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Is “Reverse Whitewashing” a Thing?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at VCU chapter.

With the announcement of a live action Mulan in the works, people are already on Disney’s behind to ensure that the studio’s grubby hands don’t mess up the cherished classic.  Fans’ biggest concern is to ensure that the original Chinese heritage of the character isn’t compromised. And by compromised, I mean being played by a blue eyed, blonde haired, very un-Chinese Jennifer Lawrence.

Yup, like looking in a f***ing mirror.

While this rumor has been confirmed to be false, fan Natalie Molnar has already begun a petition to let Disney Studios know that whitewashing will not be tolerated. The petition received over 100,000 signatures, showing that it’s more than a few people will not put up with the caucasianization Mulan. But with the petition gaining momentum, people have been pouring out of the woodwork, shrieking “HYPOCRISY!”.

Rewind to a few weeks earlier, when it was announced Disney channel star Zendaya Coleman would be playing Spiderman’s girlfriend Mary Jane in the upcoming film Spiderman: Homecoming. For those who’re unaware, Mary Jane in the comics is a white woman and Zendaya is African-American.


There was a petition for Zendaya NOT to play Mary Jane, but the petition only has 66 supporters, looking like an malnourished chihuahua next to the Saint Bernard that is the Mulan Petition. Why is that? Could it be because of…dun dun dun REVERSE WHITEWASHING!

Spoiler Alert, it’s not. But before we can debunk “reverse whitewashing,” it’s important to define whitewashing and racebending and the differences between them.  

Whitewashing is the act of placing white actors in roles intended for characters of color. It’s been around since the beginning of the film industry and unfortunately is still around today.  The examples are as infamous as they are numerous, from Mickey Rooney in buck teeth and squinty eyed glasses in the ‘60s to Emma Stone playing a half-Hawaiian and half-Chinese in 2015. While the intentions of all these cases may be different varying from blatant racism to hiring more “bankable” white actors, the end result is the same. Minority performers end up suffering the most from this. There are plenty of talented actors and actresses of color that are getting passed up for roles due to the Eurocentric beauty ideals that are reinforced because of whitewashing. White actors are considered the standard. A movie starring a person of color is considered a movie specifically made for those people, while a movie starring white actors is considered a movie for everyone.  And even in some cases where the characters’ race is considered important to their identity, white actors are still chosen over performers of colors. People and characters such as Michael Jackson and Mulan’s race play a pivotal role in their stories and experiences and having them being played by non POC actors is pretty f***ed up. 

However racebending, often called “reverse whitewashing,” changing the race of a character, usually from white character to a person of color doesn’t change the characters themselves.  Mary Jane’s race doesn’t play a pivotal role in their character’s identity or the plot of the story.

Taken at face value, racebending and whitewashing may seem to be the same. But one must remember the history behind the two. Whitewashing has a history of oppressing and excluding people of color, while racebending is about inclusion.  Racebending is about breaking down these barriers and being more inclusive to more actors and actresses of every shade.

Arianna Coghill is a Print and Online Journalism major in her junior year at Virginia Commonwealth University. She's a huge fan of Tracee Ellis Ross, the Harry Potter series and thinly veiling her insecurities under a layer of sarcasm. She misses the oxford comma dearly and can usually be found writing and/ or binge watching various sci-fi television shows. #blacklivesmatter
Keziah is a writer for Her Campus. She is majoring in Fashion Design with a minor in Fashion Merchandising. HCXO!