Get To Know: Whitewashing in the USA
There are no people who haven’t come across a case of whitewashing at least once in their lives, and yet we are rarely able to recognize it. The world, as the television made us know it, appears to us as canonically white. That’s due to the fact that whitewashing in media contributed to selling mostly white characters. Whitewashing is a practice, particularly popular in the cinema industry, that occurs when a Caucasian actor gets the role of a character of, historically, another ethnicity, with the goal of making him more attractive for the general public. A practice so deeply grafted into the fabric our society that by now it has been ‘normalized’, but not fairer because of this. In particular, in the last few years, the communities which go through ghettoization because of cinema, by definition non-white communities, ethnic minorities, are starting to bring the issue under more and more wide spotlights. A restored awareness of the Asians communities, the African-American, African, Latin American, Native ones which were able to spark the debate and rise controversy finding, in some cases, the wall of the white community which still can’t acknowledge its privileges and the harm done to the ethnic minorities by taking away their rightful representation. Almost to deny their existence.
Thanks to social networks, to brave voices and more global coverage of information given to people, especially by these minorities, recently the discussion of this topic had more international attention. Movies such as Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, Into Darkness – Star Trek, encountered, rightly, harsh polemics having preferred Caucasian actors over their original ethnicities: Japanese, in the first two cases, and Middle Eastern, in the last one.
Beside striking cases, like the ones of the movies just stated — Cumberbatch doesn’t exactly look Middle Eastern — there are also less obvious ones that still went under the whitewashing practice. Let’s take a random book, which was adapted into a movie, in which the color our main character’s complexion or their ethnicity weren’t made explicit. Now watch the movie. Most likely your lead actor or actress is white.
Let’s think about Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, played by the masterly Jennifer Lawrence. The character of the book is not ‘canonically’ white, she’s described as having ‘olive skin’, and yet for a strange coincidence in her cinematographic representation, she became so. A not necessarily white character, made white by default. At the time of the movie, Gary Ross, the director, totally — and deliberately — ignored the possibility of giving representation, hence voice, to a minority, opening the casting call only to Caucasian actresses.
“The actress — can be read in the cast-calling — should be Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20”
No one is doubting the talent of Jennifer Lawrence, but dissociating from this specific example we can still understand the impact that implies such a request and the following choice of a white actor or actress. First, you create precedents which justify choosing a white actor over a black one when it isn’t stated that it shouldn’t be Caucasian. No explicit directive corresponds, in most of the cases, to an automatically white character. In addition, real people, belonging to an ethnic minority, might find in the original work someone in whom they can see themselves, someone who represents them, a step forward to the white world’s awareness of their existence and yet, often, movies leave them once again without someone they can relate to because white people are unable to accept and connect with someone who isn’t white.
A limit is given by the privilege of being portrayed for over a century of cinema without censorship and by the incapacity of accounting someone other than themselves. We often don’t give whitewashing enough attention, indicted producers often don’t face the reality that their movies bring as a representation of the world: uniquely white, in which ethnic minorities are often minor characters, expendable, the rude or grotesque ones, not relevant for the actual plot and the society portrayed. They are, in fact, represented in a way that can reflect all the stereotypes white people associate them with. Ironically, this is the most precise and accurate representation of the real society, in which racial discrimination gets handled by spending only 1% of efforts to minorities — the ‘funny’ character used as a sweetener —, giving them a corner in which they can stay pretending it’s enough and not the minimum wage is given just to avoid any dispute regarding racial discrimination. Everything because, tendentially, the ego and the insecurity of the white community are too big to include anyone else.