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You Can’t Erase Us: The Whitewashing of the Ancient One

By June 30, 2019 No Comments

By: Sonam Rikha

It was a Saturday Night. Me and my siblings stood in line to see the movie of the year, Endgame. My palms were sweaty with excitement as we entered the theater hall. While sitting on the plush chairs, my throat already parched from the dry popcorn, I thought, this is it. My life will change forever. My mind was racing, trying to guess the plotline of the movie and which heros would survive and die. At that minute, as the lights dimmed and the movie started, Endgame became my world. It was only a quarter way through, when my body became paralyzed from anger and sadness. 

I saw the “Ancient One” on the screen. Her pale skin different from mine; Her clothing heavily influenced by Tibetan monks; Her ancestry different from mine. Watching the Ancient One on screen, drew a pit of anger inside me that I didn’t know I had. The Ancient One was supposed to be Tibetan. In the comics the Ancient One originated from Tibet. Seeing the Ancient One’s role in Endgame ignited the same pain I had in 2016, when Doctor Strange came out. Finding out that the Ancient One was going to be a celtic monk instead of a Tibetan monk and that Doctor Strange would be traveling to Nepal instead of Tibet, sent a clear message to me and the millions of other Tibetans around the world. 

It was as if Tilda Swinton, the writers and directors of Doctor Strange, and all of Marvel were saying “You don’t exist. Your story doesn’t matter. You will never be on the big screen”. The fact that one of the screenwriters, C. Robert Cargill, said “The Ancient One…originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls**t” shows Marvel’s true intentions. Changing the narrative of the Ancient One was not to avoid “a racist stereotype”, but to avoid backlash from one of the worlds biggest movie consumers, China. Although Cargill later writes an open letter saying that his previous statements in regards to the change of the Ancient One and the casting of Tilda Swinton was not on behalf of Marvel, the damage was done. Cargill revealed a truth that Marvel will never say out loud: that they changed the Ancient One-a Tibetan monk-into a celtic monk to avoid economic loss from China.

The message was greater than the action. I left the theater with a pit of emptiness, my throat no longer parched from the popcorn but from what I just saw.  Marvel whitewashed the Ancient One and erased one of the few Tibetan characters in the media. The message was simple; Hollywood will never have a superhero or any story with a Tibetan character because our existence is too political and will bring them economic harm.  

With the rise in popularity of Asian Americans in the media, whether it be Crazy Rich Asians or To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, let’s remember which Asians are truly being represented. Let’s have discussions about all the Asian characters that have been whitewashed, not only those from prominent ethnic groups. Let’s remember that Tibetans are Asians too and that we will not be erased.

Sonam is a rising senior at Walter Payton College Prep. She is the founder of the Tibetan Youth Council, which is comprised of a group of Tibetan youth in Illinois with the goal to raise awareness about human rights abuses in Tibet and strengthen their local Tibetan community. Sonam is also one of the founders of Comprehensive Sex Ed Now and is currently trying to pass legislation in Illinois that mandates all school districts to teach comprehensive sex education. When she’s not thinking about ways to better society, you can find her binge watching buzzfeed videos.

Instagram:

@sonam.r 

@tibetanyouthcouncil

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