Whitewashing. If you keep an eye on pop culture you’ve head this term spring up every now and again when a major movie is about to be released. So you hear it but you don’t understand it. Well, here’s a millennial about to break down for you.
Whitewashing is when a white person is picked to play a role that is traditionally a person of color (POC) in the original source material. In the past few years there have been many examples of this, including the recent movie, Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson. Ghost in the Shell is a movie adaptation of the Japanese manga series by the same title. It follows the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg officer living in a futurist city set in Japan. So when the manga was set to be made into a movie, the rational way of thinking would assume that the casting directors and movie directors alike would look for an Asian actor to fill the titled spot.
You know what they say about assuming things.
So instead of choosing an Asian actress for the role of Motoko Kusanagi, the powers that be chose Scarlett Johansson. Don’t get me wrong, Johansson is an incredibly talented actress but by her taking on this role, she is actively participating in this plague that has been infecting Hollywood since the early 1940’s. That’s right, whitewashing in Hollywood can be traced all the way back to the 1940’s. And whitewashing back then was probably more racist than you would expect. Instead of replacing POC roles with white people, they had white people dress to look like POC. Don’t believe me? Google search Mr. Yunioshi and you’ll see what I mean.
You’d think over time people might realize the ramifications of whitewashing and fix the problem, but then we’re caught up in assuming things again and that never works out well for us.
In an interview for the film, Johansson states that she would never attempt to portray a character of another race….except, she did. She is a white woman playing the role of an Asian woman. This is the very definition of whitewashing. And she’s not the only one who has taken part in this racist trend. Tilda Swinton played the traditionally Asian role of The Ancient One in Marvel’s blockbuster hit, Doctor Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch played the character Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness, a role that was portrayed by Mexican actor, Ricardo Montalbán in the original series. There are countless films and characters that I can list from just this decade alone. Frankly, it’s a little disheartening to see all of these great POC roles go to white actors when there are brilliant POC actors out there.
So now that we know what whitewashing is and we have examples, we need to talk about why whitewashing is wrong and what ramifications it has.
Well, for starters, whitewashing is racist. I mean, that is pretty much a given. And right now, when our country is faced with political and social upheaval, being called or seen as racist is not something to aspire to be. It’s plain and simple people, whitewashing = racism = bad.
But perhaps the most important ramification of whitewashing is the removal of representation.
What is representation exactly you ask? It’s seeing yourself represented within a larger group. Remember that line you heard in History class? No taxation without representation? Don’t tax me without having someone there to represent me i.e. someone who will fight for what I believe in and my values. Representation within modern media is the same and when POC roles are whitewashed, their representation is taken away.
Think of it this way, before Tiana was introduced as a Disney princess, there was no African American princess for little Black girls to look up to. They were not represented. The same goes for Mulan, Moana, Pocahontas, and Jasmine. Without these princesses of color, young girls of color would not have a princess to look up to. So what are the impacts of this lack of representation? It’s simple, we are taking away hope from the youth.
Having representation is critical. Being able to see yourself reflected in mass media and pop culture provides self worth and value. It shows that we are visible and that we can do whatever we put our minds to. Having Tiana as a princess shows little Black girls that they too can become a princess like Tiana, they can open their own restaurant even when the whole world says they can’t. Having characters like Doc McStuffins shows them that they can become doctors if they so wish. Proper representation opens multiple doors of opportunity.
By seeing themselves represented, it gives those who have been invisible for so long new life. Having characters that look like them, talk like them, share the same level of ability as them, be attracted to the same people as them, identify as they do, gives them value; it lets them know that people see them and that they can do whatever they put their minds to.
Without proper representation, we shut down their opportunities, we stifle their imaginations and their want to live above their station in life. Whitewashing takes away this representation and gives it to white people who have been the hegemony in mass media and pop culture for centuries. Representation gives a voice to the voiceless and whitewashing silences that voice.
This is why whitewashing is wrong. Not only is it blatant racism but it quashes the much needed representation younger generations need. It tells our youth to stop dreaming because they’ll never make it, because there is no one there to tell them they can.
So what can you do to stop whitewashing? Well unless you are an actor and have the ability to turn down these whitewashed roles, not much. This isn’t something you can call your state representative about. What you can do is talk about it. Tell your friends and make people aware. And those movies I talked about? Don’t see them. Don’t buy the DVD. Don’t spend your money on something that is promoting (intentionally or not) racism. Promote shows and movies that place POC in a central lead.
Whitewashing is a problem that has been facing Hollywood for years. Don’t you think it’s about time it’s stopped?
Want to learn more about whitewashing? Check out these informative sites and articles: