With the casting of a black actress to play the chalk-white Domino in Deadpool 2, another round of wailing from ever-sensitive white people started up again:
Whitewashing is not always avoidable even if it’s not preferable. Doctor Strange whitewashed the Ancient One from a old Tibetian monk into a very white Tilda Swinton. This had less to do with Disney/Marvel’s desire to avoid casting an Asian actor than it had to do with their desire to avoid pissing off the Chinese government. If you’ll recall, China has been occupying Tibet for decades and would not have allowed the movie to be shown with a sympathetic Tibetan as a main character. As China is a massive market, this was purely a monetary calculation whether we like it or not.
The same could be said of decisions like casting Scralett Johansson as the lead in 20107’s Ghost in the Shell. But in that instance, and almost all other cases of whitewashing, there are plenty of talented actors and actresses of the appropriate nationality. The studio simply didn’t want to cast them, preferring to go with a white face the audience would be more comfortable with. That is less a money decision than one based on cowardice and not a small amount of racism.
The bottom line is that whitewashing almost always comes down to racism in one form or another. Whether it be eliminating an essential aspect of a character (Josh Hartnett playing a no longer Inuit sheriff in 30 Days of Night) or, worse, trying to replicate their ethnicity in a white person (an unnaturally tan Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia), it’s insulting to minorities.
On the other hand, blackwashing is not only not racist, it’s not even a real thing. It doesn’t matter how loudly white snowflakes wail that it is, it isn’t and it can’t be. Hilariously enough, the only people to blame for this is…white people (which I will explain in a bit).
I’m going to admit, I had some issues with blackwashing once upon a time that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As a white male raised in America, that was pretty much inevitable. The problem was that I couldn’t exactly explain why it bothered me.
Occasionally I could such as when Idris Elba was cast as Roland in The Dark Tower. I loves me some Idris Elba but a huge part of the Dark Tower story is how a future main character, Detta Walker, who despises white people, interacts with Roland’s whiteness (poorly). And just flipping Detta to a white woman who hates black people doesn’t really work as that completely changes her character.
But aside from a few clear cut instances, I couldn’t articulate why I had problem with blackwashing (a phrase I hadn’t even heard of until very recently). As someone that writes for a living, not being able to articulate my reason for thinking something almost always means I don’t have a good reason for thinking it. But knowing that doesn’t do me any good unless I can articulate why my thought process is wrong. I’m a liberal, I don’t do, “It’s wrong because someone said so.”
Fortunately, this NowThis video clarified it for me (sort of):
Strangely enough, the points the video makes about why blackwashing isn’t a thing aren’t very good points. Erasing whiteness because it provides minorities with role models is not a good reason to erase whiteness. However…erasing whiteness is impossible because whiteness does not exist. And this is the funny part where white people can only blame themselves: By making white the default, and thus invisible, it cannot be erased.
After all, how do you erase what isn’t there?
Remember, white people have taken great pains to make whiteness completely invisible to America. We don’t talk about white skin in any context if we can at all avoid it. When someone is arrested, we’ll point out that they’re black or Asian or Latino but rarely will we mention that they’re white. White people will talk about their black friends but rarely will the words “my white friend” pass their lips.
This is why it’s so easy to use a black (or any minority, really) actor for a “white” character. We’ve made white so ubiquitous that it’s irrelevant to the character. For instance, while being black is central to the stories of Luke Cage, Falcon, Spiderman (Miles Morales), Storm, Black Lightning, etc., what part of being white has anything to do with the story of, say, Batman? Or Ant-Man? Or Iron Man or The Flash or Aquaman?
The answer, of course, is nothing. This is why Hollywood could recast The Honeymooners with black actors but could never redo The Jeffersons with white actors. It’s a one way street for now. Someday, many many years from now, we may reach a time when white is no longer the default for our society. We may come to a time where being white means something beyond being the invisible backdrop against which every other group is measured. If and when that day comes, characters that are written explicitly to be white won’t be able to be recast so easily and the vocal opponents of blackwashing will have their victory.
But somehow, I don’t think they’ll be celebrating.
I’m a stay at home dad, father to a special needs son and a special daughter, a donor baby daddy, a militantly pragmatic liberal, the president of the PTA, a hardcore geek and nerd and I’m going to change the world. Or at least my corner of it.