When I was a teenager I didn't feel pretty when I saw Natalie Wood prancing around as a Puerto Rican character in the 1961 film version of West Side Story. Marnie Nixon's vocals and strange accent had no relationship to the familiar (to my ear) sound of Nuyorrican Spanish.
Her predecessor on the Broadway stage in the role of Maria was Carol Lawrence (1957).
Yes—they found Puerto Ricans to play Maria's sidekick Anita (Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno) but the star had to be a white woman.
Here is part of my sing-a-long lyrical response, which opens with:
"I feel pretty, pretty shitty
It's a pity how shitty I feel
a committee has been organized to whitewash me "
and I close with a rousing:
I feel angry. Very angry.
It's alarming how angry I feel
because Hollywood will never get real.
I was a teenager then. They didn't have a name for this all-too-frequent phenomena back in those days, though we were real clear about related issues like blackface. We have names for it now.
It's called whitewashing and racebending.
"Racebending" as defined at the activist website racebending.com:
[R]efers to situations where a media content creator (movie studio, publisher, etc.) has changed the race or ethnicity of a character. This is a longstanding Hollywood practice that has been historically used to discriminate against people of color.A friend sent me a link to this recent whitewashing controversy in California, a state that is certainly not bare of Asians.
More often than not, this practice has a resultant discriminatory impact on an underrepresented cultural community and actors from that community (reinforcement of glass ceilings, loss of opportunity, etc.) In the past, practices like blackface and yellowface were strategies used by Hollywood to deny jobs to actors of color. Communities of color were helpless to control how they would be represented in media. Because characters of color were played by white actors, people of color were hardly represented at all–and rarely in lead roles. While white actors were freely given jobs playing characters of color in make-up, actors of color struggled to find work.
Our society has yet to escape the legacy of these casting practices, which still continue in a subdued form today. Even today, although actors of color are disproportionately underrepresented in the media, films with lead characters of color are still cast with non-minority actors.
California's Asian American population is estimated at 4.4 million, approximately one-third of the nation's 13.1 million Asian Americans.Heated exchanges at La Jolla Playhouse over multicultural casting:
The casting of “The Nightingale,” written by Tony-winning “Spring Awakening” collaborators Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, has drawn sharp criticism. The musical, adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen story and set in ancient China, features a multicultural cast of 12, with two actors of Asian descent in supporting roles. The show's lead role of a young Chinese emperor is played by a white actor.The production has five male roles. All are played by white men.
Spoken word artist Jason Chu makes it clear when he says, "Colorblind is just another way to say we don't care."
A community forum was between audience members, activists and the creative staff:
La Jolla Playhouse: The Nightingale Panel Discussion.
Some had come from as far away as New York.
I found one question to the staff quite thought provoking:
If this had been set in Africa would you have dared to cast a white male as the African King? Would you have considered casting a white male?The answer was, "I’m not sure it’s productive to say what if," which to me was not an answer at all.
(Continue reading below the fold.)
Members of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) a group started in New York in 2011 "to expand the perception of Asian American performers in order to increase their access to and representation on New York City’s stages" were panelists.
This graphic is from their "Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages" Report.
This report tallies the ethnic make up of cast members from every Broadway show which opened in the last five seasons as well as from productions at the sixteen largest not-for-profit theatre companies in New York City. It is the first report on minority casting in New York City theatre ever to be released publicly.
Over 50 years after West Side Story, wherever we look, it's still happening. I have to laugh bitterly whenever I hear the phrase "post racial or colorblind America."
It ain't happening.
It's not just Hollywood, or television, or the stage. It's in books, on book covers, in video games, animation, advertising, and in the news.
The irony is that when producers make the attempt to correctly transfer characters clearly described as people of color from a book to the screen, there is also a racist pushback against those efforts. We saw it happen recently around Hunger Games, which was diaried and discussed here at Daily Kos:
Whitewashing isn't just an issue here in the U.S.
