Writer: Giselle Gao
Editor: Tonwaan Apiratikiat, Pat Sevikul
Graphic Designer: Maulina Gheananta
In most dictionaries, the word “whitewashing” is defined as the approach to cover up unpleasant facts about a particular person, issue or situation and consequently prevent others from discovering it. However, as we become aware of the increasingly prevalent use of this word in criticisms of the diversity of Western societies, such as their media and preservation of history, we realize that the provided definition fails to address its meaning in context. It is therefore important for us to re-examine the word “whitewashing”, that is, with full acknowledgement of its associations with race, in order to gain a clearer picture of the much more serious issues that this word alludes to.
While the Cambridge and Merriam-Webster Dictionary now both include a definition for “whitewashing” as the use of white actors to play characters that are originally nonwhite, whitewashing did not only emerge with the development of the movies. The definition’s heavy leaning toward the media is misleading - whitewashing is not and has never been implemented in this aspect alone. Rather, it has been in effect in almost every aspect of the Western world, both the physical and digital. It is ironic that despite the most recent update in September 2019, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary still claims whitewashing’s associations with race to be “new”. But it isn’t. It is not merely a concept of the 21st century - it has permeated Western history and is continuing to influence our lives to this very day.
Hence, I would like to redefine whitewashing as the removal of nonwhite people from any public narrative, and I believe that the breadth of this term is a direct reflection of the true extent to which whitewashing is enforced in our lives. Picture it as the act of washing away everything that is related to nonwhite cultures and the existence of non-white people.
But what does whitewashing really look like? Why do we feel as though it is new, or not even recognize its existence at all?
To allow us to visualize it clearly, we should first examine its presence in the world today - in the media and on platforms of digital entertainment, as defined by dictionaries, in countries like the United States. The film industry is perhaps where examples are most abundant. For instance, the British actor Jim Stugess played Asian characters in both the movies Cloud Atlas and 21 by using artificial eyelids and makeup to appear Asian. In Argo, the main character, a Mexican CIA agent Tony Mendez, was played by the white director Ben Affleck, yet the movie won an Oscar for Best Picture nonetheless.
Jim Stugess, Cloud Atlas (2012)
Despite the heightened sensitivity toward whitewashing in movies, many have argued in favor of it, either to shift away from its racial implications or mitigate its effects. Some directors, especially those of historical movies, insist that the whitewashing of casts is due to the need to obtain “historical accuracy”. However, if that is the case, are these “historically accurate” movies suggesting that the nonwhite people did not exist in that particular point in history?
Others claim whitewashing of movies to be unintentional; in fact, many directors contest that they have simply chosen actors that “best” qualify for the roles. However, the conditions that “qualify” an actor are completely dependent on the director’s subjective point of view. Hence, with the most “suitable” actors being “coincidentally” white, the issue of racial representation is often completely out of the concerns of film-production. Furthermore, a number of directors seem to believe that their movies contain messages which apply to everyone and therefore race should not be a point of focus. They advise the audience to focus on the “universal” stories in these movies and “look beyond” the “limitation” of race. Yet the purpose of universality is completely torn apart when a white cast is set to represent the entire humankind as the “neutral” race.
As seen in J.K. Rowling’s statement: she insisted that "Everyone is not white." in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Many believe that a movie is far from being whitewashed as long as actors of color are present. This assertion presumptuously justifies the fact that very minor roles are often given to actors of color, equating it with “diversity”. Furthermore, when white actors are centered in a nonwhite cast and cultural context, like Matt Damon in The Great Wall, the movie is removed of any cultural integrity and distorted to give way to whiteness.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)
Most ridiculously, whitewashing of movies is often directly associated with “accessibility” - and profit; directors seem to consider that a whiter cast is more relatable to the audience and hence attracts more views. There is no need to emphasize how this idea completely disregards the existence of nonwhite audiences. It is horrifying to think that you can only relate to the figures in TV if you are a part of that majority.
Whitewashing is not an innocent adaptation of a character’s race to accommodate the most “qualified” actors. In fact, characters, especially those that are based on real-life figures, should never have to accommodate their actors. The issue of whitewashing is one with protracted impacts that have been influencing the lives of people today and will continue to affect those of the future generations if no change is made. We already know that the very presence of non-white races is often filtered out in Western history, and are not unfamiliar with how such fragmented history has impaired the sense of identity within the communities of color. Whitewashing is a continuation of that shameful history, its purpose to continue to inflict loss and exacerbate confusion over the identities of nonwhite individuals. The past we no longer have control over. But the future depends on the present. We have already destroyed the integrity of history when we burned away the existence of nonwhite war heroes, so let us try to compensate for by revealing the true colors of the world today through our TV shows, advertisements and movies.
Han, Angie. March 30, 2017. “The 8 Main Excuses Hollywood Uses for Racially Insensitive Casting – And Why They're BS”. Mashable. https://mashable.com/2017/03/30/movie-whitewashing-excuses/ (accessed January 24, 2020)
Looch, Cassam. December 3, 2016. “20 Worst Examples of Whitewashing in Movie History”. The Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/articles/20-worst-examples-of-whitewashing-in-movie-history/ (accessed January 6, 2021).
Merodeadora, Andrea. June 15, 2017. “Whats and Whys of Whitewashing”. Medium.com https://medium.com/@puentera/whats-and-whys-of-whitewashing-611e7f8a17ca (accessed January 6, 2021).
N,a. September 2019. “A New Meaning of Whitewashing”. Merriam-Webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/whitewashing-words-were-watching (accessed January 6, 2021).
N,a. N.d. “Whitewashing”. Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/whitewashing (accessed January 6, 2021).