Whitewashing 'People of Colour' Off Our Screens

Hollywood’s obsession with white people is nothing new; you only have to check out the latest film releases to be overwhelmed with the sheer whiteness of cinema. The lack of PoC (people of colour) representation in both actors and characters has long been a problem, but if that wasn’t bad enough PoC are continually being denied the opportunity to represent themselves in film.

Whitewashing, also known as race bending, is the practice of casting white Caucasian dramatists in roles that were originally meant for characters of colour. When I type it out, it sounds just as ridiculous and insulting as it is.

Again, sadly this isn’t breaking news; Hollywood has had a long history of whitewashing which has disturbingly persisted to create a hugely problematic present. However, the recent talks of Scarlett Johansson perhaps being cast as Commander Motoko Kusanagi in the highly anticipated live-action adaption of the 90s anime film Ghost in the Shell has brought the issue back in the media’s spotlight. The rumours have led to huge (and rightful) backlash. With over 15 000 people having signed a petition against this casting, it can be said that people are finally waking up to the racism that is still so prevalent in Hollywood.

In order to appreciate just how disgusting and disturbing white washing is, here are some examples. (Worryingly, there are too many to recall so I’ll focus on the few I found particularly offensive.)

1944: Katherine Hepburn plays Jade Tan in Dragon Seed. This racism comes complete with yellowface and cultural appropriation of the cheongsam.

1965: Laurence Olivier plays Othello in Othello. His performance was hugely and perhaps rightfully acclaimed, but this role was ripped away from an African-American actor. Also, this was 1965, people! It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement and Sidney Poitier had just become the first black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor two years prior, so don’t tell me there was no black actor who could have played this role. As always, Hollywood did not disappoint and Olivier’s blackface was just as racist then as it is now.

(photo credit: Ranker)

1968: Peter Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party. Sellers plays a comedic Indian man whom the audience can laugh at while he struggles as a foreigner in America. Also, brownface. Enough said.

Let’s step a bit forward now, because I know you’re all thinking that those incidents were in the past and we’ve grown up as a society into this amazing post-ethnic non-racist cosmopolitan world.

2007: Mena Suvari plays Brandi Boski in Stuck. This is a movie based on the true story of Chante Jawan Mallard who is a black woman. It goes to show that Hollywood is not concerned with reality at all really; as long as we don’t have a black protagonist, it’s okay by them. Ah yes, we have moved away from blackface but not to worry, Hollywood has compensated and given us cornrows!

2010: Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone play Katara and Sokka in The Last Airbender. You only have to compare the cartoon characters to their corresponding actors to know they look nothing alike. But wait, the racism doesn’t stop there… Hollywood may have made the film’s heroes lighter skinned, but don’t worry they’ve made it up to us by having the villain’s actor be darker skinned than he is in the cartoon.

(photo credit: Moviepilot)

2012: Jim Sturgess plays Hae-Joo Chang in Cloud Atlas. If you thought we were past yellow-face, you only have to look at the racist (and creepy) prosthetics and make up that were used to make Sturgess look Korean.

(Photo credit: Complex)

I could go on and on and on with examples, but I hope you get the picture. There aren’t any signs of stopping anytime soon. After being grossly miscast as an Asian-American woman in the 2015 film Aloha, Emma Stone stated that she has "learned on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood and how prevalent the problem truly is," saying that the film "ignited a conversation that’s very important," but it seems that this conversation has not culminated in any sort of action. Two films currently out in the cinema are guilty of whitewashing; Rooney Mara was cast as Native American Tiger Lily in Pan, and The Martian in casting Mackenzie Davis as Korean-American scientist, Mindy Park.

Please do not use shows like Community and New Girl to try to tell me that the lack of PoC representation in Hollywood is no longer a problem. While these shows and films may have PoC characters, most representations are not fully fleshed out and they serve only as an accessory to the white protagonist. Also with whitewashing still in existence, PoC representation will always be a problem. Not only does Hollywood exclude PoCs from major roles, but whitewashing takes this a step further and suggests that even when it comes to playing themselves, PoC aren’t worthy and so white performers must play them instead. This doesn’t only deprive PoC actors of roles that should be theirs, but it has deeper and more sinister consequences. For PoC, it’s a form of psychological violence – everyone needs to see someone that looks like them in the media, and being a PoC and only seeing white people creates a feeling of inferiority and that feeling becomes culturally entrenched and contributes to the internalisation of racism which PoCs are forced to deal with, as well as perpetuating wrongful notions of white supremacy.