Whitewashing in Our Media

Erika Gonzales

Whitewashing: The tendency of the media (movies, TV shows, etc.) to cast white actors and actresses to play non-white characters.

Whitewashing dates back to early Hollywood films when black face began to gain popularity in the 19th century. Black face is a makeup practice that non-black actors wore to imitate a black person. Overall, this practice spread the racial stereotypes of the black minority. This practice was especially popular during the airing of The Minstrel Show from 1840 to 1890. The white actors on the show would wear black face, and exaggerate the complexion of black people, mocking their culture by imitating their “plantation” dialect. “Yellow face” also became a problem in older films such as The Conqueror (1956) where John Wayne played Genghis Khan (Founder of the Mongolian empire). American actress Elizabeth Taylor also played Cleopatra in the 1963 movie, Cleopatra.

Modern day examples of whitewashing include the casting of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, a Native American character, in the movie Pan (2015). Emma Stone as Allison Ng, a character of Hawaiian and Asian heritage, in the film Aloha (2015). Johnny Depp as a Native American character in The Lone Ranger (2013). In addition, Scarlett Johansson casted as Motoko Kusanagi in the movie adaptation of the manga series, Ghost in the Shell (2017).   

Others argue that the race of the actor does not matter as long as they suit the character. However, the United States is a mix of different people from different cultures. It is not a homogenous society, therefore whitewashing lacks representation of non-white inhabitants of our nation.

Whitewashing is a problem because representation is important. At an early age, people psychologically need media representation. Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted the “Black Doll” experiment to study the effects of segregation on African-American children. They used four dolls, all of them identical except for color, and asked children between the ages of three to seven which doll they preferred. The majority of the children chose the white doll. This experiment supported the fact that what our society feeds children about their sense of race and status deeply influences their self-esteem at an early age. Children internalize stereotypes at an early age through the various access of media they have, especially in our technology driven society today. These children will grow up to carry their internalized hate and it will continue to grow and damage them as the media continues to feed the mass of false racial content about the minorities.

Unfortunately, whitewashing is still occurring because directors and producers give the excuse that films with non-white actors will not be as successful. However, David White, the National Executive Director of the Actors’ Union SAG-AFTRA, says, “The myth that ‘black doesn’t travel’ would be laughable if its perpetuation weren’t so damaging. From Will Smith to Denzel Washington to David Oyelowo, the work of black actors is consumed and celebrated in markets across the globe.” With the rise of foreign film markets such as China becoming the second largest, the demand for minority representation is bigger than ever before.

Becoming aware of the effects of whitewashing, audiences today are beginning to protest this obscene practice. Shows and movies such as Fresh off the Boat, Black Panther, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures are starting the revolution of whitewashing by casting the rightful actors that represent the minority. This practice may not fade away anytime soon, however, we are taking the first steps into creating the change our media needs.