Racial minorities have been relentlessly stereotyped and underrepresented in the media for centuries. Whitewashing is a term that involves taking a character that was supposed to be a person of color (P.O.C.) in the canon work and replacing them with a white person, or making the P.O.C actor “look white.” This practice exists not only in the entertainment industry, but also in the writing industry as well. While taking over both creative industries in the U.S., it evokes internalized racism and encourages the idea that people of color are not good enough to be represented as real people.
Since the dawn of Hollywood, minorities have been whitewashed in countless movies. Two well-known examples include The Last Airbender and Aloha. The Last Airbender is one of the most infamously blatant and obvious cases of whitewashing, as this newspaper has pointed out before. In the film adaptation, all of the main heroes and heroines are made white, while the enemy is dark-skinned. This is a tactic that Hollywood has employed countless times. They use light skin as a metaphor for pureness, and dark skin as a metaphor for filth and evil. In the romantic comedy, Aloha, starring Emma Stone in the role of Allison Ng. The actor’s blonde hair and blue eyes are questionable features for a woman of Chinese and Hawaiian descent. In addition, the main cast was entirely composed of white actors, even though only a quarter of Hawaii’s population is white.
Aside from the film industry, a short trip down the young adult section of a local library will reveal how prevalent whitewashing is in the writing industry. Likely, less than 2% of book covers show non-whites as part of the working class with “olive skin,” while individuals with “light hair and blue eyes” are shown as part of the merchant class on covers. For example, the main character of the Darkness Rising trilogy by Kelley Armstrong is mentioned numerous times to be fully Native American, which is a central fact to the plot. However, on all three book covers she is clearly pictured as a white woman. Another instance is the book Liar by Justine Larbalestier. The novel’s protagonist is an African-American woman who has natural, curly hair, yet the original cover of the book featured a white girl with long, straight hair. This photo has caused such an uproar that the publishers had to re-release the book with a more accurate cover.
Aside from this common issue, whitewashing is present in the literary profession as well. In the words of author Neesha Meminger, “When white authors write characters of colour, their careers are not hindered. In fact, they may get the traditional pat-on-the-back response whenever the privileged represent those they have privilege over…” She also states how when authors of color publish books featuring protagonists of color, they face challenges and literary criticism for being “‘educational,’ or about race” and the books almost never become a leading title in literature.
Whitewashing is an unjustifiable example of first class racism. It not only undermines the worth of non-white people, but simply exists to exert dominance and tell people of color that “you are not worthy to be in this movie/on this book cover/written about because you are not white.” In a survey conducted in 1994-1998, “Children are more likely to associate positive characteristics (wealth, intelligence, leadership) with white characters and negative characteristics (poverty, stupidity, laziness) with minority characters.” It is important to realize that whitewashing is subtle, yet an influential movement that changes the way people think, and holds particular power over children. Having awareness about this issue is a great way to think analytically about what the media is truly feeding the people. Be mindful of white supremacy and its place in the world today; when it is present, do not deny that there is no problem and do not be afraid to speak up.
Illustration by Jessica Chang