Colorblind Casting: What does it mean, and Who benefits?

Colorblindness is a way of talking, or more accurately, not talking about race. It is defined as “the avoidance of talking about race” (Apfelbaum et. al., 2008) and “an approach to managing diversity in which intergroup distinctions and considerations are deemphasized” (Apfelbaum et. al., 2010). Or in other words, it’s the melting pot myth, the idea that “we are all the same”, or that “we shouldn’t see color”. It manifests itself in classrooms when teachers avoid addressing race and prejudice, even when it’s relevant to the conversation. It’s shown in workplaces when workers of color report prejudice and bias, and it’s ignored because “they shouldn’t be playing the race card”. It exists in history books, and in grocery stores, and in friendships. For many years, colorblindness was seen as the way to address racial issues, they were swept under the backburner in order to preserve the systems of oppression that white people unknowingly, but willingly participate in.

Harry Belafonte
Portrait of Harry Belafonte, first Black man to win a Tony for a musical. Credit: Van Vechten Collection, Public Domain

Although one can find the colorblind ideology present in a wide variety of settings, one manifestation that particularly interests me is colorblind casting. Colorblind casting can occur in movies, television shows, plays, and truly any other performance medium that utilizes an auditioning process. In these scenarios colorblindness manifests in one of two ways: one, a white actor getting cast in a role meant for a person of color or, two, a person of color being cast in a role their race exacerbates the negative perceptions of the character. I think the best way to explain these two points is to give examples.

High school theater is one of the most common places colorblind casting is used, and for good reason; they often do not have the demographics that fit the shows they want to do. This means that I have seen far too many versions of Once on this Island or Hairspray with predominantly white casts. Let’s take Hairspray as an example. Hairspray is a musical about a girl names Tracy Turnblad and it’s set in the 60’s, towards the end of the civil rights movement. It deals specifically with the issue of segregation, and the struggle to integrate a television show (The Corny Collins Show). Because of its source material, the black characters need to be black – or the message of the show is completely lost. By casting white actors as black characters you not only invisibilizes the fight and struggle of black people, you are also being disrespectful to the play-write’s or composer’s original conception of the show. By colorblind casting a show in this way, the director prevents the discussion around race, avoiding the purposeful work and message of the creator in order to be able to put on the show. Additionally, there is already a limited representation of bodies of color in theater, and so by colorblind casting a show one is removing visual representation as well as taking away opportunities for performers of color. This use has a very easy solution: do a different show. If you, as a director, do not have the proper bodies to stage a piece, do a different one.

The other use of colorblindness is a little more complex. Some roles do not have specified racial identities, so theoretically they could (and should) be cast as whomever. For many shows this works out totally fine, but for others the qualities of a character should be taken into account before they are colorblind casted. As an example I’m going to use the wolf from Into the Woods. The wolf is a minor role in this musical, he serves as the counterpart to Little Red Riding Hood, as he does traditionally in the fairytale. The character itself is scheming, he (as his name would suggest) is a predator; more specifically a sexual predator. The predatory nature of his role in the fairytale is made more obvious, his main goal being to divert her from her path, show her things she wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. In his song he describes her as “delicious”, howling at the prospect of eating her up. Aside from the lyrics, the physical actions done by the wolf only highlight this: sneaking up behind her, trying to grab her, smelling her, pulling up her dress, etc… There is no way to argue that the wolf has good intentions, he is a predator through and through but, there is no specified race for this character and so the director may cast him however they please. And this is where the second manifestation of race comes into play: casting the wolf as an actor of color (especially in a predominantly white cast) can exacerbate the negative perceptions of an already predatory character. In this particular case colorblind casting the wolf plays into a variety of preexisting stereotypes such as the association of people of color with animals or, the identification of bodies of color (specifically black bodies) as predatory. This issue is more difficult to address because of the lack of discussion surrounding this topic in the first place. It’s an ambiguous situation, no clear right or wrong way to cast a show, and so not only race is not addressed but directors can easily justify problematic casting by citing other reasons (e.g.: they were the most talented or qualified). The ideal solution would be for directors to look over their plays before casting, looking at the characters and their intentions so that they know whether or not they need to use race-conscious casting.

All-in-all, colorblind casting gives us an interesting view into one of the many ways colorblind ideology manifests. In addition to the points mentioned above, I would like to add that there is no such thing as reverse colorblind casting; casting people of color in “white roles” does not inherently cause problems because “white roles” rarely exist. They are simply the norm. I’ll leave you with these questions: Have you ever seen a show that was colorblind casted? Were you aware of this element? How did it affect your perception of the show? and What were the possible implications of casting a body of color in that role?

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