From casting white people to play characters of Arab descent in the 1920s to Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson being Hollywood’s go-to Asian actors, whitewashing has been one of the major flaws in filmmaking. It’s not because there aren’t enough talented POC to cast and it’s not because a white actor was just more fitting for the role — it’s because people would rather see our culture being misrepresented by non-POC than see color on the big screen. It’s a simple topic to grasp, merely casting people of the appropriate background for characters of color, but Hollywood and fans alike don’t seem to be able to understand the simplicity of this dilemma. I’ve narrowed down the basics of whitewashing into a few commonly asked questions as a guide for those who may not be educated in this topic, or for those sick of repeating themselves to send to those who refuse to accept the simplicity of respecting cultures.
What is “WhiteWashing?”
In order to understand why whitewashing is a problem, you should first understand what it means in the first place. In basic terms, whitewashing is the casting of white actors and actresses to play non-white characters. The Sociological Cinema in their article ” What Is Whitewashing and Why Does It Matter?” claimed that “In its simplest form, whitewashing refers to the tendency of media to be dominated by white characters, played by white actors, navigating their way through a story that will likely resonate most deeply with white audiences, based on their experiences and worldviews”. In an industry that is majority white, people of color rarely see themselves represented in creative media. We see our cultures, but why don’t we see ourselves? It’s evident in the casting of Matt Damon as a hero to China in The Great Wall and Gods of Egypt, where the gods are apparently not of Egypt, that people would rather see white people play the roles of POC than see minorities able to rightfully represent their own cultures on the big screen.
How is Whitewashing a bad thing?
For all those who repeatedly argue that “whitewashing isn’t even a big deal”, you may be too clouded by your privilege to see the real damage that is done whenever a person of color loses their chance to represent themselves in a role and a viewer alike loses their chance to relate to a character who finally looks like them and holds similar experiences as they do. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a pioneer of African literature, spoke about “the danger of a single story”, where we grow up reading and watching white characters in western societies being the heros, heroines, and supporting characters of a majority of the stories we engulf ourselves in. It’s all we knew, so it’s all we believed was possible. When we don’t see ourselves in the fiction we love, we don’t believe that we can exist in these fantastical worlds or be the heroes of our stories.
It goes beyond fiction when we’re erased from worlds that are made to inspire and expand our knowledge of what is possible. We’re put into a small box of what we’re told we can be in fiction, and it’s the same in real life. In the monstrosity of a movie The Last Airbender we see the main characters of Inuit and Asian backgrounds being played by white actors while the only actors of color go to villainous roles. We grow up seeing ourselves either as undesirable villains or stereotypical supporting characters in need of help from the main “white savior” in all kinds of fiction, making ourselves believe that we are only capable of being these kinds of people and nothing more.
We’re getting better at being inclusive in our works, where POC are starting to become more than supporting characters and characters like Miles Morales and Luke Cage are paving the way for fiction to represent what modern society actually looks like, but we we still have a lot of work until POC are being properly represented in media. It’s still a problem when cultural appropriation is wrongfully accepted as a society because we see white people playing Native Americans and Asian characters in popular films and think it’s okay. Popular media is too quick to sideline minorities and disrespect entire cultures for the sake of profit and believing that only white people can successfully carry a franchise.
Why is it okay to cast POC as white characters?
This question by now sounds more like a whine than an actual question itself, and I think those who constantly fight for equality in media can agree. No, casting a black actor to play a famous character like Peter Parker or an Asian actor to play Danny Rand is not the same as whitewashing characters of color. Casting POC as originally white characters could even prove to be more fitting for the character’s backstory, such as casting an Asian-American actor to play Danny Rand where his character’s history is deeply rooted in Asian culture and mythology. Many of the characters of color we see today were created to represent their cultures and add diversity to our media. This means that their color is crucial to their character, whereas the ethnicity of Peter Parker does not change his storyline or who he is as a character. We look up to a white Captain America, a white Iron Man, a white Batman, a white Superman, and numerous other “white savior” characters. Being offended by inclusion and representation of POC in our media seems to just be a problem for the privileged that are uncomfortable seeing their white characters suddenly look a little more like modern societies actually look like today.
Hopefully now you know a little more about whitewashing and its damaging implications than you did before and are willing to accept this topic as an important issue that should be talked about more often. Start supporting media that features characters of color played by actual POC, start supporting creators of color, and maybe even create your own words that could serve as positive representation for yourself and other cultures in hopes to see fiction that looks a little more like what we actually look like in real life.