Whitewashing is the New Blackface

Kelley Lynne Moncrief
June 1, 2016

From minstrels in blackface to Mickey Rooney masquerading as an Asian man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hollywood's history is rife with racism. The dearth of black nominees in this year’s Academy Awards shows the issue is far from resolved. Tackling the problem of ‘whitewashing’ - casting a white actor as a person of colour, or failing to cast any minorities at all - could be the first step to a solution.

All-white films often employ racist caricatures of minorities. They can also mean a lack of role models for minority children in the audience. When 9-year-old Whoopi Goldberg first saw Uhura on Star Trek, she ran through her house shouting that there was a “black lady on television and she ain’t no maid”, giving her the confidence to pursue a career in entertainment. Whitewashed media can also portray the struggles of white people as universal, failing to recognise the challenges faced by those of other races.

Whitewashing is often motivated by the idea that white actors attract larger audiences and there’s no overseas market for black films. But box-office stars such as Will Smith and Denzel Washington, as well as television luminaries including Kerry Washington and Viola Davis, have dashed those misconceptions. Moreover, whitewashed titles such as Pan, Exodus, Aloha, The Lone Ranger and The Last Airbender have flopped, while films with diverse casts such as Pacific Rim, Rush Hour and The Fast and the Furious series have performed strongly. Even “black films” such as The Help, Precious, 12 Years a Slave, Selma and Django Unchained have won critical acclaim and shown mainstream appeal.

Upcoming Marvel film Doctor Strange is the latest production to be criticised for whitewashing. White actress Tilda Swinton plays a character who is of Tibetan descent in the comics. The producers claim they made the decision to avoid offending Chinese audiences or risk having the film banned in the key Chinese market, as the Chinese government doesn't recognise Tibet as a sovereign state. Star Trek alumnus George Takei responded in a Facebook post: “So let me get this straight. You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales…in Asia? This backpedaling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots.”

The portrayal of minorities in movies continues to spark heated debates. The upcoming Ghostbusters reboot came under fire for having the black member of the team be a subway worker while her white companions are all scientists. Thousands flocked to social media to protest the casting of black actor Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the widely panned Fantastic Four reboot. And James Bond writer Anthony Horowitz labelled Idris Elba as “too street” to play the suave secret agent, while Pierce Brosnan - a former James Bond - said, “He’ll be male and he’ll be white”, when asked about the next actor to play James Bond. The latest contender for the role is Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke, who suggested she could be a great Jane Bond.

Of course, whitewashing can be effective: Sir Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for his starring role in Gandhi. But actors and actresses who take on whitewashed roles, such as Rooney Mara in Pan or Emma Stone in Aloha, should be held accountable. White actors also need to show more understanding of race: Orange is the New Black star Julianne Hough donned blackface as part of her Halloween costume, in honour of co-star Crazy Eyes. 

If Hollywood wants to move past its whitewashing problem, it should cultivate minority talent both on and off the set. It's also up to audiences to vote with their feet.