak trees), it is now colloquially used to refer to darkening the skin by sunbathing (“getting a tan.”) As a result, the word tan is not usually used to describe people of color (or women of color like Korra) since she does not need to “get a tan” to get her naturally darker-than-pale-brown skin. The proess of tanning remains the purview (some would say privilege) of people with very light skin—primarily people who are racialized as white. In contrast, almost universally across the world, people who are not light skinned do not want to tan, cannot benefit from tanning, and instead concentrate their efforts on lightening their skin—through skin bleaching using poisonous chemicals, hiding from the sun, putting toxic products in their hair, etc. in an attempt to escape the oppression of colorism.
It’s much simpler to call Korra “brown” than “tan.” It shakes off the connection to Rathbone’s ignorant statement and avoids insulting fans of color since the word “tan” implies her skin color was acquired, not natural.
I’ll stop when the whitewashing in the fandom stops.
KORRA IS BROWN. NOT “TAN”.
Stop… I beg of you. Don’t start this shit again. Both you and I will regret it.
Here, a tumblr poster voices her frustration about the numerous times she has seen Korra called “tan.” Another poster responds “begging” her not to “start this,” lest both of them “regret it”
This response implies two things: a) That avatarluffy has to “beg” marikunin to not raise the issue (or suffer regret) implies that marikunin is in a position of power and that her raising this issue is actively harmful. b) that by raising the issue, marikunin is the one to “start” it, even though marikunin is being reactional and the people who actually triggered the debate were the ones who chose a connotation-loaded word to describe Korra’s skin color.
The reality is that fans who care about the use of the word “tan” or about cultural competence in fandom are not in a position of power. If they are upset by the word “tan” they choose between silent acceptance and what they see as a dilution of Korra’s significance as a protagonist of color, or speaking out and being blamed for causing a problem, even if they are simply responding to a conversation started by someone else.
Begging fans who are impacted by the word choice of “tan” to stop speaking out is begging them to accept marginalization. Blaming them for “starting shit” takes accountability away from the people who chose to use a term with an offensive connotation behind it (tan implies that Korra is not really dark skinned.) And the threat that “both you and I will regret it” doesn’t take into account that staying silent comes with its own regrets already—with the burden placed on fans of color.
While there are likely people out there who deliberately chose to use the word “tan” to describe Korra with the intention of deemphasizing her brownness, it is more likely that most fans who used “tan” are not aware of the context behind the word, or that use of the word could have a racist impact.
Hopefully, when this hurtful impact is pointed out to them, most of these fans will opt to drop the word tan in favor of brown or another more accurate descriptor. That would certainly be easier than defending the use of the word “tan” by guilt-tripping (“I beg of you”), blame (“you’re starting shit”) and threats (“or you and I will regret it.”) By respecting that one of the many facets that makes Korra groundbreaking is her skin tone, we better recognize the production of Legend of Korra’s accomplishments in breaking down glass ceilings in entertainment.