Friday, January 14, 2011

Discussion: Whitewashing in Speculative Fiction

"Whitewashing" refers to the practice of taking characters of color and replacing them with white representations.  It doesn't matter how many colors of the rainbow you had before - they're all white now.  As isolated incidents, whitewashing can be glossed over as "the best actor for the job" or "artistic interpretation".  But when it happens over and over and over, it sends a clear message: We don't want you.  You're not good enough.  Only white is beautiful, interesting and worthwhile.  If you think I'm exaggerating, keep reading.  If anything, I'm understating the problem.

Speculative fiction can address issues of race without the baggage of contemporary depictions.  It can show race and racial relations the way we want them to be, not the way they are.  But all too often, that message gets hijacked, and the few protagonists of color that exist are stolen away.  All of the examples below are speculative fiction, running from high fantasy to paranormal suspense.  In all of these examples, the characters' race was a deliberate choice on the creators' part, whether to address issues of race in our own society or compensate for a lack of diversity or simply because it made their characters who they wanted them to be.  And yet this very important element of the characters and the setting is deliberately erased and replaced by the producers or publishers to make them more generic, more bland, more interchangeable.

Cast of the Earthsea TV adaption
When Ursula K. Le Guin created her world of Earthsea in 1964, she deliberately made some 90% of her population people of color in order to break away from the medieval Europe stereotypes of fantasy.  In Earthsea, those from the central archipelago have copper-red skin, those from the south and east have black skin, and those from Osskil have brown skin.  Only Kargs are pale-skinned.  The main protagonist, Sparrowhawk, has red-brown skin.  When the SyFy channel made a TV mini-series of it in 2004, they cast everyone as Caucasian.  Everyone except a few spear-carriers, the wise old mentor fulfilling the stereotype of the magical Negro and the originally white Tenar (who is now the hero's love interest because of course no woman could ever have any ambition beyond falling in love...but that's getting into gender in spec fic, as well).  Ms. Le Guin criticized this and other aspects of the adaptation but was ignored by the producers.  What I want to know is, how is it that in 40 years we've actually gone backwards?

Chart comparing the cartoon characters to the live actors
Then there's the case of The Last Airbender.  The four nations of the popular animated series are modeled after Asian and Native American cultures.  While it is a fantasy world, they wear the clothes, eat the food, live in the houses, carry the weapons, and fight with the martial arts of our world's Asian and Native American cultures.  The creators were open about the fact that the show was based on Eastern cultures and inspired by Asian mythology.  And the show was popular!  Its finale had 5.6 million viewers and it received plenty of awards including an Emmy.  Yet when M. Night Shyamalan adapted the cartoon to the silver screen, he cast the three heroes as white.  This was not coincidental; the casting call asked for "Caucasian or any other ethnicity", clearly giving precedence to whites.  More insultingly, he cast the villain and the minor characters as people of color, leaving no doubt that he was aware of the show's Eastern setting.  Apparently, you're only good enough to represent your culture if your character is evil or a spear-carrier.  The heroes must be played by white actors, even if their characters are of a different ethnicity.

In 2009, Justine Larbalestier released Liar, a young adult book about a multiracial girl who struggles with compulsive lying.  On the original cover, she was portrayed as white with straight hair.  This would have been bad enough on its own, but on a book about a liar it changed the entire meaning of the text.  Suddenly readers thought she was lying about her racial identity as well as everything else, and their view of the character was profoundly altered.  The author went on record to say that Micah really is black and provided a picture of the black athlete she based the character's looks on.  After the controversy started making news, Bloomsbury issued a half-assed apology and a new cover showing the model with curly hair and light black skin.

Comparison of the two Liar covers

Less than a year later, Jaclyn Dolamore released Magic Under Glass, a young adult book about a dark-skinned girl from the Far East who is swept up in mysteries about sorcerers and fairies.  The cover clearly shows a white model.  Again, this would have been bad enough on its own, but this book was also published by Bloomsbury.  Obviously Liar's whitewashing was not a one-time mistake, but indicative of a much larger problem in the company.  After another scandal, Bloomsbury issued a new cover for this book as well. 

