From Whitewashing to Equality Casting

Via Racialicious, a recent interview with M. Night Shyamalan shows that his racefail is not limited to the blatant whitewashing of all the characters (except the bad guys!) in his upcoming adaptation of The Last Airbender. A sample:

The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. […]

I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn’t know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.

Now, I’m not terribly familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender, but based on what I’ve gathered from various blogs over the past couple of months, none of this is even remotely true. For one thing, the series was created by Americans, so it’s not technically anime. And while the races of the characters may not correspond exactly to real-world ethnicities, they were deliberately portrayed as non-White, to counteract the overwhelming whiteness of most American media. The cultures portrayed were apparently also modelled on real Asian and Inuit cultures – something that has also been eliminated from the film adaptation. And finally, Mr. Shyamalan might want to take a look at the actors he has cast in these so-called “ambiguous” roles. They aren’t remotely mixed-race. They are totally, unambiguously, White.

Despite being a person of colour himself, M. Night Shyamalan has bought into the notion of white people as somehow without race. That same narrative defines POC purely according to their race, while maintaining the illusion that we live in a “post-racial” or “colourblind” society. According to that narrative, racism ceases to exist when we stop talking about it. There’s no need to address the the persistent socioeconomic inequalities between ethnic groups, or examine how race has been constructed and reinforced throughout history, or talk about how Whiteness continues to be perceived as the norm while everyone else is seen as Other. None of those things exist anymore! We’re all equal! And if POC are constantly erased, ignored and disadvantaged – well, it’s just a coincidence! Right?


Seriously, no.

Whitewashing of characters of colour is ubiquitous, and it is often unnoticed precisely because we see Whiteness as the norm and White people without race. This is racist, and it’s wrong, and it clearly demonstrates how the narrative of the post-racial society is simply a tool used to silence people of colour when they call others on their racism. This phenomenon has been covered in a great deal more depth by a number of blogs, including Racialicious. What inspired me to write this post, however, is the potential for comparison and contrast between the practice of whitewashing and the seemingly opposite practice of equality casting.

Equality casting (and I don’t know if this is the “official” term for it, or if there even is an official term – it’s simply something that I’ve heard in conversation) is pretty much what it sounds like: hiring actors based on their ability to convincingly play a character, with no regard for their ethnicity. As far as I can tell it is practiced most consistently in the United Kingdom, on BBC series such as Merlin, Doctor Who and so on. On the surface, this seems pretty unremarkable – something that we’d like to think every media outlet is doing. Except that they aren’t, as the above segment demonstrates. In a lot of cases, filmmakers seem to be going out of their way to cast White people in every goddamn role.

What I find most interesting about equality casting is that it appears to be a deliberate attempt to counteract whitewashing. Often, for example, British film and TV adaptations of books cast actors of colour as characters who were either described or simply imagined as White. The clearest example of this is in the BBC’s reimagined Merlin where Guinevere/Gwenhwyfar (give me a break, I’m no Arthurian scholar) is played by the lovely Angel Coulby, who is Black. Similarly, POC are featured in a number of smaller roles in the recent adaptations of Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North. Both of these casting choices have drawn a huge amount of criticism from fans and the general public, who seem determined to cry historical innacuracy whenever they see a non-White face on their TV screens. Because, as we all know, POC were invented in the 1950s. Never mind that, as briar-pipe on livejournal aptly demonstrates medieval England was not as White as many textbooks have made it out to be (and anyway, are people seriously complaining about the historical accuracy of Merlin? The show with the talking dragon?), or that Victorian London, for all its imperialistic chauvinism, was actually a pretty cosmopolitan city. History, much like fiction, has been whitewashed, largely through historians’ own (conscious or unconscious) prejudice and ignorance of our own privilege. No wonder, then, that any time anyone takes the slightest step to undo that whitewashing – by, say, suggesting that a fictional character in a fictionalized version of a historical period doesn’t have to be White – people get angry. When you’ve never acknowledged your own privilege before, even the slightest recognition of it feels like a threat.

Not that equality casting doesn’t have its problems, obviously. According to Wikipedia (which never lies! Ever!) it is sometimes referred to as “colour-blind casting” which kind of sums it up. Much like the notion of a colour-blind society, equality casting posits race as something that will basically go away if we just ignore it, and thus erases the very real discrimination and marginalization that POC deal with. While I can conceivably imagine nobody commenting on Gwen’s race in Merlin, since its setting is essentially a fantasy world with little resemblance to real medieval England, I have a harder time imagining that no one would have anything to say about the interracial marriage in The Shadow in the North, or that, say, Martha Jones on Doctor Who would have encountered no racism at all while travelling through friggin’ time (okay, to be fair, Doctor Who did kind of address that, but barely). In that sense, it’s a bit like whitewashing, with its whole “White privilege? What white privilege?” attitude. (I could write a whole other post on this, but for now I’d like to point out that in the overwhelming majority of cases, POC only seem to appear in secondary roles – again, demonstrating that race does, in fact, play a part in casting directors’ choices, equality casting or none.) On the other hand, unlike whitewashing, at least equality casting acknowledges that POC are not defined by their race, and gives roles to talented actors who are often marginalized in the industry. At least it acknowledges that people of colour exist. It’s not a full-on attack on White supremacy, but it’s something.

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  • Stephanie  On April 7, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Found your blog entry through a google alert. It’s great to hear someone speak so passionately about this type of issue!

    I am the creator and festival director of The Colour Blind Project that deals with this very issue of equality casting, or colour blind casting.

    Have also posted a link to your blog through out Twitter and Facebook pages. Feel free to follow us on on either page if you’d like to find out more.

    Thank again for your passionate words!

  • cat  On April 12, 2010 at 11:19 am

    M. Night also apparantly did not watch the origonal series when he decided to cast the villain nation as POCs and the good people as whites, because, if you had actually watched the series, you would know that the Fire Nation is pretty diverse in terms of color and both Aang and Sokka pass as fire nation in more than one episode. But who cares about that we you can just do good guys white/bad guys dark?

  •  On May 25, 2013 at 2:06 am

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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