Whitewashing Just Won't Disappear

Whitewashing is a Hollywood epidemic that should be easy to fix. Nonetheless, it’s been a persistent habit of Hollywood filmmakers since the conception of cinema. In recent years, whitewashing has developed more nuanced tactics—subtler means than blackface and racist caricatures have been adopted, letting white actors slip quietly into ethnically diverse roles (Ghost in the Shell, Aloha, The Last Airbender, etc.). Surprisingly, whitewashing hasn’t died out amidst the more “progressive” climate of the 21st century; instead, elaborate excuses are made by filmmakers to justify its continuing presence in American cinema. 

Hollywood seems to stand by the belief that whiteness sells in cinema. Historically, this was true. The star system of classical Hollywood enlisted white actors and actresses to sell tickets; the polished, familiar faces of stars like Joan Crawford and Rock Hudson practically ensured the box office success of a feature. In the early 20th century, audiences were drawn to movies that featured a beautiful and familiar face—the necessity that the face be white was an unspoken rule. It’s only within the past several decades that this rule is being challenged on a large scale.

 20th century filmmakers like D.W. Griffith employed whitewashing to tell stories which included ethnic characters while keeping his stars and his narrative agenda completely white. White supremacy underscored many of Griffith’s films; the white actors who perpetuated racist stereotypes in their performances helped transport Griffith’s narrow-minded ideology. Though the racism coloring Griffith’s personal beliefs isn’t shared by the majority of Hollywood filmmakers today, his utilization of whiteness as the standard or normal representation of the American populace continues. 

Within the past five years, numerous online articles have been published on the prevalence of whitewashing in Hollywood, with sites like Indiewire, the Huffington Post, and CNN calling attention to the racially regressive tactics of Hollywood filmmakers. Last year, the Annanberg School of Journalism at USC bolstered the fight against whitewashing with shocking statistics. Annenberg’s study, titled the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, examined movies and first-run television shows that aired during 2014. The findings reflect severe underrepresentation throughout the film industry, proving how much diversity is left to be desired in Hollywood—on screen and behind the scenes.

The most encouraging facet of the whitewashing issue is how much negative attention its received in recent years. The fact that whitewashing is still a problem in 2017—and an overwhelming one at that—is disappointing, yes; but its far from invisible. Journalists, students, celebrities, and moviegoers have expressed outrage at the inclusion crisis plaguing the film industry; luckily, those voices are almost impossible to ignore—especially when they’re speaking in unison.