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The dangers of whitewashing

Credit: Jenny Chang / The Foothill Dragon Press

Currently, whitewashing is done primarily to increase the odds of a production being successful, often because the studio wishes to employ star power and sometimes people believe a non-white actor in a role will decrease views.

Hollywood studios continually and mistakenly assume that films will only sell if the title characters are white. The film industry is business first, art second. Maybe it should be the other way around.

At the end of the day, most filmmakers tend to view movies with minority leads as financial gambles, believing that since there are few A-list celebrities who are also minorities a film is most likely to be a financial flop if not filled with white actors. They are generally more predominant on the Hollywood scene and command more star power, setting a precedent for other filmmakers to choose white actors to play roles intended for people of color.

There is certainly no lack of talent among actors of color. Unfortunately, few of them are internationally known because few are given opportunities. Racially diverse actors have enough star power to ensure a movie’s success, but they are not being given the chance to showcase their talent.

Star power does influence the revenue films take in, but it also limits opportunities for actors of color, and intentionally or unintentionally presents the idea that only products with white people sell. These assumptions are carried on decade after decade. They are whirled into a perpetual cycle that steals opportunity from the grasp of actors of color as well as depriving audiences of a talented and diverse cast.

Some films ignore a character’s real-life backstory, unraveling backgrounds and plots by making characters not intended to be white, white. Discrimination, whether financially or racially, occurs in film casts, with devotion to the belief that using white actors will maximize the size of the audience. Screenwriter Max Landis justified the selection of the “Ghost in the Shell” cast saying, “there are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now on an international level.”

A white actor playing a Chinese character drank alcohol to “make his speech more halting and to put a grin on his face — like the perpetually congenial Chinese sleuth.” However, even when actors of color appear in a “racially diverse” cast, they often take a backseat, character-wise or plot-wise. They are often cast as less significant characters or are stereotypically typecast. These roles actors of color have been boxed into influence the audience, especially the younger audiences, in believing that people of color exist solely in those roles in everyday life.

The washing out of racially diverse roles perpetuates not only racism, but also elitism, passing along the message that filmmakers refuse to work with less famous actors of color because the white actor holds more sway.

As a form of art, films are forever raising the question of representation. “[Art] not only reflects, but also refracts and magnifies human reality.” Spectators like to see people similar to themselves, because it draws us more deeply into the narrative the film is attempting to tell. Can you imagine how deeply it affects children of color, not to see people like them reflected in film, which “refracts and magnifies human reality”?

Making minorities the face of a film would be proof that the film industry is open to all minorities and the quality of the entertainment they produce is not lacking in any way for it.

How does it affect a child growing up, watching films where only white people are heroes? When I was a child, I never doubted why white people were main leads. It even struck me as strange when on a rare occurrence, a person of color appeared as the title character. I accepted whitewashing and it was only later that I began to question it. It negatively affects the amelioration of racism and turns the moral conscience of society backwards. Whitewashing undoes the moral advances gained through past decades, while diversity creates a space for people of color in American film culture.

If film directors refuse to engage in risk-taking with minority leads, minorities will never have a chance to reach stardom.

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