Students joined together in the MacVittie College Union to discuss the implications of whitewashing in popular media on Friday April 14. People United to Stop Hate organized the event after recent recognition of discrimination in the film industry.
The event began with an educational presentation made by members of P.U.S.H. on the history of whitewashing in movies. Throughout the past 100 years, they showed how popular movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Othello have featured white actors in the roles of explicitly nonwhite characters.
P.U.S.H. further showed how whitewashing is still an incredibly popular tactic. Scarlett Johansson was cast in the role of a Japanese character in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, the 2015 film Aloha cast Emma Stone as an ethnically Japanese and Hawaiian character and the 2013 movie The Lone Ranger cast Johnny Depp as the Comanche character Tonto.
Whitewashing often takes the form of casting white actors as nonwhite characters, but the presenters also explained how it can take other forms. Movies that tell a story with nonwhite characters may create a white protagonist to attract white audiences. The original Godzilla movie, for example, used a white protagonist even though the story took place in Japan.
After the presentation, attendees gathered in a circle to introduce themselves and to explain why they decided to come. Most of the 13 participants said that they had previously been interested in movies or specifically in Hollywood’s tendency to underrepresent characters of color.
Following introductions, everyone discussed the causes and impacts of whitewashing. Some pointed toward the impression that movie makers give off: that audiences prefer to see white protagonists and would not pay to see movies with nonwhite protagonists.
Other attendees thought that the tendency to whitewash characters came from “white normativity.” Since white characters are considered the norm, casting directors gravitate toward white actors. This process becomes a never-ending cycle where audiences only see fully-developed white characters and then think that only white actors can portray characters fully.
Much of the discussion involved big Hollywood movies, but attendees also talked about firsthand experiences. Vice President for Student and Campus Life Robert Bonfiglio asked students whether they thought that a mostly white production of “The Wiz,” a historically black musical, put on by the Village of Geneseo counted as whitewashing.
The students argued that it was whitewashing and that casting directors needed to make sure that they could have proper representation if they choose productions with nonwhite characters.
Overall, the event spurred an interesting discussion about a prevalent issue in movies over the past hundred years. Attendees spent an hour and a half of their Friday afternoon talking about how consumers or artists can make changes to the industry to increase representation.
There were some disagreements about the scope of the problem, but people generally found consensus.
International relations junior Samira Salha described the event as an important dialogue about recent events.
“I thought that we’d talk about only some of the more recent movies, but we even talked about the history of whitewashing and I thought that was really important,” she said. “It’s been given a hashtag recently and people think they know about it from that, but it’s good to talk about how whitewashing has been around for a very long time.”
Salha also believed that the discussion was valuable because attendees offered some real solutions.
“People mentioned funding schools that might have less representation and means to actually create directors of big Hollywood films,” she said. “It does always feel like this is a sort of dead-end conversation, but that’s definitely one way to make a change that I hadn’t thought of.”