No excuse for whitewashing
We’ve come to expect the worst from the Facebook comments section, but the other day I had the surprising opportunity to engage in a frank conversation about whitewashing with someone I respect IRL but often disagree with online. I thought this rare occurrence warranted archiving as proof it’s possible to firmly defend your beliefs without resorting to mutual name-calling.
I should also note that I was only willing to participate in what could have been a painful conversation because my perspective today can largely be attributed to the patient pushback of my friends — their willingness to engage with me and share their stories. How else can we learn to live at peace with one another?
Dear Hollywood, you have no excuse for whitewashing. Whitewashing is laziness at best and at worst, well, racism. The talent is out there. Someone just needs to put their foot down. Exhibit A is how my favorite filmmakers, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, said NO and filled an “impossible-to-cast” role:
We’d always written the character as a 14-year-old transgender FTM Asian-American, and when we gave our casting director Avy Kaufman that description, she said, ‘We might not be able to find this person, so what are you flexible on?’ We told her we weren’t flexible, so she finally took to the internet and posted some casting notices on various trans chat rooms and groups, and audition tapes came flooding in.
Ian was among them, he had shot his with his iPhone in his bathroom and uploaded it all without his parents knowing. Out of nowhere, his parents get a phone call that Netflix wants to cast their son! They’re like, ‘What?’
His tape was brilliant.
He told us, ‘I’m having a really hard time in school, because I wanted to act but it’s not like the plays that are done in high school have roles that describe a person like me. You can’t imagine what it was like to go online and see a posting for a Netflix show that describes me.’
Comment Thread One
Ryan Martin (RM): I hate to seem combative, but I don’t think we are in a position to broadly condemn anyone for laziness or racism based on “white washing.” That is to take an effect and reason back to a cause, but this requires far more information that we are privy to. A lot of times a roll is “whitewashed,” simply because the white actor has more name recognition, and is therefore more profitable, than the equally qualified counterpart. Other times, it’s just because the best actor to audition happens to be white. No one considered it lazy or racist when Nick Furry (white character) was cast by Samuel L. Jackson because Jackson killed the roll. All I’m saying is that unless we have specific information about the directors internal motivations and the quality of the talent pool available to said director, we aught to refrain from condemning anyone of one of the most sickening prejudices.
Adrian Patenaude (AP): I appreciate your dialogue! I should have noted this, but my post is an indirect response to the recent casting of a white male in the role of a Hawaiian WWII hero. There is more of an argument when it comes to comic book movies, but with this being a true historic figure, it makes zero sense to take away the opportunity for a member of that culture to portray such a significant role.
The excuse that there are no Hawaiian actors is not a sufficient one to me when I’m sure there is plenty of undiscovered talent out there (see: Auli’i Cravalho in Moana and the article above). Beyond that, it just isn’t possible for a white male actor to truly capture the nuances of a culture he is not a member of (no matter his level of talent).
I used to give more grace for whitewashing. It is an understandable challenge — but it is not excusable. We keep shifting the blame from the actors to the directors to the casting directors to the producers to the broken system overall… and no one ends up stopping the loop. What would have happened if Scarlett Johansson had held the studios accountable by publicly saying no to Ghost in the Shell?
I can’t judge the motivations of individual people involved — even the Doctor Strange whitewashing of the Ancient One came out of an intentional (but failed) effort by the director to promote diversity. It’s a struggle to make this a priority. But my reason for posting this article comes down to proving that it CAN be done. Hollywood is afraid of taking risks and there’s a PERCEIVED lack of diversity in the talent pool. The system is broken to the point of excluding new talent in general and minorities especially.
Someone has to step up to break the cycle. Until that happens, everyone is a contributor.
RM: I appreciate your thoughts. Can I ask you a question: Why was it a failed attempt to promote diversity in the way they casted the Ancient One?
AP: In some ways it was a success: 1) It reworked a character that was originally stereotypical 2) It gender-bended an originally male character to add gender diversity. However, the central failure was the erasure of an Asian character. The article I linked to explains how they were trying to avoid the “Dragon Lady” stereotype, so they opted to switch to a white female. A better response would have been to hire an Asian writer (preferably female) to add nuance and/or cast an Asian female who could correctly flesh out the character.
RM: As always, thank you for your openness and clarity. You’re a clear thinker as well as writer. While I understand and agree with the general premise that we should do our best to cast roles in ways that represent the source material, I fear two major problems. 1. It seems that we are holding people to unexpressed and unattainable expectations. Avoiding two majorly offensive stereotypes and “gender bending” a role seems as though it should be a huge score for diversity. The fact that it isn’t seen as such, I think, speaks to the unattainability of our expectations. 2. There seems to be a pretty clear double standard: when we cast “Hamilton,” which is about the white founding fathers, exclusively with actors AND actresses of color, we are praised. But when we cast a fictitious asian man as a white female, we are panned as lazy or racist. There clearly seems to be a bias against men and whites. I point these out not out of offense, but simply say that there seems to be an intellectual inconsistency.
AP: Great points here, and I think there is a double standard of sorts. However, I believe it comes out of an attempt to compensate for a society that is set up for the benefit of white males. The society as a whole works in their favor, so efforts are doubled in order to cast diverse people as a way of claiming that they have value and celebrating them in a culture where they rarely have a voice. Intellectually, it is unfair, but in the big picture, life in the US is extremely unfair for POC. That’s what this conversation is really about — creating visibility for people who are treated as invisible in their own country.
