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Blackwashing versus whitewashing, just what does this mean?

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Blackwashing versus whitewashing, just what does this mean? At the heart of this topic is the importance of visual representation in media. From the smallest television show, to the biggest upcoming blockbuster movie, through video games, and textbooks, everyone wants to be represented. I have found that when I am engaged in any of these forms of media that I will attach myself to the first ethnic character I see, only to discover that these attachments are menial compared to the variety of characters that actually exist. 

The #RepresentationMatters report by The National Research Group states that two out of three Black Americans say that they don’t see themselves represented in the various forms of media. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that even with the small amount of representation currently, most of the stories are written by our white counterparts who also decide the qualities of the characters, especially those of color. 

So what just is whitewashing and blackwashing? Well, whitewashing is the act of replacing an originally character of color, or of a minority group, with a white character/person/actor. It’s been done many times in movies and television shows. Blackwashing, or racebending, is the act of taking an originally white character and making them black, or a person of color. There has been a lot of backlash with both whitewashing, and blackwashing, some arguments saying that one is better than the other and some saying they are both the same. 

Even for me, when playing a video game or watching a show, if a person that looks like me comes on screen, I’m beyond excited. That will be my favorite character hands down for the entirety of the show. 

Seeing a character that looks like me in a show or video game that’s not a negative stereotype, and that’s not stricken with tragedy is a blessing, honestly. 

I interviewed, Dee, a Visual Arts Major of South-Asian descent at Dekalb School of the Arts on the topics. I asked their opinions on people of color, and the representation they have in media, to which they said, “There isn’t nearly enough of it. Representing people of color beyond the stereotypes attached to us is extremely important. Not just people of color, but other minorities like queer people, neurodivergent people, and disabled people all deserve positive representations.

“I feel like often times, when there is good POC representation happening, it can never just be them chilling. I feel like some sort of tragedy must happen, like in movies like ‘The Hate U Give,’ and ‘12 Years a Slave.’”

Dee says, “In general, I don’t think the representation we have now is the best it could be, especially when we talk about the serious lack of dark skin women, ESPECIALLY Black women in shows and movies.”

Many people on the internet and beyond say that Blackwashing is just as bad as whitewashing; that people shouldn’t do it. Some people will get backlash for drawing anime characters as melanated/ethnic people, saying that it’s taking away Asian representation.

Isaiah, 13, says, “When I was around the age of ten I drew the character ‘IDarwin’ from ‘The Amazing World of Gumball.’ Darwin in the show is a fish and I had drawn him as a human with brown skin. One kid came up to me and said that my drawing looked wrong. I asked why and he had drawn Darwin as well and told me that this is how you draw him.

Isaiah continues, “He holds up a drawing of Darwin also as a human but with white skin instead of black skin. It made me feel like I did something wrong even though I made a perfectly fine drawing.”

“Fanart is a way for fans to show their appreciation for a show or a movie by drawing their favorite character or scene from the show or movie,” says VMCer Isaiah, 13. “Like all things there are good things and bad things about fanart and this is one of the bad things. People drawing non-human characters as human and others saying their work is bad or drawn wrong because it does not adhere to how they think that character should be drawn as a human.”

I understand this, and even once I did draw an anime character I like with an ethnic appearance. My parents are always telling me, since I mainly draw anime fan art, that I should draw more people that look like me. So, I went on Pinterest, and my eyes were opened to a bunch of art of my favorite characters, many of which I grew up loving, with appearances that looked like me. So, do I find the race-bending of anime characters, or characters in general appropriate? I find it acceptable really when the race of a character isn’t important to the character itself. 

For example, if a character is from an alien planet that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter whether they’ve have white skin, brown skin, or even in between. If that character were to be played by an actor of color, there would be nothing wrong with it. 

An good example of people being upset over a previously white character, is the backlash over Halle Bailey playing Ariel in an upcoming revamp “The Little Mermaid.” 

People said that her playing Ariel wasn’t the same Ariel as many people had grew up with; that Ariel was supposed to be white. 

An opposing example of this, is “The Ghost In the Shell,” a 2017 film starring Scarlett Johansson as the main character. The film takes place in Futuristic Japan, and the main character, Major, was originally Japanese. However, she is played by by a white actress. 

“I think its unfair,” Dee when I asked her about the movie,  and Johansson’s role. “There are hundreds of actors who are more than qualified for the role and I think its lazy. As a South asian girl, seeing an actor on screen that’s like you feels really great.”

