Our Life in White

April 9, 2018

Growing up in small-town USA, I always recognized that I looked different than the rest of my classmates. I realized that I resembled none of my siblings and that it was difficult for people to conceptually match my appearance with that of my parents. I never had some grand epiphany where I realized that I wasn’t biologically related to my family because being adopted was always just another part of my identity, another piece of the puzzle that slotted together to form me.


As I got older, I began to notice that I didn’t see anyone in movies that looked like me. And once I starting noticing it, it became impossible to stop. Every movie I saw, I noted the lack of diversity displayed. In the rare cases that there were Asian characters, those actors were usually relegated to playing second fiddle to their white castmates. Asian actors and actresses were usually stereotyped as (a) socially incompetent nerds, (b) some form of martial arts master, (c) a woman being sexualized and objectified as “exotic,” or (d) portraying Asian women as meek and submissive objects. Even worse is the whitewashing of characters that were meant to be portrayed by Asian actors, a practice that has been common in the media since the creation of movies.


In its simplest form, whitewashing refers to the tendency of media to be dominated by white characters, played by white actors, navigating their way through a story that will likely resonate most deeply with white audiences, based on their experiences and worldviews. There are many people in the industry who still defend the practice of whitewashing their casts, claiming that there aren’t enough minorities with the star power to back them up but if casting directors refuse to hire Asian actors and actresses, how they can be expected to produce any kind of fame? It’s a vicious cycle that seemingly has no end in sight.


The practice of whitewashing began to take place during the early 20th century, especially when restrictions such as the Hays Code were in place. The Motion Picture Production Code, also commonly referred to as the Hays Code, laid down a set of standards that motion pictures followed for decades. The many guidelines in the code includes things such as “obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden” as well as the banning of depictions of miscegenation—interracial romantic relationships. This caused many producers to choose to cast white actors in place of their minority counterparts and in turn led to the popularization of yellowface, a practice where actors use makeup and/or prosthetics in order to portray a character of East Asian descent. One of the most commonly recognized examples of this practice is Mickey Rooney in the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Rooney portrayed Holly Golightly’s Japanese landlord.


Although modern examples of whitewashing and yellowface are more subtle, they are still very present in our media today. In 2015’s Aloha, Emma Stone was cast as a character who is ¼ Hawaiian and ¼ Chinese while Scarlett Johansson took on the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 live action adaptation of the Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell. In the box-office and critical success The Social Network, Asian women are depicted “as idle hands in the digital industry, valued and included only for their sexual labor as hypersexualized, exotic sirens” (Nakamura). As a child growing up in a white family, in a white town, in a Caucasian dominated country, the practice didn’t strike me as odd until I reached my early teenage years but is now an unrelenting fact. Minority children and adults need to see themselves being fairly represented in the media before these tired and racially charged tropes begin to become fact as our society regresses.


Our media should represent who we are as a society, reflecting the multiculturalism that is alive and thriving today.


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