The Impact of Whitewashing

Ghost in the Shell, Iron Fist, Death Note, Doctor Strange, and many others like them have this in common: Erasure of Asian Americans. Whitewashing isn't a new phenomenon in film/tv; however, they all contribute to the basic issue of erasure. In Ghost in the Shell, a white woman plays Japanese character’s role. The same happens in Death Note, Doctor Strange, and Iron Fist where a white actor is put in place of an Asian role, filling the shoes of a culturally insensitive, white-savior based, orientalist role.

What this erasure does is remove Asian-American characters and actors from film and TV shows. As a result, people are unable to see us in these mediums. Characters that would provide an opportunity for audiences to see an Asian American are erased completely or given to white actors.

This kind of erasure is happening in–supposedly, liberal-progressive Hollywood. This optic, of liberal Hollywood, is one of the things that has enabled this kind of whitewashing and erasure to happen. And yet, there has been no compelling argument for why such racist behavior is okay.

What is the harm in all this? I would argue that it helps foster real harm against groups of people. I would also argue that, at the very least, we need to be concerned about what kind of racist stereotypes are reinforced and ingrained in us by the media and entertainment that we consume. But, I’m going to set all those aside for now. Instead, I want to focus on identity erasure.

Identity erasure is the process by which people attempt to remove those things which define you. Everyone sees themselves a certain way; they have things which define them, their ethnic identity, their profession, their family, and many other factors that cater to that identity. It would be like someone saying your family isn’t your family or, as we will explore, your ethnic identity isn’t your ethnic identity.

My biggest problem with how people respond to the accusations of whitewashing is, instead of trying to understand the issue, they claim that it isn’t a problem. I want to focus on 2 different, but linked responses:

  1. But Asians in Asia aren’t bothered by the casting.

  2. But we’ve set this film in America.

These responses are used as a justification for the casting choices being made. They attempt to silence those of us who have a problem with them. With Ghost in the Shell, people point to an interview with the Anime’s original director, Mamoru Oshii, to counter whitewashing critiques. This leads to the identity erasure issue at the heart of this problem for me.

I’m an Asian-American; specifically, I’m a 4th-generation, mixed race, Japanese-American. The problem with response 1 is it attempts to erase my Asian identity. By saying, “Japanese people in Japan don’t have a problem with Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell,” people are indeed saying is “REAL Asians don’t care”. This response erases my Asian identity by saying I’m not truly Asian because if I were, then I wouldn’t care. Now, let’s ignore the problematic nature of this response in that it groups all Japanese people into holding a single opinion which, obviously, is not true. Let’s also ignore the problem that this response conflates the Japanese cultural experience with the Japanese-American cultural experience, which is not at all the same. However, the harm from this response comes from saying that I’m not Asian enough. If I was more Japanese, like those living in Japan, I wouldn’t care.

Which leads us to the problem with response 2. The part of my identity being erased by the second response is my American-ness. By saying that we cast a white person because “we set the film in America”, ignores the fact that there are Asian-Americans. We exist. We are American. We have been here, in some cases, for over 100 years. However, this response erases the American part of my identity. It casts me, as has often happened to Asian-Americans, as a perpetual foreigner. This response implicitly states that “We couldn’t cast an Asian person because we needed an American.” In other words, Asian-Americans are not legitimate Americans because of our Asian ancestry. The implication being that a “real” American is a white person.

By using these two responses, people attempt to erase our entire identity. They are saying that we are not Asian enough to care about these things and that we are simultaneously not American enough to be represented. The people who make these casting decisions, and the people who defend them, put us in the position of non-existence. We become perpetually relegated to nothing more than supporting roles in our own stories. The end result is that our concerns with these stories and character decisions are downplayed and our identity as Asian-Americans gets erased.