What Is Whitewashing, and Why Is It Harmful?

Experts explain how it plays out in history and entertainment, its impacts, and how to combat it.

TV and film producer Kevin Feige, a primary creator of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2007, has admitted it was wrong to cast Tilda Swinton in the 2016 movie, Doctor Strange. It's a big deal, because this particular casting decision is considered one of Hollywood's most identifiable examples of whitewashing (the original comic book character, "The Ancient One," is an Asian male).

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 TV 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. 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, which is 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 cofounder of the surf shop Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions and the character is played by Heath Ledger, a White man.

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

In the 2015 movie Stonewall, 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 simply don't exist (The Lord of The Rings is a prime example), erasing people of color from times and places where they would be (see the streets of 1920s New York in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them), or giving all the major/most complex roles of a film to White actors (The Last Samurai).

In 2019, 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," Nishime said. "It also silences us so we don't get to tell our own stories."

On a personal level, whitewashing can have a huge 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 has evaluated children and adults who said they felt 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," Dr. Magavi explained.

How to Combat Whitewashing

People of color who are protesting against whitewashing in entertainment media, news media, politics, and history need to be heard, Nishime said. "We also need to support more independent media makers," Nishime added. "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," Dr. Magavi explained. "Listening to individuals with disparate cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds speak about their life experiences allows us to become better, more compassionate individuals."

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

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