What Is Whitewashing, and Why Is It Harmful?

Experts explain how whitewashing occurred throughout history and entertainment, its impacts, and how to push back against it.

In media, whitewashing is when White actors portray non-White characters. Historically, White actors have portrayed Black and Asian people, as well as classical and mythological characters. For example, in the 2022 film "Bullet Train," Brad Pitt and Joey King played Japanese characters from the original book by Kōtarō Isaka, despite neither actor being of Japanese descent.

Whitewashing is a form of racial discrimination, which may lead to poor mental health outcomes. Whitewashing leads to a lack of representation of non-White communities in pop culture. As a result, non-White actors do not have the same space to tell their stories as White actors.

Learn more about whitewashing, including its meaning, 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 in film and television is the eliminating or replacing people of color with White actors, LeiLani Nishime, PhD, a professor of communication at the University of Washington and author of "Undercover Asian," told Health.

Whitewashing includes a preference for White actors and other roles, such as directors and producers, over people of color with equal qualifications. Likewise, non-White actors not receiving representation in award nominations, like the Academy Awards, is a form of whitewashing.

One of the most classic examples of whitewashing comes from the 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany's," in which White actor Mickey Rooney portrays Mr. Yunioshi, an Asian man. In the role, Rooney plays a stereotype of an Asian man while wearing yellowface.

People in media have used practices like blackface, brownface, and yellowface—in which White actors wear makeup to change their skin color—largely to depict offensive caricatures of non-White characters.

Whitewashing has continued to be prevalent in pop culture. In 2021, television and film producer Kevin Feige, a primary producer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, admitted it was wrong to cast White actor Tilda Swinton in the 2016 movie, "Doctor Strange," in an interview with Men's Health. The original Marvel comic book character, "The Ancient One," is an Asian man.

"Doctor Strange" is only one example of many instances of whitewashing in the media. In the 2015 film "Aloha," Emma Stone plays an Air Force pilot named Allison Ng. Although the character has Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry, Stone does not.

Displacement as Whitewashing

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

For example, the 2015 movie "Stonewall" tells the story of the 1969 Stonewall riots. The movie centers around a cis, White gay man. In actuality, Black and Latinx trans women, such as Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major, led the Stonewall riots.

Whitewashing may even involve creating fantasy worlds in which people of color do not exist. A prime example is "The Lord of The Rings" film trilogy, released from 2001 to 2003. Other examples include erasing people of color from times and places where they would be—namely, the streets of 1920s New York in the 2016 film "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them." 

Why Is Whitewashing Harmful?

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

"Beyond that, there are so few representations of people of color in media. Losing even one more hurts us. It also silences us, so we don't get to tell our own stories," added Nishime. On a personal level, whitewashing can have a substantial mental impact. 

"Unfortunately, it lingers on due to stereotypes, media, and familial influence," Leela Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist based in California, 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," said Dr. Magavi.

How Discrimination Can Affect Mental Health

Many people who experience the effects of whitewashing will likely never see a psychiatrist or therapist because of it. Still, whitewashing is part of a larger discrimination pattern, which can significantly affect mental and physical 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. A report published in 2016 found that people who face discrimination have higher stress and worse overall health than others.

Stress increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, depression or anxiety, and menstrual problems.

According to the 2016 report, among those who did not 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

In contrast, the researchers found that for those who reported discrimination:

  • 31% overall 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

How To Prevent Whitewashing

People of color protesting against whitewashing in entertainment media, news media, politics, and history must be heard, said Nishime. 

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

People can make a difference by being empathetic toward the cause. Empathy creates a space for open communication, which helps people struggling with whitewashing and other forms of racism feel safe and supported.

"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."

A Quick Review

In media, whitewashing is a discriminatory practice that eliminates or replaces people of color with White actors. Whitewashing takes away the voices of people of color, which can harm 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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6 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.
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