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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 (5)

  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.

  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.

  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.