You May Be Born With Privileges That You Don’t Recognize
When Korra visits Republic City, it’s her first time dealing with strangers in years. When she was discovered to be the Avatar, she was scooped up and dropped into an Order of the White Lotus compound. She spent the next dozen years being feted and trained by the greatest benders in the world. The crowds in Republic City are her first exposure to common people.
Things don’t go well for her at first.
Equalist Agitator: Join Amon, and together we will tear down the bending establishment!
Korra: What are you talking about? Bending is the coolest thing in the world.
Equalist Agitator: Oh yeah? Let me guess – you’re a bender.
Korra: Yeah, I am.
Equalist Agitator: And I’ll bet you’d just love to knock me off this platform with some waterbending, huh?
Korra: I’m seriously thinking about it.
Equalist Agitator: This is what’s wrong with the city! Benders like this girl only use their power to oppress us!
(Crowd boos and yells at Korra)
Korra: What? I’m not oppressing anyone! You’re … you’re oppressing yourselves!
Equalist Agitator: That didn’t even make sense!
As the Nick audience, we’re inclined to agree with Korra’s initial take – that bending is the coolest thing in the world. If bending is oppressive to non-bender citizens, we’re not going to see it. But whether or not it is oppressive, there’s clearly a sizable faction who feels as though it is. How sizable? Big enough to field an apparently limitless army of masked chi-blockers and pilot a flotilla of bomber zeppelins.
But most of the benders we see in LOK are benevolent, with a few exceptions like Tarrlok and Lightning Bolt Zolt. So where does this sense of being oppressed by benders come from? Are they making it all up? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. If enough people feel as if they’re being oppressed, they will act the way oppressed people do: grumbling, occasional angry backlashes, and an undercurrent of hostility that a demagogue can shape to his purposes. There’s no practical difference between an underclass that thinks it’s being oppressed and an underclass that is being oppressed – they’ll react the same way.
Unfortunately, because the source of that oppression is inherited through birth and feels pretty harmless, or even awesome, it’s going to be hard for the “bending class” to sympathize. And it’s going to be even harder for us, the Nick audience, to sympathize, since we tend to think bending is pretty awesome, too.
That’s the way privilege works.
The word “privilege” gets thrown around a lot in discussions of social and cultural power. Lots of commentators use it without defining it, deflecting ideological opponents and closing ranks. Telling someone with privilege to “check their privilege!” doesn’t make things any clearer for them. Of course, it’s not the job of subaltern classes to make themselves easier for the rest of us to understand. But the balance of power only ever shifts if those in power relinquish some of it, and doing that takes understanding.
So: privilege is the ability to ignore something if you don’t want to care about it.
Korra has a brief and frustrating dialogue with an Equalist agitator in E1, as outlined above. She blunders into his rhetorical trap, admitting that she can shut down his peaceful discussion anytime she wants by using her bending powers. Stymied when the crowd turns on her, she rides off. She spoke with an angry non-bender, tried to find out where he was coming from, then disengaged.
Korra, as a bender – as potentially the greatest bender in the world – doesn’t know what it’s like to be a non-bender. She can listen to non-benders, like the rabble-rouser in E1. She can even sympathize with them, as she does when breaking up a police action in E8. But she can stop caring about them and return to Air Temple Island any time she likes. It wouldn’t be a crime if she did; it wouldn’t even be unusual. And no one could say that Korra is a bad person.
A non-bender, on the other hand, never gets to stop dealing with being a non-bender. They don’t get to set aside their non-bending concerns for a while if they get tired. They always have to worry if the Triple Threat Triad is going to pick on them this week (E1), or if they’re going to lose their shift at the power plant because a slumming firebender is going to zap the batteries (E3), or if the Council is going to pass some bizarre new edict that cracks down on all non-benders (E8). Their life may not be a constant misery. In fact, most of them probably live very good lives. But just as a person can’t take off their skin color or their gender, a non-bender can’t take off their non-bendingness. They can’t stop caring about what life is like as a non-bender, whereas a bender – even the most patient, saintly bender – can stop caring what life is like for non-benders at any time.
The biggest obstacle with privilege is that the people who are born with it don’t feel guilty about it. How can they? It’s something they were born into. It’s something they’ve been raised with since childhood. Korra has been surrounded by people telling her she was special and powerful her whole life. When someone tells her that she should be ashamed of that specialness and power, she gets defensive. Who wouldn’t? It’s like telling someone they should be ashamed of their face.
Of course, jokes about “white guilt” (chi guilt?) aside, people shoudn’t feel guilty about their privilege. The point of calling out privilege isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to shame people. It’s to get them to recognize the differences in personal experience that might make other people’s lives incomprehensible to them. A bender might not understand how a non-bender could feel oppressed by the generally benevolent bender population. Korra in particular wouldn’t understand it, having been immersed in bending culture and practice her entire life.
And yet it’s something she has to recognize. As a stranded civilian points out to her in E8, “you’re our Avatar too!” She’s the spiritual diplomat to the entire world, benders and non-benders alike. She has to step outside of the experience she was raised in and learn how other people feel, even if they have feelings she isn’t going to understand. The rest of us may get to live comfortably within the strata we were born into, but Korra is called to step outside her comfort zone.
One of the biggest things adolescents deal with as they leave home, going to college or entering the workforce for the first time, is exposure to people unlike themselves. Most adolescents are raised in a community that largely matches their home life: same socioeconomic status, limited racial diversity, same small set of religions. Going to a big university or entering an urban job market will blow their minds at how wide the world is. Some commentators would argue that the best response is to broaden your horizons and try to understand these strangers, while others say that sticking to one’s native cultural heritage is healthier. Either way, exposure to strangers is a hallmark of growing up.
Listening to the Spirits
Lots of children’s programming tells you to believe in yourself, work hard and respect others. But few shows, if any, give real shrift to how hard that is. The world throws a lot at you when you cross from adolescence into adulthood, and it doesn’t prepare you for most of it. Legend of Korra doesn’t have all the answers on how to live as a responsible adult in a modern society. But it lets you know that it’s hard, that it’s okay to look for help, and that the people who weather the storm are heroes.