Whitewashing Hollywood

We all watch them, use them as forms of entertainment, and follow the news leading up and after them. But did you know that there is an entire strategy behind how movies and Hollywood pick their actors and actresses to skew the racial distribution?

The term used to best describe this practice is “white washing” and can be defined as the entertainment industry’s attempt at making ethnic characters more appealing to the white, money-spending masses by making exotic characters less ethnic and more “white.” An example of a whitewash would be an Asian movie cast with half Asian actors and actresses instead of ethnically Chinese actors, even if the roles required the actors to be full Asian.

Such whitewashing not only plays a role in direct consequences for the viewers of the film, it also plays an important role in propagating its effects into society’s realms. Numerous times, Middle Eastern, or people of colour, have been asked to play roles as criminals or terrorists in films. Statistically, the majority of terrorists around the world are not Middle Eastern and criminals are not always people of colour.

In an article recollecting 7 Middle Eastern actors and their experiences with such discrimination, one actor says “…I had an epiphany. I called my agent: ‘Hey! Don’t send me out on these terrorist parts anymore. I’ll be open for anything else, but not the terrorist stuff.’ “After that, she never called. [She used to call] three or four times a week.” (GQ online magazine).

The statistical evidence by the FBI is that 94% of terrorist attacks in the USA from 1985 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims. Putting that into perspective, an American terrorist suspect is over nine times likely to be not Middle Eastern than Middle Eastern. According to the same report, there have been more Jewish acts of terrorism than Muslim, but when was the last time you saw a Jew being cast as a terrorist in a movie versus a Muslim Middle Eastern?

A recent example of such colour whitewashing has been the casting of Scarlett Johansson, a blonde white actress in a Hollywood remake of classic Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell. The argument used by the movie producers and directors for such Asian white-washing is the argument of green colour, the amount of money the movie would gross if they would not hire a white actress.

The argument of money should not be valid anymore as the world progresses towards eradicating racism. An increasing number people are becoming accepting of people of a different colour and will definitely pay to see a movie even if the lead character is non-white. Many scholars have partially blamed the entertainment industry for the racism that exists in the world today and it only makes sense for the same industry to solve the problem.

Another common argument Hollywood uses for casting non-minorities in their movies is simply that there exists no talent in the minorities. However, this argument does not hold much water. In fact, Hollywood has recently developed a strong reputation for casting relatively modest actors and actresses in blockbuster films. One look at the Marvel Studios model shows at the time of their initial casting actors and actresses such as Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, and Scarlet Johansson were not guaranteed box office commodities. So apart from it being Marvel Studios, and most of them having the first name “Chris,” why were these actors considered safe risks while Asian actors aren’t given the same luxury? The only other variable is that they are white. Hollywood will risk box-office uncertainty on Caucasian actors, while not risking box-office uncertianty with Asian actors, but not all is lost with whitewashing. An actor, Ed Skrein, exited a movie once he figured out that the role was whitewashed. It seems like the more awareness we generate about this, the more likely the problem will go away.

This article was contributed by volunteer blogger & co-op student Mohammadali Saleh.