Whats and Whys of Whitewashing

What is whitewashing and why is it wrong?

Image: white actress Tilda Swinton as “The Ancient One” in Doctor Strange.

Has Hollywood become more racist or have we become more critical? Racism has always been a problem in Western media, but lately it feels like there is a different whitewashing controversy every week, and a lot of people seem to be confused as to what is whitewashing or what even is wrong with it. If Johnny Storm can be Black and Elektra Natchios can be Asian, then surely characters of color can be white, right? And what even is the issue with Iron Fist, if Danny Rand has always been white?

Whitewashing is the erasure of people and characters of color from media. That seems like a pretty straight-forward definition, but the scope of situations that can be described as “whitewashing” is broader than most people are willing to recognize.

The simplest example of whitewashing is when a pre-existing non-white character (or even a real person!) is replaced with a white character in an adaptation. So, whitewashing is taking a pre-existing character or person of color and making them white.

For example: The female lead of the book “Drive” is called Irina and she’s a brown Mexican woman. She was renamed Irene and replaced with a white, non-Latina actress for the movie adaptation.

Image: a still from the movie Drive.

For an example of the whitewashing of a real person, white Australian actor Zach McGowan was cast to play Hawaiian historical figure Benehakaka Kanahele in the upcoming movie “Ni’ihau”.

Image: side by side, a black-and-white photo of Benehakaka Kanahele and one of actor Zach McGowan.

Another form of whitewashing is having a white person pretend to be a person of color. This is a centuries-long practice and where we can find dozens of examples of yellowface, brownface and blackface.

For example, multiple white actors pretended to be Korean in the 2012 movie “Cloud Atlas”, where their souls where supposed to reincarnate in Asian bodies. To seem Asian, the actors wore prosthetic eyelids in an act of blatant yellowface.

Image: Jim Sturgess in yellow-face in Cloud Atlas.

There are white actors who build their careers on pretending to be people of color. Many Italian actors with “Olive” or “tan” skintones are guilty of this, specially when it comes to playing “Latinx” roles. Two very recent examples are Lorenzo Henrie (who played Latino characters in “The Walking Dead”, and “Agents of SHIELD”) and Floriana Lima (who played Latina characters in “Lethal Weapon” and “Supergirl”).

Image: Lorenzo Henrie and Floriana Lima.

We could also clasify as whitewashing the act of centering white characters in narratives that should be about characters of color. These are often stories that are classified as “White Savior” narratives, where the white character has no real reason to be there other than to insert whiteness in a story about non-white people.

A recent example of this is “The Great Wall”, where a white character was inserted at the center of the narrative to provide a white point of view and market the movie to white audiences. Similarly, Netflix’s “Marco Polo” drew upon the (mostly invented) tales of the white explorer to tell a story about the Mongol empire. A good part of the story is based on historical facts, yet Marco Polo’s role in it is entirely invented to allow whiteness to be re-centered.

Image: promotional poster of “The Great Wall”, with Matt Damon at the center.

Another example, based on much more recent history, is the 2015 “Stonewall” movie. The movie, which is based on the 1969 Stonewall Riots, presents a cis, white gay man as the center of the narrative, to the point where this white man throws the first brick at the revolt. The leaders of the Stonewall Rebellion were actually mostly Black and Latina trans women, Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major being the most easily recognizable names.

Image: a still from “Stonewall”, where the white protagonist throws a brick, to the shock of the mostly white crowd behind him.

Another act of whitewashing, and one of the most pervasive, is the whitewashing of history. Erasing people of color from times and places where they realistically should be is a form of whitewashing.

For example, the nearly all-white crowds of the New York City in “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” are whitewashed, as people of color (Black, Asian and Latinxs) walked, worked and lived in New York at the time the movie is set. A similar thing was done by the TV show “Agent Carter”.

Image: a still from “Fantastic Beasts”, where the protagonist stands in front of an all-white crowd.