As a kid, I loved the swashbuckling novels written by Alexandre Dumas. My dad, who had played a musketeer on Broadway, made sure I learned about Dumas' African ancestry.
Dumas film with white actor Depardieu sparks race row:
The celebrated but fair-skinned screen star, Gerard Depardieu, had to darken his skin and wear a curly wig to play the part in L'Autre Dumas.Reactions from blacks in France were vocal:
Critics argue the French movie industry has deliberately undermined the 19th Century novelist's ethnicity...Dumas was the grandson of a Haitian slave and often referred to himself as a negro.
Historian Claude Schopp says although his books were revered by his contemporaries, he was often mocked for his colour. "In caricatures or in sketches he was always presented with big lips, with Afro hair, as a sort of monster."
But France's Representative Council of Black Associations has objected to Depardieu in the role, saying black actors are not given an opportunity to play white roles in French cinema. "It's very shocking and it is insulting," Patrick Lozes, president of the council, told the London Daily Mail. "It is a way of saying that we don't have any black actors who have the talent to play Alexandre Dumas, which of course is not true. In 150 years' time could the role of [U.S. President] Barack Obama be played in a film by a white actor with a fuzzy wig?" he added. "Can Martin Luther King be played by a white?"At the same time, "down-under" in Australia, an iconic historical military hero got similar treatment.
Dumas, beloved author and playwright who died in 1870, is one of few national cultural figures of color in France, although many today don't know about his black ancestry. "There is a mechanism of permanent discrimination by silence," said Jacques Martial, a black actor who made his name playing a television police detective.
A FURORE has erupted over a new mini-series about the deadliest sniper at Gallipoli, Chinese-Australian Billy Sing, who is played by a white.But here's the good news. Google "whitewashing." Young people are pushing back. We don't have a lot of discussions here on Daily Kos about fan art, or video, or young adult books. Cyberspace has many communities, and the discussions of whitewashing, white as the "normative" and the power of images, is taking place.
This portrayal in the The Legend of Billy Sing has been attacked by Australians of Chinese ancestry as a betrayal of their heritage, robbing them of a rare historic hero.
Director Geoff Davis has cast his son Josh in the lead role, while Sing's Chinese father is played by the veteran actor Tony Bonner, who came to prominence as a blond-haired helicopter pilot in the Skippy TV series.
I have been reading some of these sites and blogs with great interest.
EmpressFunk at deviant.art has a wonderful poster that breaks down whitewashing and racebending. Go take a look.
This impassioned post illustrates to me that some young white folks "get it."
There are a few things you should know about me before I start ranting. I am a white heterosexual Christian cis male middle-class American. I am a member of the majority in pretty much every area of life. I am privileged in ways that it took me a long time to fully understand.Here we have a reaction to a new young adult book series:
And racism still pisses me off so much I can’t even see straight.
I admit to being fairly ignorant of the concept of privilege for most of my life. And I know that what I’m about to say won’t mean as much as if it had come from the fingertips of somebody who truly understands oppression. But I still have opinions on this, and if you don’t want to read them, get out now. This is mostly related to drama on Katrina’s blog, but a lot of this has been stewing for a while so I’m letting it all out.
Also, if my white privilege causes me to say anything ignorant, feel free to correct me (politely, if you can). I am a member of the Korra fandom. “Racebending” has been an issue in the Avatar fandom since M. Night Shyamalan directed the abysmal The Last Airbender, casting white people in the main roles, erasing pretty much all the references to Chinese culture, and generally making things really awkward for everybody.
First off, while she may want to pat herself on the back for creating a story that turns on its head stereotypical tropes about the social value of whiteness and blackness, the very names she chooses to use say that Foyt may still hold those tired tropes dear. “Pearl” as a term for whiteness ascribes high value, rareness, beauty and worth. And Coal as a term for dark-skinned? Low value and dirty. And as blogger Nnamdi Bawse points out, it’s a tried and true racial slur. But even without the shameful history of the slur, choosing such wildly divergent names, holding wildly divergent values, implies a positive value judgement on whiteness and a negative value judgment on blackness.Since I am well past the age for YA fiction, though I do read dystopian sci-fi, I would not have run across this particular critique had I not been paying attention to the online discourse around racebending.
