Mainstream media erases presence of minorities in America

Hanh Pham, Editor

Star Trek: Into Darkness. Avatar: the Last Airbender. Exodus: Gods and Kings – movies that all share a commonality, and it’s not the colon that’s embedded in the title.

All of these productions have brought on a white actor for one or more characters who are historically or originally created to have been a person of color. It’s no secret that Hollywood has a habit of “whitewashing,” as this practice has been named. Nevertheless, the continual, repeated pattern of all main characters in a cast being white is detrimental to progression in racial equality and acceptance.

Not only is it a blatant misrepresentation of character when whitewashing occurs, it also excludes and ignores entire ethnicities that don’t fit into the homogenous “American,” or Western image. Let’s not forget the ignorant, ridiculous, and frankly enlightening blast of tweets surrounding the casting of Rue in the Hunger Games. After the first film was released in theaters, twitter exploded as people who were outraged that Rue was black, questioned the accuracy of her casting, even though her description within the book made her race very clear. These are the types of incidences where it becomes apparent that racism is not over, and won’t be over for a long time.

Regrettably, although there has been progression in racial equality since the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood and mainstream media haven’t taken the hint. Television shows, movies, commercials, advertisements – rarely do they reflect the idea that representing people of color is important. Whitewashing isn’t just about casting, but about erasure in history or otherwise. Appearances and images seen in advertisements and media has deliberately led the populace to desire whiter skin.

If you’ve seen photos of celebrities before they’ve been Photoshopped, you’ll probably notice that not only are these idols made to look skinnier and flawless, but that they’ve been made whiter. If you haven’t gotten around to seeing these “before and after” images, check out these two articles. What does it suggest when the ideal image is whiter, lighter skin? How does it affect the perspective and self-esteem of younger kids with ethnically darker skin? When you are continuously barraged with the concept that your skin should be whiter if you want to be considered beautiful or pretty, it leaves a negative impact on your own perception of what is socially acceptable and what you want to aspire toward.

Take the Southeast Asian trend, for example: there has been an increase in beauty products in countries like Japan, South Korea, and China that are meant to lighten your skin tone. It’s no surprise if you know your history – the idea that having white skin means being superior than people with darker skin isn’t just a “Western” theory, but one that has pervaded in other areas of the world as well. I don’t know how many times my mother has tried to discourage me from playing tennis because she doesn’t want me to get tanner: white skin is just “prettier,” and more “appealing” to her. Darker skin isn’t popular unless you’re privileged enough to get a perfect tan – the tanning industry is a business after all, that caters to those who have free time and money.

I’m trying not to stray off topic, because I do want to cover the flagrant whitewashing that occurs in the entertainment industry, but it is important to understand that this idea isn’t just something that mysteriously appeared in the 21st century. This concept of superiority has been present for centuries, and as a result, it can be seen in various aspects of society, not just in the U.S. But it is an issue to address now because of the fact that America is a country known for being a “melting pot,” although you might not believe it considering the lack of representation in commercials, television shows, movies, advertisements, etc.

I’ll be blunt – you don’t exactly have to look up statistics in order to understand how underrepresented minorities in America are. Just think of shows you grew up with as a child, or shows you watch now, and identify exactly how many Black, South East Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, or Indian (insert any other minority you can think of here) individuals you remember. I’m going to guess, and say that you can’t list many (unless you’re already aware of this problem, and you’re watching shows that have a more diversified cast). If you expand this list to movies, maybe you’ll count a lot more. Now, get that list down to minority actors and actresses that are in the main cast, or appear on screen for most of the season. Then, try to identify them by name (if you’re not big on names, try to figure out if you’ve seen them in other shows or movies before). Have you realized yet the problem here? Compare your list to the amount of white actors and actresses you see, that you can identify on sight, by name. I don’t even want to bring up how many characters in young adult novels are white.

If you’re as concerned as I am, if you recognize the problem that I do, then I’ve hit a point today. Prospects get a little bleaker when you try to figure out if you’ve seen Asians, Latinos, Hispanics, or otherwise in commercials or advertisements. It’s so rare for me that whenever I see people of color in billboards or posters, I get extremely excited. When I heard Asian models were in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, I was elated. I don’t care about lingerie or fashion or models – but who cares? I need to get behind and support these people, because they might as well be endangered. It’s so rare that I sometimes think, “I probably see more real life unicorns than I see representation.”

Remember that it’s all a business, and (usually) people won’t create something if they don’t think it’ll result in a good enough profit. If we don’t communicate that diversity is what we love to see, it won’t happen. Consumer culture, everyone. (Note my sarcasm.)