RM: I really appreciate your candor. While I completely agree that history is replete with systematic benefits for white males, I think many of those benefits have been largely mitigated. Further and far more fundamentally, I feel that swinging the pendulum from one side to the other is not only inconsistent, but pragmatically harmful. Blaming whites for the sins of their great grand parents, insisting that they’re success is largely due to their unintended yet ill-gotten privilege, and then propagating a system where they are actively discriminated against solely to combat other systems of oppression that were denounced and criminalized 50 years ago by their grandparents is a great way to disenfranchise an entire generation.
AP: I definitely agree that swinging the pendulum is a dangerous thing. That does not lead to justice or reconciliation. However, I strongly disagree that systems of oppression have disappeared. There is still so much work to be done. The more I talk to minorities, the more I realize that the fight is far from over. They are still made to feel like second class citizens on many levels — from microaggressions to existing systems of oppression. I have not read it myself, but I hear The New Jim Crow is a great book on the matter. There’s also the documentary 13th on Netflix that I need to see as well. I’m sure Ashley has other resources she can point you to.
RM: I am would love to fight systems of injustice, but by definition, Microagressions are not systems, and therefore, they may be frustrating, but they aren’t systemic. Since we’ve made systematic racism illegal, what systems are still in place that have slipped through the cracks that we need to combat?
AP: Reading the book I mentioned and that documentary will be a great place to start because they address those existing systems. (I would go more into both but like I said, I haven’t read/watched them yet.) The Black Lives Matter movement is another example that is trying to call out an injustice that is alive and active today.
I mention microaggressions simply because they are the *symptoms* of a broken attitude toward certain members of our society. It makes them feel like second class citizens, that their fears are dismissed.
RM: I guess what I’m asking for is a particular system, such as a law, that unfairly targets minorities or POC.
AP: I wish I could give you specifics, but the best I can do at this moment is point you to those resources. It’s an area of study I need to tackle on my own so I can offer specifics next time a conversation like this comes up. I encourage you to investigate! I’ll be doing the same so I can be more prepared in the future.
AP (a few minutes later): Ryan, I used to dismiss the idea that oppression still exists. So I feel like I know where you’re coming from. But conversations and research have started to change my perspective. As believers, it’s on us to investigate whether injustice truly exists so we can be allies. It’s easy to dismiss when that’s not our reality as white, privileged people. But we have to do the work of listening rather than expecting the people it’s effecting to constantly “defend” their experience. I’m only just starting to pay attention and take their fears seriously. It’s really hard and I make many mistakes. I have a long way to go. Really appreciate the way you listen, friend! I hope this conversation was enlightening.
RM: Thank you for that encouragement Adrian. I appreciate your Christlike love for your fellow man. I couldn’t agree more that is our Christian duty to stand up for the oppressed. Be blessed.
Comment Thread Two
Ashley Stevens (AS): I agree with Adrian Patenaude. When it comes to fictional characters I’m willing to give ground but when it comes to portraying a real person whitewashing is a problem and pretty much any other form of casting a person of a different race or ethnicity then the person they are portraying. Also, the story being told is about a person, most people, would not likely be familiar with outside of Hawaii. So that’s a hurtle in and of itself. And the guy they cast isn’t super well known either so why not cast a unknown or lesser known Hawaiian or Polynesian actor (who are out there, btw).
Ryan Martin (RM): I appreciate your point of view, and I think I agree with you. Can I ask your opinion of Hamilton: Since you feel stricter about casting of real people than you do fictional characters, how do you feel about the cast of Hamilton being exclusively for non-whites? Its not offensive to me personally, but I’m interested in how we can intellectually integrate this sort of casting choice into a larger systematic approach to the topic of race and representation (acting).
AS: The history purist in me feels like Hamilton should be cast appropriately. However, I understand the statement Miranda was making by casting people of color. I was actually having a convo with [another friend] about this so she can shed better light on this.
That’s when the concept of blind casting can come into play. Hire the best actor for the role regardless of race, ethnicity or gender. I like the idea when it comes to most roles but when there is that lens of history that’s when it becomes problematic. For example if you cast a black man in a period piece, say the early 1900s, and the movie acknowledges he is black, the movie can’t NOT make a statement about the experience of being a black man in the early-20th century and what that entailed.
RM: Thank you so much for sharing you’re thoughts. I tend to lean towards blind everything. I don’t mean to ignore culture and history, but simply to say, in the arena of jobs (acting included), hire people based on their qualification. Now, if one of the qualifications is to be black or white for a certain character, I’m fine with that. That to say, If a character can be convincingly played by member of another race (say persian for an Israeli), and they happen to be the better actor, give it to them.
AS: Same. I’ve enjoyed the conversation. In summary, my two bones of contention is Hollywood’s propensity to use the statement “we couldn’t find x person to play this part” which I call b.s. on. There is plenty of undiscovered talent and people striving to be actors but are shut out by casting calls, agents, and then the actors who really shouldn’t play the part taking them because its more about getting paid then asking “am I the appropriate person to do this role.” Secondly, there’s so much historical misinformation & poor history education that I can be a bit of a purist about it. I don’t want Hollywood contributing to it because that’s how a LOT of people learn about historical events and people.
Ok, I’m officially done now. Get me started on movies and history and I can talk incessantly about it. :)