White Washing refers to a casting practice, primarily that used in the United States in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles. The industry is notorious for having a diversity issue, one that predates its creation. Hollywood was built on white privilege and discrimination and not much has changed since then.
The producers are white. The directors are white. The actors are white. Even when characters are of ethnic origin, casting directors tend to fill the roles with white actors.
However, Hollywood doesn’t see whitewashing as a problem, instead they believe it is a necessity. A financial necessity. For example, in 2014 director Ridley Scott told Variety. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such after receiving criticism for his lack of middle eastern actor’s in his film Exodus Gods and Kings.
His argument is shocking but not surprising. It is common knowledge that successful filmmakers in Hollywood are more willing to turn a blind eye and adopt complacency to discrimination than take a stand and provide a solution for it. They seem to believe that it is okay to take the cultures of other societies, the history, the stories and even the skin colour all the while shunning the people from those countries who would be better skilled to tell the stories… Their stories.
It would be wise to say that at some point the industry decided that white people are more marketable than POC. If we were to look back at the history of film, white actors have always come out on top. In the early 20th century, the practice of Yellowface and Blackface was prominent, instead of the erasure of minority actors we see today white actors wore yellow or black makeup to respectively play a Black or Asian character. In 1915, Birth of a Nation saw white men put on blackface to promote the white supremacist agenda and incite further violence towards black Americans. Then in 1961, Mickey Rooney notoriously donned yellow face to portray a Japanese American in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
During this time, minority actors were side-lined. If they were luckily enough to be given roles, it was either as a supporting lead or in a stereotypical role. For example, Anna May Wong, a Chinese American actress from the early twentieth century who is considered as the first Asian-American star left Hollywood for Europe in the late 1920s after becoming fed up with the endless amount of stereotypical roles she was being given.
On the other hand, we have Bruce Lee, a household name who became an international superstar within a year of leaving Hollywood for Hong Kong in the 1970’s.
Some would argue that Hollywood is a trap, actors are made to feel that in order for them to be household names and truly successful they need to break America. Sadly for minority actors this often means that they need to settle for roles lesser than what they deserve, whether that be as a supporting actor or in roles that stereotype their culture. Some are even forced to give up their cultural identity completely, especially if they are white passing POC. For example, Agents of Shields star Chloe Bennet or Chloe Wang recently spoke out about her decision to change her last name so that she would get offered jobs in ‘racist’ Hollywood.
“Hollywood is racist and wouldn’t cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable,” Bennet announced on Instagram. “Changing my last name doesn’t change the fact that my BLOOD is half-Chinese,” she wrote. “It means I had to pay my rent.
Bennet isn’t the first star to change their last name to get jobs and I doubt she will be the last. Except the fact that this was even an option for them is a testament to how archaic the entertainment industry is.
2017 has had its fair share of Whitewashing controversies from Aladdin to Ghost in the Shell to Death Note and Hellboy, yet at the same time with some of the controversies have come a suggestion that better times may lay ahead.
Most recently, actor Ed Skrein left Hellboy just a week after joining the cast where he was set to play Major Ben Daimio, a half-Japanese character in the comics. He made the decision to step away after seeing the waves of online protest and realising how his casting would take away the opportunity from an Asian actor.
Update: Hawaii Five 0 alum and Korean native Daniel Dae Kim is now being considered for the role.
The decision caught Hollywood by surprise with many praising the actor for being the first actor to step away from a role after realising the cultural implications of their casting. However, surely this responsibility should not have to fall on the shoulders of those given the roles but the ones making the casting decisions.
Furthermore, the extent of Hollywood’s casting problem goes further than overlooking minority actors for roles but ethnic minorities are still experiencing a large gap, in comparison to their white colleagues. It was only a few months ago that Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim, both of whom are main cast members of the hit CBS show Hawaii Five 0 quit the show after a pay dispute. The two had been trying to secure an equal salary alike to that of their white co-stars but had failed. Together, they made a decision to leave.
It was a decision that shocked me because I am a massive fan of the series and one thing I always loved about the show is that they had two Asian characters, playing lead roles who were central members of the Five 0 task force. This was refreshing, particularly as we live in a climate where Asian characters remain underrepresented in the entertainment industry.
Sadly, by refusing to even consider their demands the network made it seem that their characters and themselves are disposable in a time where choosing to listen would have made them seem like allies rather than neutral bystanders. Particularly when the cries of white actors, and white women for better pay have been heard loud and clear and met without complaint in the past.
Whitewashing is something that we must not be silent about because this isn’t just a black and white issue. It’s everybody.