Whitewashing vs. Racebending: A Beginner’s Guide

This post originally appeared on the Dragons, Zombies & Aliens blog in May 2017.

These days, almost everyone’s stumbled across the term “whitewashing.” With Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, and everyone in Noah–among many, many others–there are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles about Hollywood’s race problem. And yet, some people are still confused about what whitewashing is and why it’s so offensive. Worse, they confuse it with racebending. Hence, this beginner’s guide. Because if those other thousands of articles didn’t get the message across, surely this one will!

(Hey, a girl can dream, right?)


Everyone’s heard of blackface, right? Back in the day, white actors would smear inky makeup over their faces to play black characters, usually in a horribly stereotypical, mocking manner. They did the same thing with Asian characters, and every other character of color. Thank goodness we don’t do that anymore, right?


Hollywood might not practice blackface (or yellowface, or brownface, or redface) as much as it used to. Instead, they just hire white actors to play non-white roles, a practice called whitewashing. It’s basically the same thing as blackface, except without the makeup.

One contemporary example is The Lone Ranger. When the show aired in the 1950s, the role of the Native American warrior Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels, who was, in fact, a Native American himself (born on Canada’s Six Nations Reserve). But when they made the movie in 2013, Tonto was played by a very white Johnny Depp.

​When the 1950s is more culturally sensitive than a movie in the 21st century, you’ve got a problem.

Generally speaking, unless a character must be played by a person of color–such as Nelson Mandela, Solomon Northup from 12 Years a Slave, or any person that the vast majority of viewers know for a fact is not white–Hollywood will cast a white actor.

If a white actor can pass or “pull off” the look of a character of color (especially Asians), the director will cast the white actor. 

If Hollywood can ignore the ethnic backstory of a character and simply say that person is white–such as the Hispanic Alisha Nash played by Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind–they will cast a white actor.

That’s whitewashing.

The problem gets worse when you consider the already-limited roles for characters of color. Take superhero movies, for instance. Think of a superhero. Any superhero. Let me guess: it’s a white man. ​That’s because the vast majority of superheroes are white men. Look at this year’s upcoming Infinity War. It’s going to have every major superhero from the Marvel Phase Three reboot in it. That’s every Avenger movie since 2008. 

But how many of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are people of color? Real people of color, not red androids played by British guys. We have Black Panther, Falcon, War Machine, and . . .that’s it. Three black men. And of those three men, two of them are sidekicks who don’t even get their own movies. We have no women of color, no Latina, no Asians, no indigenous peoples, nothing.

Now count all the white superheroes that are going to appear in Infinity War.

See the problem?

Basically, whitewashing is filling as many roles as possible with white actors and limiting already slim pickings for actors of color. It’s a practice that Hollywood has been doing for as long as there have been movies.


So, the flip side. What happens when a person of color plays a traditionally white role? That is two things. One: rare. Two: that’s called racebending. And it’s a good thing​.

Remember, actors of color have slim pickings and limited opportunities in Hollywood, while there’s a surplus of white roles. Plus, there’s no history of black actors diminishing, minimizing, and mocking white people as a whole on a massive scale. So there is no reason to be upset when directors decide to practice racebending. In fact, that’s reason to celebrate.

Case in point: Suicide Squad. In the DC comics, Deadshot is white. Yet they cast Will Smith in 2016. Obviously, Smith isn’t going to have much trouble getting work. But Shailyn Pierre-Dixon wouldn’t have been able to play Deadshot’s daughter if they’d gone with a different casting choice, meaning she wouldn’t have been able to put “appeared in a blockbuster superhero movie” on her IMDb profile, like the children in Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Iron Man 3.

To be fair, Suicide Squad isn’t the best example. While Deadshot is one of the protagonists, he is still a villain. A better example would be Aquaman in the new D.C. League of Justice reboot; the usually blond King of Atlantis was played by the native Hawaiian Jason Momoa. Or Nick Fury, who started the comics as white before they made him black in another universe and hired Samuel Jackson for the Phase Three Reboot.

What You Can Do

The best way to end whitewashing is to pay to see movies that practice racebending and boycott the others. For example, I’ve never seen Ghost in the Shell, and not just because it’s apparently a stinker (although that certainly made boycotting it a lot easier). Ghost in the Shell was originally manga, a story where the majority of characters–including the main character–are Asian. As much as I like Scarlett Johansson, I do not, nor will I ever, support her hogging that spotlight.

If you don’t want to see white actors play characters of color, then don’t pay to see it.