In the performance world of theater, television, and film, casting without regard to actors’ race or the race of the characters they’ll be portraying is known as “colorblind casting.” It’s a common practice now on Broadway, with Filipina Lea Salonga portraying white French character of Éponine in ?Les Misérables? and Puerto Rican Lin-Manuel Miranda portraying the white founding father Alexander Hamilton, among many other people of color being cast to portray traditionally white roles. The same thing is happening in the world of film, with the latest Spider-Man movies garnering a lot of fan speculation and excitement over the possibility of a black Peter Parker played by Donald Glover (this didn’t end up happening, but it should be noted that the character of Miles Morales was created, inspired by Glover, making a black Spider-Man part of Marvel Comics canon). A similar response came about from the proposal of Idris Elba playing James Bond. While both cases saw plenty of anti-black racist responses (thank you, internet), there was also an outpouring of tremendous support for each of them. So colorblind casting is seen as a good thing overall, a sign that we’re moving toward a non-racist future, right?
Well, not exactly. For as much progress as this practice demonstrates, it also tends to be very one-sided. That is, people of color being cast in traditionally white roles is seen as a revolutionary act that garners tremendous support, whereas casting white people in traditionally non-white roles is seen as an act of aggression or racism. So why the difference? If casting is supposed to be “colorblind,” shouldn’t that mean that ignoring all actors’ racial identities is an equally good thing? To put it bluntly: no. To put it more delicately: it, like many other aspects of race relations, is complicated.
To understand why colorblind casting’s inverse, known as “whitewashing” isn’t okay, you first have to understand why colorblindness is so important. From the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619 to the current slew of police shootings of unarmed black individuals, America’s treatment of black people has been marked by violence, subjugation, and dehumanization. For a very long time, black performers were not welcome on “white” stages, as they were seen as being beneath white performers. Lincoln Perry was the first black man to become a Hollywood star, getting his break in 1927 when he was cast as Stepin Fetchit in the film ?In Old Kentucky?. He was cast because he portrayed the role uniquely from the other actors who auditioned– as a bumbling, lazy buffoon. Thus, the first black film character was a caricature of actual black Americans, an image left from the days of minstrel shows. It would be a long time before black characters that were as fully realized as the white ones surrounding them would show up on screen. This lack of positive representation took a toll on the black community, making it harder for them to be accepted by mainstream white society since the enduring image of a black American was a lazy fool who was always the butt of the joke. Combined with this poor representation was a lack of stories about the black experience in America and a lack of black leads in film. So each time there was a film or tv show or any sort of mainstream pop culture which had a positive depiction of a black person in it, it was very significant. In this way, characters like Black Panther and Kunta Kinte became more than just the words in a script or the images on a screen. They became symbols for black Americans, displays of the immeasurable strength and unbreakable spirit of African Americans. Their presence was a symbol of the changing times and the gradual move towards equality among white and black Americans.
So with that in mind, it becomes clear why colorblind casting is positive and whitewashing is negative. White people have never had to demand more representation, positive or otherwise. There has never been an absence of white people in Hollywood. White children have always been able to see themselves in their favorite superheroes and storybook princesses. But the same cannot be said for black people. They’ve had to fight tooth and nail to get any sort of representation that showed them as people instead of comedic props. To take those characters away from them is to spit in the faces of the people who fought so hard to bring them to life. Of course, there are those who will argue that the point of art is the story it tells, and artists are qualified to tell any story. That’s the basis for colorblind casting in the first place. But this still brings up a question: is it wrong to whitewash a black character in a story that isn’t about the black experience?