On Whitewashing and ‘Reverse Racism’

One of the more odd responses to complaints about whitewashing of media that I’ve encountered recently is this utterly bizarre and backwards argument: ‘But I don’t see people complaining when canonically white works/characters are played by people of colour and nonwhite people. Isn’t that the same thing?’

No, no it is not the same thing, and this argument should have fizzled up in a fire long ago, but apparently it hasn’t. For that reason, it’s apparently time to pick it apart a bit to explain why this logic is flawed, and why people need to stop using arguments like this when confronted with concerns about whitewashing.

To articulate the issues with this argument, you first have to acknowledge that racism functions not as an abstract concept based on the colour of someone’s skin (‘I don’t like you because you’re white’) but because of two key and interrelated social phenomena. The first is privilege, which equates to freer access to society and its benefits on the basis of an intrinsic trait, in this case, your racial background. In the United States, white people have a high social status not because they deserve it, but as a consequence of privilege, which has been structured into our society for generations, and continues to be a key part of the institutions all around us.

In addition to privilege comes power, which walks hand in hand with it; white people have more power and leverage in society, occupying a specific social position as a result of the privilege and power they hold. The consequence is racism; it is not always obvious, but it is always there, from hiring decisions to hate crimes to casual comments to, yes, who gets cast in a specific media production. White producers, creators, writers, and actors have privilege and power in the world of media. This doesn’t make them bad, evil, or wrong people; it’s just a fact of life. How they choose to act upon their privilege and power is a different matter.

When a text is whitewashed, it means that characters who are canonically nonwhite or people of colour are erased and replaced with white people. This practice is quite old, and its defended on all sorts of grounds from thinking people won’t notice to genuinely believing there’s no difference. Some creators attempt to argue that they are making an artistic statement by whitewashing a text that is not canonically white; by taking a Chinese fairytale, for example, and having white actors portray it. By casting only white people in a play written by a Nigerian author and set in Nigeria, with specifically Black characters.

Whitewashing isn’t just about casting; it’s also about the exertion of privilege and power, whether people are consciously aware of it or not. White people, used to occupying an outsized role in society, used to being the default, used to having entry to every space, simply carve into someone else’s space to force it to welcome them. If that means forcing other people out or jettisoning some of the meaning of the media they’re appropriating, so be it. Whitewashing becomes yet another assertion of dominance, and, yes, one of racism, because it is racist to take stories of racial minorities and rework them in a white image.

The same, however, is not true of the reverse. An all-Indian As You Like It or all-Japanese La Fanciulla Del West is something very different; it actually is a deliberate and interesting artistic statement. It is a reworking of a classic and a subversion of a genre, a reclamation and exploration of media. People of colour and nonwhite people who explore media produced by and for white people and rework it are not committing an act of racism or appropriation because of the tremendous power imbalance here; what they are doing is confronting the power imbalance, but you cannot by any stretch of the imagination suggest that they are somehow creating or fostering the furtherance of an imbalance.

Instead, adaptations of white media become acts of defiance, and powerful ones. They challenge assumptions in white media consumers; who is to say this character must be white? Who is to say that this environment must be England? These works threaten the white sense of cultural superiority by opening up the possibility of a world where white is not, in fact, always right, and where there is room in media for something other than white-dominated narratives.

Those who want to complain when ‘classic’ works they think of as white are adapted by people of colour and nonwhite people tend to be the same kinds of people who cry ‘reverse racism[1. A thing which, I hope we all understand, does not exist.].’ They find themselves deeply uneasy and threatened in the face of media which challenges the role they think they occupy in society by right; recastings of works which have traditionally been viewed as white suggest that perhaps this is a world where whites should not occupy positions of privilege and power, but instead should be equal to other members of society, should be working alongside them rather than pushing them down.

For those who cry ‘reverse racism’ when opponents of whitewashing say nothing about white works adapted for and by people of colour and nonwhite people, it’s time for an inward exploration to determine why these works are so frightening, and which kinds of social norms dominate your perceptions of such works. Why shouldn’t Mistress Quickly be Indonesian? Who is to say that Princess Leia must be white? Why can’t Jane Austen be transplanted to South Africa?