Back to Exodus: Gods and Kings. IMDb has a cast list, and it’s mostly white actors playing the roles of Moses, Ramses, and other famous biblical figures. It’s Egypt – let’s not kid ourselves, and believe that they shouldn’t be casting Black actors and actresses. If you look at the list further, really scrutinize it – the people who are playing the lower classes, the thieves, the guards – they’re Black. What does it tell you about how we’re stereotyping Black people? In a movie that should be about renowned biblical figures (who are Black), all we see are white people in positions of power, playing the heroes, while the people of color are on the vestiges of society. Don’t try to say that it was a “strategic choice,” that they needed “famous people” to play the main characters in order to make a bigger profit. The movie tanked, and I haven’t heard anyone talk about it, unless they’re referring to the gross whitewashing going on in the film. Also, there are a ton of amazing Black and minority actors who were probably vying for the role – the director or producer just decided to go with the ignorant choice. Same with “Avatar: the Last Airbender.” That movie was ruined for me, and I refused to watch it for a couple of reasons – the main one being that they deprived me of what could’ve potentially been a diverse cast, actors who looked like me, for once.

Although the entertainment franchise doesn’t appear to comprehend this point, there is an audience for people of color in the entertainment industry. Check out the YouTube channel, Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) – they did a brief “#I Am” campaign that focused on famous Asians in the entertainment industry. A few of them discussed how there are millions of people who want to see Asians performing in mainstream media, especially if you consider famous YouTube stars like Ryan Higa, AJ Rafael, and Michelle Phan. There are studies that show that people want to see more diverse casts, which statistically doesn’t happen; an article written by Susana Polo that covered a study comparing the casting of women in acting roles to men, established that “American theater audiences were about as likely to see a woman of an animal species or completely made up race as they were to see an Asian woman.”

(How absurd is that?) Anyway, the breakdown in 2013 of female roles in the 100 highest grossing films was: 73 percent white, 14 percent Black, 5 percent  Latina, 3 percent Asian, and 3 percent alien/fantasy race.

That’s not exactly a surprise to me anymore, but it does make me frustrated. I don’t know how many times Keeanu Reeves has been cast in a movie that was set in Japan, up to and including The Last Samurai and 47 Ronin. I’m not going to argue that he’s too “white” to qualify as Asian, because he is in fact Chinese and Hawaiian. But I would like to mention that these movies are based off of Japanese novels, and again, there were probably numerous Japanese Americans vying for the role, and none of them received it.

When it comes down to making a final call, directors seem to forget authenticity for the excuse of a bigger profit – tossing away all the feelings of people who are angry that once again, the industry has purposefully neglected to cast minority characters in roles they deserve.

Even more problematic is that Hollywood seems to think that all Asians are the same, by the way they group together and interchangeably cast Chinese as Japanese people. Admittedly there was a positive reception in Japan when it was premiered, and I am happy that the Chinese actresses were given a chance to play huge roles in a movie that became popular and critically acclaimed. However, we can’t let them get away with those excuses forever, because it doesn’t help the cause in the long run. I, a Vietnamese American, cannot be mistaken or replaced by any other ethnicity, I have a completely different background and experience than someone who is, for example, Korean. We, as Asians, shouldn’t have to complain about the inaccuracy of the film industry anymore than we already do, and we don’t want to perpetuate the idea that Asians are all the same.

Whitewashing is an ignorant action, and a racist one: to cast a white actor contributes to the erasure and discrimination against Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Have you heard yet that they cast Roona Marey as Tiger Lily in the reproduction of Peter Pan? Frankly, it’s offensive and obscene: we already have too many problems with fetishizing and marginalizing Native Americans, dressing up with feather headdresses and making up “spirit names.” America as a nation has dealt massive amounts of injustice to Native Americans, who were culled off and segregated for expansion in the 1800s and to some extent, the 1900s till now. How can you even think of casting a white character in a role that contains such a rich and horrifying history? How can you do that with any role at all? I don’t know, but Hollywood doesn’t seem to have any moral issue with it.

Why am I fighting so hard about this? (Other than the fact that I recognize racial issues and pride myself on being as aware as possible?) Growing up is hard when you have no one to look up to – most everyone who was famous and successful when I was a child wasn’t Vietnamese, or anywhere close to Asian. How do you find a role model when you can’t relate to anyone? How do you aspire to be a writer, an actor, a scientist, an engineer, when you haven’t seen a precedent? I couldn’t relate to any of these people, and I’m sure that many other minorities growing up weren’t able to either. Famous slam poet, Denice Frohman, who “explores the intersections of race, gender, sexuality,” covered the discrimination and lack of representation for Blacks and Latinos in a slam poem she performed with Dominique Christina at University of Colorado, Boulder.

Frohman said, “The first time I read a book by a Latina author was in college. The wind in my chest stood up. It had been 18 long years of textbooks filled with everything but me. For the first time…my body knew a world that could hold it. See, the quickest way to silence a mouth, is to treat it as if none had come before.”

There really is a simple way we can show the industry that we don’t approve of whitewashing, that we want people of color to be casted in more roles, that we are tired of seeing white characters playing us, that the ubiquitous story of a typical American teenager can focus on people of color. Watch shows that have diverse casts, because no matter how rare are, they do exist. Talk about the issue, make people acknowledge the problem. Over everything else, support minorities in the media, support them in the workforce, make it known that yes, you do admire and idolize some “obscure random Asian model” or a “unknown Latina poet.” Your opinion does matter, and if we can be heard loud enough, far enough, Hollywood will eventually get the point.