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Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Elephant in the Room: Wake up to whitewashing

ASHLEY LUGO / AGGIE
ASHLEY LUGO / AGGIE

One of the most subliminal and pervasive forms of racism today is whitewashing. When you break down the word, it’s merely a metaphor for covering up or glossing something over. Americans essentially ignore stark racial injustices by “whitewashing” minority plights.

This past month, the Academy Awards placed the issue of racial inequity front and center. (It takes the Oscars because we live in a world where more people will vote in Kim Kardashian’s Twitter poll than in the Iowa caucuses. But I digress.) The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite brought whitewashing to the mainstream in 2015, when it was revealed that not one of the 20 acting nominees was a person of color, despite critically-acclaimed Black-led films like Creed and Straight Outta Compton, and a powerhouse performance in Beasts of No Nation by Idris Elba that was considered a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. It then spread into a wider conversation about the dearth of people of color in Hollywood and the extreme whiteness of the Academy’s 88-year history.The overwhelming underrepresentation of minorities in media and the preference for whiteness is obvious. White people are habitually cast to play non-white roles. For example, Emma Stone played Allison Ng in the film Hawaii (2015), despite the storybook description of an Asian protagonist. I also bet you didn’t know that the character of Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins (2005), played by Liam Neeson, was traditionally shown in the Batman comics as an Arab man.

Minority actors also face backlash when they play roles that have been occupied by white people. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Boyega played a stormtrooper, and in a stage adaption of Harry Potter, Noma Dumezweni was cast to play Hermione. These roles are both non-racially specified and set in completely fictional places, but when they were cast, all hell broke loose. This is an issue of racism.

Minority repression occurs behind the scenes too. In storylines with Black thugs, Arab terrorists and Asian karate masters, it’s difficult for viewers to see through these stereotypes they have been fed for decades. Minority roles are limited when groups are confined to one or two clichéd characters that disseminate messages of subjugation. Being in Hollywood can be empowering. But when minorities are given these stereotypical roles, it’s often part of a belittling process. Even in acting, which is traditionally a liberating platform where actors can put on a costume and be someone else, minorities can only be what the white producers or casting directors want them to be.

This issue is whitewashed so literally and figuratively, it is sickening. The practice is covered up with lies. People try to argue that white people are more qualified, or they point out the few extraordinary examples of triumph, like the stories of Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. Just because someone beats the odds does not mean that the odds are acceptable. Systematic racism is unacceptable.

Whether you choose to see it or not, racial injustice exists. Social constructs built around race determine the way people interact and perceive each other. Passive racism occurs when the issue is not discussed, and attacking the root of the problem is ultimately not addressed. To become colorblind is to become complicit.

Talking about race is uncomfortable because there is an issue. The film industry is only one system in which minority opportunity is quelled and injustices are covered in white-out.

You can reach KATELYN COSTA at kcosta@ucdavis.edu

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