This is a four part series looking at the representation of race on television both in terms of how far we’ve come and what we have yet to accomplish.
What Is Whitewashing and Why Should We Care?
Whitewashing is what we call it when characters who are originally non-white (people of colour) are recast or rebooted as white. This commonly occurs in popular entertainment industries such as television, film, and even books. So why is this a big deal? There are very few stories in our media that feature characters originally created as people of colour (PoC). So to have these small number of PoC characters be re-imagined as “white” starts to eat away at the representational pie that white people already dominate.
Representation matters in our media because media should reflect the people who consume it. Representation isn’t just the surface level, “How nice! Some who looks like me!” — which on its own has a huge impact. Viewers are no longer just observers but can also imagine themselves in the roles of the characters. Representation also allows for alternate points of view on life experience, which is affected by race*.
This is why I have a problem with people in the arts dismissing the impact of whitewashing. They’re coming from a place of: “as long as the product is good, why does it matter?” It matters! The lack of people who look like a great deal of the population tells that population that their voices and stories mean little. In fact, whitewashing tells them that they don’t exist. Those people who want to “focus only the merits of the product” are telling them that they won’t even be missed.
Reverse Racism, Brownwashing and Other Myths
Whenever whitewashing is discussed, the go-to counter argument is always brownwashing or [insert minority race] washing. It’s similar in structure to my favourite argument — “reverse racism” — which is equally laughable and ridiculous. Comedian, Aamer Rahman, explains exactly why reverse racism doesn’t exist:
Given the society we live in now and the historical events that led us here, reverse racism is impossible. Institutionalized power benefits whites and oppresses non-whites. Whitewashing and affirmative action won’t suddenly make it so that minorities have the power to affect the lives of whites in a devastating, long lasting and oppressive manner. This is also why “brownwashing” is impossible. It relies on the assumption that representation of whites and non-whites are equal, which they aren’t. The practice of race bending a character — a PoC replacing a character who was originally written as white — tries to make the representational pie more equal. Whitewashing attempts to lessen the presence of PoC representation in media.
I started this series because of the sheer amount of content I’ve written on the subject of whitewashing alone on this site. I want to break down this issue for our readers. I love television as a medium for storytelling, and I want that storytelling to reflect people like me who watch it. I hope you learn something from this, and participate in this discussion in the comments below throughout.
*Other identities that we embody also play a role in our life experiences such as gender, sex, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, disabilities, etc.