She later adds, “To find a character in a book or comic that looks like you is special, and when I find that this character has been adapted to be white in a live action project its sorely disappointing.”

Whitewashing is a problem that has been in Hollywood and media for the longest time. It’s an issue that needs to certainly be reformed. People race-bend characters because they want to see characters that look like them. And the problem with whitewashing is that it takes away representation from people who don’t see themselves on the screens, in videos, in books and comics. 

“Just care. Really that’s all it takes, there are so many POC in the entertainment industry and not just actors, but writers, makeup artist, hair dressers, cinematographers, you name it,” says Dee. “You really just have to care enough to look for them instead of just going for the nearest white person.”

Negative stereotypes can be broken down by the people who hold the pen in their hands. They just have to take the time to ask someone or do their research before writing something. All negative stereotypes do damage. If you’re not of the ethnicity, and you’re writing a character that’s not your ethnicity, you should ask someone about what it’s like, and their culture. It’s better than just being ignorant and possibly writing a negative stereotype. 

Many shows and movies have a lack in representation for all kinds of people—Melanated people, people with disabilities, people of different shapes and sizes. There can only be hope for future creators to create more opportunities for minorities.

Alexis Reid, 15, is a reporter for VOX Media Cafe 2021

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comments (20)

  1. Jane smith

    You sidestep black-washing. You contradict yourself with saying that the race of a person does not matter to the media unless the race is the focal point but in the same breath say that we must look for non whites because diversity.

  2. Molly Jay

    Respectfully, I’ve never gotten the “I can’t relate to a character who doesn’t look like me” thing. I was a voracious reader as a kid. I never had trouble “relating” to characters who did not look like me … Cassie in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” Karana in “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” Patty in “Summer of My German Soldier,” and on and on and on. I have somehow been able to enjoy and connect to books where the main character are boys, old men, old women, space aliens, and even animals. I object to both whitewashing and blackwashing — and sorry, yes, blackwashing IS a thing, just as whitewashing has been — wherein a character created painstakingly by an author (and whom I connected with and grew to love) is casually changed for the movie or series for the sake of scoring diversity points. I similarly object to changes of nationality (e.g., Will in the wonderful book “The Dark is Rising” is made American for the awful movie), as well as of geography and age. Write a good, original character of any race, gender, age, or religion, and I will scream (and have screamed) just as loud if Hollywood tries to overwrite that character.

  3. Josias Buday Dias

    Very interesting your opinion. I agree with you that skin color doesn’t matter when it’s irrelevant in the context of the story.

    So about blackwashing, I think it’s similar to whitewashing, when it undermines the context of the story, for example: a black man like the Duke of Westminster in The Irregulars of Baker Streeth in an imaginative version of London’s Victorian era. The same happens with homosexuals in the court of the prince of the same series.

    Representation is very important, but it needs to be done in the right way, that is, without harming the context of the story, so as not to break the immersion.

    1. Admiral

      Blackwashing of British or European stories is culturally troublesome. White people are indigenous to Britain and Europe, and they’re entitled to have their historical stories (from the days before the largescale Asian and African immigration to Europe in the 20th century) depicted by actors of their own national ethnicities. We wouldn’t dare make a movie in 2021 about North American indigenous people and use non-indigenous actors in the main roles. We so often see white people as having no ethnicity, no cultural origin stories worth protecting; so we think, why not deploy blackwash on a show depicted in historic England, like Bridgerton. But if it’s wrong to whitewash it’s wrong to blackwash.

  4. Miles Barton

    Have to disagree on the Ghost in the Shell part. We don’t know if The Major is Japanese. In fact, the only confirmed part of her identity is that she’s female. The assumption is that she’s Japanese because it’s a manga and set in Neo-Tokyo. Theoretically, there could be people from all over the world coming there. Even her name is obviously fake. Kusanagi is the name of the sword in the Emperor’s imperial regalia. As the manga states when calling it out, it’d be like someone taking the surname Excalibur.

    There’s a great essay that breaks it all down using the movies as source and why Johansson is a fine choice. A major piece is that in the second movie, there’s a scene in a gynoid factory; and we see another prosthetic body that is caucasian that looks exactly like her besides hair color. And then there’s the entire point of her character. She is the exploration of identity. Who are you when completely stripped of everything except your soul? How much of your personality is genetic and how much is from others. The Major is purely the individual. No memories, no family, no ethnicity, no culture. I think she even questions her gender because the mechanical parts regulate everything, and she has no hormones. Pretty much the reason her ghost looks like her usual body is because it’s the only thing she has to identify as herself.

