What Is Whitewashing, and Why Is It Harmful?

Experts explained how whitewashing occurred throughout history and entertainment, its impacts, and how to combat it.

In 2021, television and film producer Kevin Feige, a primary producer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, admitted it was wrong to cast Tilda Swinton in the 2016 movie, "Doctor Strange," in an interview with Men's Health. 

Feige's regret is a big deal because that particular casting decision is one of Hollywood's most identifiable examples of whitewashing. The original Marvel comic book character, "The Ancient One," is an Asian man.

Here's more about whitewashing: What it means, how it plays out in our culture, and why it can be harmful.

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What Is Whitewashing?

In its narrowest definition, whitewashing on film and television is the elimination or replacement of people of color with White characters, LeiLani Nishime, professor of communication at the University of Washington and author of Undercover Asian: Multiracial Asian Americans in Visual Culture, told Health.

"Doctor Strange" is only one example of many instances of whitewashing in the media. In the movie adaptation of James Sallis's novel Drive, the female lead—a Mexican woman named Irina—is renamed Irene and portrayed by Carey Mulligan, a White, non-Hispanic actress.

In the movie "Lords of Dogtown," based on the documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," the leader of the pioneering skateboard crew was Jeff Ho, an Asian American. But the film version focused on a co-founder of the surf shop Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions. Heath Ledger, a White man, plays the character.

Displacement as Whitewashing

Another type of whitewashing is when people of color are displaced in a story to put the focus on White characters, said Nishime.

The 2015 movie "Stonewall" is based on the 1969 Stonewall riots. The narrative is centered around a cis, White gay man. But in fact, the leaders of the Stonewall Rebellion included Black and Latinx trans women, such as Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major.

Whitewashing may also involve a White person pretending to be a person of color—like Johnny Depp masquerading as a Native American in "The Lone Ranger"creating entire worlds where people of color don't exist. Another prime example is "The Lord of The Rings" film series.

Erasing people of color from times and places where they would be—namely, the streets of 1920s New York in "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them"—is an example. As is giving all the major or the most complex roles in a film to White actors, as happened with "The Last Samurai."

In 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary expanded its definition of whitewashing, writing, "This new sense of whitewashing refers to casting White actors as characters who are non-White or of indeterminate race. [...] It can also refer to preferring White actors, directors, cinematographers, and so on, over equally qualified people of color, as in the Oscar nominations."

Why Is Whitewashing Harmful?

In a practical sense, whitewashing takes work away from actors of color, said Nishime. 

"But beyond that, there are so few representations of people of color in media, losing even one more hurts us," explained Nishime. "It also silences us, so we don't get to tell our own stories."

Additionally, on a personal level, whitewashing can have a substantial psychological impact. 

"Unfortunately, it lingers on due to stereotypes, media, and familial influence," California-based psychiatrist Leela R. Magavi, MD, told Health. "It can lead to debilitating anxiety as minority individuals may feel pressured to look, speak, or present a certain way."

Dr. Magavi recalled evaluating adolescents and adults who reported feeling pressured to soften their tone or change their voice to fit in. 

"Whitewashing can cause demoralization, exacerbate feelings of imposter syndrome, and worsen low mood and anxiety symptoms," noted Dr. Magavi.

Discrimination Can Hurt Your Health

Many people who experience the effects of whitewashing will likely never see a psychiatrist or therapist because of it. However, whitewashing is part of a larger discrimination pattern, which can significantly affect your mental and physical health.

A report published in 2016 by the American Psychological Association found that people who faced discrimination had higher stress and worse overall health than others.  

Stress can have a significant impact on your health. In the same study, the researchers found that among those who didn't report discrimination:

  • 45% overall reported excellent or very good health
  • 46% of White people reported excellent or very good health
  • 37% of Hispanic people reported excellent or very good health
  • 32% of Black people reported excellent or very good health

On the other hand, the researchers found that for those who did report discrimination:

  • 31% reported excellent or very good health
  • 34% percent of White people (such as those in the LGBTQ+ community) reported excellent or very good health
  • 29% of Hispanic people reported excellent or very good health
  • 28% of Black people reported excellent or very good health

In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared racism a public health threat due to its profound impact on mental and physical health.

How to Combat Whitewashing

People of color protesting against whitewashing in entertainment media, news media, politics, and history need to be heard, noted Nishime. 

"We also need to support more independent media makers," added Nishime. "They are the ones who are making stories that center Asian Americans and other people of color."

Individual people can also make a difference by being empathetic. "Empathy allows us to dismantle the multifaceted detriments of racism," explained Dr. Magavi. "Listening to individuals with disparate cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds speak about their life experiences allows us to become better, more compassionate individuals."

Empathy creates a space for open communication, which helps people struggling with whitewashing and other forms of racism feel safe and supported.

A Quick Review

Whitewashing occurs in the media as well as in how we recount history. It's a discriminatory practice that eliminates or replaces people of color with White characters. 

Whitewashing takes away the voices of people of color, which can lead to harmful effects on health and well-being. When amplifying the voices of people of color, it's important to practice empathy and listen carefully. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Human Rights Campaign. LGBTQ+ history month: QTBIPOC leaders.

  2. Merriam-Webster. A new meaning of 'whitewashing'.

  3. American Psychological Association. Stress in America: The impact of discrimination.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Racism and health.

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