By: Aishah Khan
In 2017, the film Ghost in the Shell caused a significant uproar when the news that Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role broke – she was to depict the Japanese main character, Major. People were angry – why did a white woman, who was already well-known and accomplished in the film industry – need to be cast in a role that was meant for a non-whiteperson? Surely there are enough talented Japanese actresses who could have done the role justice. This phenomenon is not new, disappointingly. It’s been going on for centuries. Teen Vogue’s Jenn Fang describes the practise as “whitewashing” – basically, films and other media content is written or produced so that white people can easily play these roles, and white audiences feel as though it is relatable for them. They need to feel as comfortable as they
possibly can while finally hearing our stories being told and seeing things from a perspective that is not their own.
One thing that I think white audiences fundamentally fail to grasp is the fact that not everything needs to be relatable for them. Sometimes, media content produced in the West can be for the consumption of others instead. When we see people of our own backgrounds acting, singing, or otherwise in the spotlight, it goes beyond entertainment for us. It is a real reflection of our lives – our relationships, perspectives, experiences – everything that makes us who we are. Keith Chow, founder of blog The Nerds of Colour, likens this practise to blackface and yellowface – it is all part of a grander tactic which aims to dehumanize people of colour. This is why whitewashing is so painful – because our stories need to be altered to fit white audience’s comfort zones or parameters of understanding instead of simply represent us, and exist for our entertainment.
Whitewashing exists in a myriad of ways. Ancient religious practises, such as yoga, have been co-opted by Western society to such a drastic extent that some don’t even realize it originated in India, even some Indians, as Crystal McCreary, a yoga instructor in Brooklyn, explains. It’s a massive industry run by non-Indians, or non-Hindus, for the most part. It’s commodified and morphed to fit Western ideas, and at times it barely resembles its origins. It’s been entirely re-worked in order to fit into a space it was never meant to occupy. Whitewashing is visible in pop culture and media, different aspects of contemporary society, and unfortunately, within the intimate and personal lives of POC themselves. Immigrants, children of immigrants and other POC living away from their national and ethnic homeland often struggle with their identities and being stretched between differing cultures, and they may try to whitewash their personalities and identities by rejecting their roots and instead trying to fit in with their white peers, and experience life the same way they do. Our white friends and peers, who we may have known our entire lives and have “accepted” us even do this on an almost subconscious level. They throw around phrases such as “But you’re different than the others, you’re like us, you’ve never acted like them”, as though the rest of “them” are this dirty, inferior alien, but you are a white sheep who they have taken in and welcomed as an interloper. We even do it to ourselves, which is perhaps the most painful part. Growing up in rural Ottawa, I was always the only brown girl in my grade, from junior kindergarten right up until I graduated high school. When asked where I was really from, as in my non-Canadian roots, I’d begrudgingly answer Pakistan – but I’d also assure them that I’d never even been there, as if to say “Don’t worry! I’m just like you, I don’t associate with that part of myself.” Asians, African Americans and Latino populations were extremely sparse in my community. I was so steeped into Western and rural white culture that I didn’t realise I was drowning in it. My father had this crude yet illustrative analogy he used to describe my siblings and I – he called us coconuts, brown on the outside, but white as snow on the inside. It used to bother me, but I’ve come to realise that he was right. While POC roles are given to white performers, another common phenomenon in media and pop culture is seeing how POC celebrities inch away from their roots and instead try to cling onto their whiteness and establish their proximity to Western ideals and culture, which is a very discreet way to inject whiteness into a non-white space. I was a huge fan of the show Parks and Recreation – however I couldn’t help being disappointed when the only brown character, played by Aziz Ansari, changed his name from a traditional Pakistani name to “Tom Haverford”
because it fit better in white people’s mouths. It bothered me that there is inherent shame in the very essence of who we are, and something as sacred as our names can be repackaged. There are so many examples of this type of whitewashing – yes, the actors and actresses playing these characters are POC, however that’s as far as it goes in terms of diversity in the characters. They always fit seamlessly into the Western norms of their respective surroundings, instead of actually representing what it is like to be a POC in these environments. The struggles we so commonly face are rarely explored, if even addressed at all. We as POC experience so much confusion in our lives – the distance we feel from our parents are cultures, the ways in which we are like our peers and the ways we clash, the pain and suffering caused by alienation from both our ethnic or national roots and Western surroundings. Alternatively, when we see POC personalities who do embrace their non-whiteness they get absolutely torn apart by audiences and critics. Marie Kondo, for example, introduced traditional Japanese (Shinto) practices and concepts to the masses through her series on Netflix, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, and the negative backlash she received was astonishing, if not disturbing. Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen Degeneres shamelessly bashed her when she was invited onto their shows, and proclaimed feminist Barbara Ehrenreich felt it necessary to tweet “I confess: I hate Marie Kondo because, aesthetically speaking, I’m on the side of clutter.
As for her language: It’s OK with me that she doesn’t speak English to her huge American audience but it does suggest that America is in decline as a superpower”…..a blatant attack of her success, methods, and even culture, with the added allusion to white supremacy. All of these observations suggest that if a white person or whitewashed person is not at the centre of attention, then media content isn’t worth being consumed. Why would you watch something that doesn’t revolve around people like you or share similar experiences? POC have been doing it for as long as entertainment has existed, but somehow if we try to shift more attention onto our stories and perspectives people lose interest. I guess the reality is that whitewashing is intertwined with the larger racist institutions in our society. We are groomed to believe that we matter less because this society explicitly operates on that principle. Therefore, not only do white people have little interest in us, we try to distance ourselves from what makes us POC, we try to blend in, we try to make ourselves fit because we want our lives to be as easy and comfortable as possible – which we deserve. I think this is an individual journey for everyone, and it’s hard and uncomfortable, however the
sooner POC collectively shed the shame surrounding their ethnic, national and racial backgrounds, we will be much happier people. The ongoing practise of whitewashing needs to end, we need to see our identities be validated, and we need to continue raisin
g hell until we are satisfied with the respect pop culture has for our varying, unique stories.
Aishah Khan is a left-leaning artist, writer, and lifelong learner. She has a BA in human rights and wants to make it a key part of her career, whenever she figures out what that may be. She loves working with children and being outdoors, and when she’s not trying to sort out her life goals she can be found reading, drawing, cracking lame jokes or playing with her ferocious yet adorable kitten, Jameela.
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