    1. Jake

      “We don’t know if The Major is Japanese”… So white becomes the default? Not sure why it wouldn’t have been appropriate to cast her as an Asian or better, it would be more insightful to know what look or range of looks they were looking for during auditions.

  5. Andrew Montague

    If something is wrong when it is done to one race it is wrong when done to another. Selective application of rules and morals only creates resentment and a backlash against the people doing this, as well as the wider group that supports them.

    If it was wrong to have John Wayne as Genghis Khan then Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in the new Sandman TV show is also wrong (she is a pale goth girl after all).

    Bit if this is the way people want to go, then fine. Just be careful for what you wish for. If Anne Boleyn can be played by a black actress, so Malcolm X or Hiram Rhodes Revels can be played by a white or Asian man.

    Personally I think the whole thing is divisive and we need to be more faithful to the source and start to write brilliant new roles that reflect the now, not attempt to change the past.

  6. Michael Samuel Organ

    I think your right that it doesn’t matter when the story is fictional so long as its not trying to be historically accurate or fictional history such as Vikings. So have all kinds of ethnic characters in Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings but when it comes to have in Black Actress play Anne Boylan which the UK’s Channel 5 did in a recent production is a terrible decision; in that case the show bombed and rightly so.
    It is very important to accurately represent the social attitudes historically it would help racism not exacerbates it. Take that Anne Boylan for example the attitude to Black people in that era was not the same as it would later become so a Black or Dark skinned ambassador from Spain for example would have been treated no different to a white ambassador from France, that would have been a good platform to point out that racism the way it exists today is a modern phenomena not an ingrained human reaction to the other. However once the midnight black Anne Boylan walks onto the screen the opportunity to portray a black person in an historical setting is lost as the viewers even the black ones sign and switch that rubbish off.
    There is a need to have more ethnic content and in the right setting with the right story it can be very successful but squeezing a black actor into a white skin is insulting to the audience as well as to the actor.

    1. Michael Samuel Organ

      Sorry I meant ‘Help to fight racism’ not help it

  7. Mindi Murray

    Thank you for posting this.. now I understand .

  8. Hal Ashby

    Give me a break. So she wants to see more Southeast Asian characters in cinema and can’t find any? Hello? Has she ever heard of Bollywood? And by the way you don’t see too many white characters in their films, I guess you should be calling on them to get more diverse. 🙄 Oh, and anime characters don’t really look too much like real Japanese either. It reflects some sort of idealized image that did well in the market, no more no less. Yes, diversity in media is a good thing, but let’s just stop the whining and get on with it.

    1. Al Hashby

      You’re saying American movies should be expected to have white leads? Fair enough, but Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese creation, so if you’re gonna adapt it, do it right. And there are plenty of ethnic asians who are American as well, so no excuses there.

  9. Michael A.

    I must say, Blackwashing and Whitewashing are both an issue. You speak about how there needs to be Representation and I agree with that. however, If All Characters we’re made to Be Ethnic\Black\Asian Ect. Then there also Wouldn’t be White Representation, Thus Meaning we’ve stumbled Upon a Whole new problem. I agree that if let’s say a Book’s Original main character was a Black Woman and They Made a Tv show or movie about it. Said the main character should still be a Black Woman, No Matter what. The problem arises when You Change A character. Now, If the Character had an Unnatural skin tone to begin with (Green, Pink, Blue etc.) Then it doesn’t Matter What more realistic skin tone they are given. But if a Character was originally White, They should Stay White, If a Character was originally Japanese, they should stay Japanese, if they were originally black, they should Stay Black, No questions asked. I agree with you saying there isn’t enough Representation of People of colour, I won’t deny that, it’s true. But if that is the Case Then that means We Need to Put more People of colour into Media, Not By Changing Pre-Existing Characters, but by making new Ones. In Disney’s Encanto for example, all the People in the movie are from Columbia and they did Plenty of Research too. This is an example of Adding People of colour to Media instead of Changing Something Pre-Existing. In short, Yes whitewashing is a Problem, But Blackwashing is Too. One is not worse or better than the other and we need to realize that.

  10. James Olszewski

    I can’t help but feel that a character’s personality, habits, and history, among other things, should come first when picking a character to relate to, let alone when picking them as your favorite. Darwin Watterson, one character you references in your article, is a fish. Without any physical indication of race, Isaiah and his peer were both able to connect with the character, even though they disagreed on something irrelevant to the nature of the show. How should this be different to any human characters, or actors?

