Whitewashed: One year after #OscarsSoWhite, white actors still cast in POC roles

by Katherine Zhang and Jin Tuan

Emma Stone playing Hawaiian-American Allison Ng in “Aloha. Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan Ancient One in “Dr. Strange.” Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese-American The Major in “Ghost in the Shell.” Three seemingly unrelated movies — a romantic comedy set in Hawaii, a mystical superhero film, and a sci-fi mystery film about artificial intelligence — that have one thing in common. In each movie, white actors play parts that were originally written for actors of other ethnicities.

Whitewashing in Hollywood is a long-standing casting practice in which white actors are cast in roles traditionally meant for non-white actors. The first examples of whitewashing involved white actors deliberately caricaturing minority characters and wearing blackface or yellowface to alter their appearances.

Though the use of blackface and yellowface decreased greatly after the 1960s, whitewashing remains a prevalent issue in Hollywood casting. From Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of I. Y. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1961 to the lack of diversity in Oscars nominees, whitewashing has proven to be rampant in the film industry. According to [add a statistic].

“My general feeling is that in this industry, there’s so few opportunities for people of color to be represented as main characters,” Diversity Committee president Aliesa Bahri said. “Whitewashing takes away the very few opportunities that people of color do have to be more represented.”

Recent examples of whitewashing have prompted activists and minority actors alike to take to social media to speak out against the lack of diversity in films.

“It’s a long tradition in America to revise history and contemporary events such that people of color, women, and LGBT are written out,” said Mike Le, a staff member at Racebending.com, an organization devoted to promoting equality in the entertainment industry. “When our culture is filled to the brim with stories of white people at the expense of others, then that becomes integrated into the national consciousness and subconscious. It affects how minorities see themselves and how we’re treated by the mainstream.”

In addition to the multiple accusations of whitewashing in movies like “Dr. Strange,” this year is the second year in a row that people of color have not been nominated for any major awards at the Oscars.

In response to the lack of diversity within Oscar nominees, the National Action Network (NAN) has called for protests of the Academy Awards, including a rally near the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, where the event takes place. Protesters hope to pressure the show’s advertisers into communicating with the Academy about its diversity issues.

Similar protests occurred last year, with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trending on social media sites and actors like Will Smith calling for a boycott of the awards show

Directors and production companies have cited multiple reasons for casting white actors in roles originally meant for actors of other ethnicities. Some have stated that the chosen actor was the best fit for the part.

“A big part of what we do […] as directors and as someone putting on something that’s being seen by so many people, is that we are supposed to reflect humanity as a whole,” Director of Performing Arts Laura Lang-Ree said. “I’m sure that in certain instances, the right actor was picked for the right role, and they happened to be white. I’m sure, but there clearly are far too many instances when it’s more happenchance than not.”

However, the scarcity of actors of color may point to other factors that influence casting. For example, some fear that directors are casting based on the idea that white actors may garner more profits from audiences than actors of other ethnicities.

Ultimately it’s all about money,” Diversity Committee adviser Pilar Aguero-Esparza said. “It’s all about what’s going to make money, and I think as more and more Asians and Latinos have more presence and want to see these films, Hollywood has to one day invest in or put out some movies that are specifically for ethnic communities. It could actually be quite lucrative.”

Though movie audiences cannot control the way that directors cast or that the Academy Awards nominate their Best Actors and Actresses, protesting whitewashed movies  can be a way to raise awareness for whitewashing in the film industry.

This piece was originally published in the pages of The Winged Post on January 24, 2017.