This other example didn’t make it to the screen, but controversy was recently sparked when writer Mark Gatiss said that putting a Black soldier in a Victorian was “problematic” (meaning: unrealistic). Nevermind that these Victorian soldiers would be fighting lizard aliens on Mars, Gatiss’ unability to imagine Black soldiers in the Victorian era is ahistorial, as there were plenty of Black British soldiers at the time. Luckily, Gatiss was informed of this fact, but the “there were no people of color then!” excuse is often used with no regard to historical fact.

Image: still from “Doctor Who”, soldiers standing with their guns at the ready.

Whitewashing can also be the creation of entire worlds where people of color simply don’t exist. Science fiction and fantasy are particularly guilty of this, and there is no clearer example than “The Lord Of The Rings” (both the incredibly-white books and the just-as-white movies).

Image: a still from “Lord of the Rings”. The ten characters on screen are all white.

Another form of whitewashing (that fantasy and sci-fi are also often guilty of) is taking the narratives, cultures, traditions and imagery from people of color and applying them to white people. We often see this with white “savage” races that use Indigenous tattoos and dreaded hair; white alien species that wear Asian or African clothes and hair-styles; and white futuristic societies where all non-white cultures have been absorved and mixed up but people of color are hardly centered.

Famously guilty of this is the “Star Wars” franchise, which shows its Asian influence everywhere yet had no major Asian characters until 2016.

Image: a still from “Star Wars”. Padme Amidala wears a royal attire that draws heavily from Chinese tradition.

Recently, the videogame “Overwatch” has come under fire for its alternative skins, some of which rely on stereotypes and conflate and mash cultures in disrespectful ways. It isn’t clear if Roadhog, who is an Australian character with Maori and Hawaiian alternative skins, is white or not.

Image: two images from “Overwatch”, showing Roadhog in his normal skin and his “Maori” skin.

A last case of whitewashing is the whitewashing of actors, rather than characters. This usually happens when a mixed-race actor is cast for a role and either their character is referred to as white, or the character’s entire biological family is played by white people.

Plenty of light-skinned actors get this treatment. Wentworth Miller (mixed Black, Arab and white) plays a white man in “Prison Break”, Troian Bellisario (mixed Black and white) plays a white girl in “Pretty Little Liars”, James Roday (mixed Mexican mestizo and white) plays a white man in “Psych”, KJ Apa (mixed Maori and white) plays a white boy in “Riverdale”.

Image: still from “Pretty Little Liars”, of Troian Bellisario as Spencer Hastings.

Whitewashing isn’t just “this character was Brown on the source material but they are white in the adaptation”. It’s more complex than that. Whitewashing is the systemic erasure of people of color from media, which happens in a lot of ways. Whitewashing is creating universes that have little or no people of color, or erasing people of color from history. Whitewashing is centering white narratives and white people in stories that should be about people of color. Whitewashing is also having white actors play characters of color, but that is not the only way of whitewashing that exists.

The whitewashing of source material in adaptation is easier to call out, but that doesn’t make whitewashing in original works less damaging. And a whitewashed source material (like, say, Asimov’s incredibly white books) doesn’t justify an also whitewashed adaptation.

Media that centers white perspectives and white characters where people of color should rightfully be the core of the narrative are whitewashed, and cater to racist audiences. They assume that white people can’t empathize with people of color (and thus teach people that they don’t need to empathize with people of color, as there will always be a white gaze filtering the narrative).

And any piece of media that doesn’t include people of color is whitewashed, period. “Harry Potter”, with its over 800 names characters and only a dozen characters of color, is whitewashed. It doesn’t matter how small the town is, how ancient the time setting is, how fantastic the universe is. If there are no people of color, it’s whitewashed. People of color exist everywhere and have always existed everywhere, and any media that suggests otherwise is whitewashed media.

We need to continue to analyze the media we consume critically, and to question why white people continue to be the majority and the norm in most pieces of media. And, if the question arises as to why racebending is okay but whitewashing is not, we need to understand that white faces and white narratives are still the norm in the West, and that changing white characters’ races doesn’t steal representation from a marginalized minority, but adds diversity to overwhelmingly white narratives.