  11. Jeff

    Very biased article. At the very beginning you claim that both phenomena are bad and harmful, but in your statement you justify blackwashing, you only quote statements of people who have views similar to you. Both phenomena are the same. The very term ‘racism’ applies to all skin colors. You cannot justify one and criticize the other.

  12. Jotul

    Agent 007 can be any colour, but the character James Bond is white. Changing that is black washing.

  13. Raphael

    “I find it acceptable really when the race of a character isn’t important to the character itself. For example, if a character is from an alien planet that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter whether they’ve have white skin, brown skin, or even in between. If that character were to be played by an actor of color, there would be nothing wrong with it.”

    I find the above statement quite wrong as you are trying to point out that its ok if a character is played by a person of color while being a person of color yourself (i think) is laughable. Of course its geared towards being positive within your demographic. That doesn’t mean that its correct or just fine and that is the whole issue of blackwashing. Its making the same idiotic moves that Hollywood white washers do but in reverse.

    Just because people of color are poorly represented doesn’t mean that you can create an existing creation and make it a representation for a certain demographic.

  14. Tiger86

    Plenty of people of color enjoy white characters without issue. Blackwashing isn’t the solution to a lack of diversity. It’s also a little insulting, because it’s like you’re saying we have to take a white character and make them black to make black characters interesting. There are plenty of black characters out there, but the problem is that often black creators focus too much on race, as if that’s all the character has going for them, which tends to not do well with a wider audience. As black person, the characters you write will naturally reflect your race and culture, you don’t need to try and write for a black audience.

    But mainly blackwashing is racist. Just because the intention is good doesn’t mean the method is. The Little Mermaid for example is a Danish fairytale. The idea of mermaids isn’t unique to Denmark, and the story itself has been adapted successfully for children worldwide, but you should be aware of the story’s origin. Why take a Danish story when there are plenty of interesting stories from Africa, many of which are largely unknown to western audiences?

  15. Marq

    “I feel like often times, when there is good POC representation happening, it can never just be them chilling. I feel like some sort of tragedy must happen, like in movies like ‘The Hate U Give,’ and ‘12 Years a Slave.’”
    Seriously! These are the only two films this guy can think of that has “good POC representation”? And, is he talking about black actors only? because as far as I know POC aren’t just black people.
    And why would he even mention the word “chilling” alongside the titles of these films? What was he expecting slaves did in 12 Years a slave? Dance and party? And, the Hate U Give is a powerful film that deals with systemic racism, police brutality towards blacks–issues that stem from the American slaving mentality. Why should there be chillin’?
    Another thing, black actors/writers shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or embarrassed for taking on roles that deal with slavery and racism as they’re evils that need to be denounced. I mean, we’ve been watching holocaust films for ever, and I haven’t heard anyone say: it can never be “them” (Jews) just chilling.
    Blackwashing is as bad as whitewashing. Actually, it’s probably worst, as Hollywood is just tacking on black and other minority actoris in leading roles that were written for white actors to fill a diversity quota, and they’re only doing it because of the pressure from the public. Imagine if all of the sudden people decide that blacks aren’t represented in the arts enough, and someone decides that painting Mona Lisa black is the way to satisfy that need. Well, that’s how it feels when I see these black actors being cast in roles that were written for white people. It’s insulting.
    What I want to see is POC and other minorities cast in unapologtic roles that are written for them.

  16. Melanie Dickey

    I completely agree with you when you say that skin color does not matter.
    However, I am conflicted with what you are saying, or what you are trying to prove.
    You say that whitewashing is a thing, and that it is wrong, right? I agree, whitewashing is definitely not right. But I don’t think blackwashing is right either.
    See, replacing a colored character with a white character is not right; if you are going to make a movie based off of something, you should definitely use an actor that fits that role. If the character was originally Black, Asian, Hispanic, or any of those, then an actor that fits that description should play that character.
    This is where I am confused.
    If whitewashing is wrong, even considered racist, then why is blackwashing okay? This is a genuine question because I am curious and just found out about this stuff today.
    Like, if a character was originally white, why can’t the next movie or show have the same white character? Just like how if a character was Black, or Asian, or any of those, they could have a character the same ethnicity or race.
    It just does not make a whole lot of sense to me.
    Whitewashing is racist, but blackwashing is an act of anti-racism.
    In my opinion, I think that they are both equally as racist. But that is just me, you know? As I said, I just learned about this recently and I’m trying to figure some things out about all of this.
    My main question is:
    How is whitewashing wrong, or racist, while blackwashing isn’t (despite blackwashing being practically the same thing)?