Then let’s take the “Beauty and the Beast” analogy. To refer to a dark-skinned man as “beastly” carries with it negative notions of blackness that are rooted in a historical portrayal of black men as sexually savage beasts. As Dr. David Pilgrim, professor of Sociology at Ferris State University writes, “During the Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877), many white writers argued that without slavery — which supposedly suppressed their animalistic tendencies — blacks were reverting to criminal savagery.” So essentially, the construction of black men as “beastly” was used to justify slavery. So, awesome. Yeah, NO.
Finally, witness this video Foyt made to publicize her book, featuring a white woman in blackface.
Memo to the world: Blackface is not okay. Like, EVER. Blackface is rooted in bygone minstrel shows, where white actors would play outrageously offensive stereotypes of blackness. As the website Black-Face.com explains, blackface is more than simply the application of dark makeup to a white face. Blackface “originated in the White man’s characterizations of plantation slaves and free blacks during the era of minstrel shows (1830-1890), the caricatures took such a firm hold on the American imagination that audiences expected any person with dark skin, no matter what their background, to conform to one or more of the stereotypes: the coon, the mammy, the Uncle Tom, the buck, the wench, the mulatto and the pickaninny.” These racial stereoytypes are all highly negative and delimiting.
This piece gives a bit of the history of the development of the racebending activist community:
In December 2008, producers of the film adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender set off a firestorm of criticism when they announced their casting decisions. Despite the fact that the television show had a distinctly Asian aesthetic and borrowed many elements from East Asian and Inuit cultures, four white actors had been cast in the lead roles. Many fans became irate, demanding that the roles be given to Asian American actors because they had always imagined that the characters were racially Asian. When one of the lead actors dropped out of the project he was replaced with Dev Patel, who is South Indian (as is the film’s director, M. Night Shyamalan). But fans insisted that the nation his character belonged to were the villains of the series, so now the problem was that three white stars were heroes and the South Asian actor and his people were villains. The backlash continued in heated online debates and has culminated in a number of protest activities, ranging from letter-writing campaigns and the spread of counter-media to a planned boycott of the upcoming film. The fan activists who mobilized over the casting decisions for The Last Airbender (TLA) continue to work on issues related to the film, but have also shifted their focus toward discrimination in casting more generally. In many ways they successfully model a mode of activism that is necessarily multilingual, moving between the languages of fandom, activism, and racial politics as it becomes strategically advantageous. This case study examines their transition between these roles and some of the difficulties that they face in doing so.These days there are far more books that deal with the pernicious role of media in stereotyping and whitewashing people of color.
I'd like to suggest a few for your consideration:
AMERICAN INDIANS: Stereotypes & Realities, by Devon A. Mihesuah
Indians in Unexpected Places, by Philip J. Deloria.
Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race, by Arlene Dávila.
Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, and Resistance, by Charles Ramírez Berg.
Screening Asian Americans, edited by Peter X. Feng.
We live in a global society where the vast majority of the worlds peoples are not socially constructed as "white." Changing demographics here in the U.S. are trending toward a majority population of those who are now labelled "minority" or "people of color" in less than 40 years from now.
One would think that various industries that will depend on the dollars of entertainment consumers should have already adjusted to this shifting market. They haven't. So what would be "smart capitalism" is bogged down by racism.
Take the Oscars:
A Los Angeles Times study found that academy voters are markedly less diverse than the moviegoing public, and even more monolithic than many in the film industry may suspect. Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male, The Times found. Blacks are about 2% of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2%.This pathetic statistic is reflected in the the Emmy awards as well.
The only thing that is going to change this is if we vote with our dollars, and raise a louder fuss.
Green will trump whitewashing.