Comparison of the two Magic Under Glass covers

Cindy Pon released Silver Phoenix in 2009, a young adult fantasy set in historic China.  Unusually, the original cover was the one showing a clearly Asian model.  However, no Borders would sell it and only a few Barnes & Nobles stocked it.  The hardcover had poor sales because few consumers saw it on the shelves and that was because the people who decide what to stock at the major book chains turned down the Asian model.  To appease them and hopefully get the book back out there, the publisher changed the cover for the paperback edition and the sequel, using generic Caucasian models.  Publishers claim that they whitewash covers because "ethnic" covers don't sell.  But Silver Phoenix never had a chance to sell.  It was kept out of bookstores based on the decisions of a few company employees.

Comparison of the two Silver Phoenix covers

As terrible as whitewashing is in general, I find the genre of these last few examples particularly worrisome.  These are young adult books, read by teens who are forming their identities and coming to terms with the society they live in.  What message does it send when they walk down the bookstore aisle and see only white faces all around them?

Ari from Reading In Color says in her open letter to Bloomsbury:
I'm sure you can't imagine what it's like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color? It's upsetting, it makes me angry and it makes me sad. Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don't see them in your favorite books either. You get discouraged and you want to be beautiful and be like the characters in the books you read and you start to believe that you can't be that certain character because you don't look like them.
And Pam Noles says in her article "Shame" about the whitewashing of Earthsea:
I do remember bursting out into tears on the living room couch when I understood what was going on. And the tears flowed again when Mom came home from work and I showed her the book while trying to explain. Sparrowhawk is brown. I think he's like an Indian from India. And Vetch is black like from Africa. There's a bunch more and they have real power. Not the girls, though. But still they are also the good guys. It's the white people who are evil. And Sparrowhawk is also Ged, and he's going to be the most powerful one of them all, ever ... a genre work showed me for the first time that my people can have the magic and be the heroes, too.
And it isn't only people of color who are hurt by whitewashing; it damages our society as a whole.  When we send the message that people of color aren't pretty or interesting, we send it to everyone, including white children.  And when we limit ourselves to a single race's perspective, we lose so many others. 

Cover of Daughter of the Mountains
I remember as a young child reading Daughter of the Mountains and being blown away by the setting.  It was powerful, it was magical, it was nothing like my life.  And then I learned Tibet was a real place; there really are prayer wheels, buttered tea and religions about karma and reincarnation.  I thought I was reading the best fantasy book ever, but the author was simply showing me another culture.  If the book had been about Monica and Peter instead of Momo and Pempa, it wouldn't have stayed with me for all these years.

In fiction, we're always looking for a new story and complaining when a book feels tired and cliche.  There's an easy solution; pick up a book about another culture or even just about someone who looks different from you.  Walk a mile in their shoes and see where they take you.

Last week I discussed Racism in Speculative Fiction and prior to that I discussed Cooties in Science Fiction.


  1. Wow..just wow. Seeing all 3 (now 4 with Across the Universe) side-by-side is even more upsetting. I just realized that all these books are speculative fiction (even Liar has a..well I won't spoil it for you!), huh. That's very interesting. Do publishers think it's 'easier' to whitewash books that are fantasy/sci fi based?

    Excellent point concerning whitewashing hurts not just kids of color, but all kids. We need a more tolerant society and most of that tolerance comes from books and movies. You are so right, our world is made up of a variety of experiences, many of them culturally-based and to shut down those opinions because the people who try to share those differing perspectives aren't white is just...sickening

    I love all your discussion posts but I don't want to comment-spam. lol. And thank you for linking to my letter :)

  2. You know, now that you mention it, I don't remember any whitewashing controversies about non-spec fic books. I never realized that before. I couldn't tell you why. I know contemporaries and historicals are popular so it's not like there aren't opportunities for whitewashing. Perhaps publishers feel that it's less important to be accurate on the covers of imaginary worlds and that's why they whitewash them more?

    Thank you for writing the letter! I'll admit I cried the first few times I read it. It's a very powerful piece.

  3. Same here! It's probably because it would be even more obvious if they whitewashed a book about say a Black ballet dancer or a historical fiction set in Mexico. I think we're on to something! Can't believe no one has brought that up until now... (or I could have totally missed it if someone did bring it up).

    Oh gosh, I wrote the letter to spur people to action, I certainly didn't mean to make anyone cry! I hate sad tears :) But thank you very much.

  4. So...being caucasian automatically makes characters "more generic, more bland, more interchangeable"?

    I agree that whitewashing is a problem because it twists the creator's vision to make something sells better, but really, that was rude.

  5. More generic than a person of color, yes. Not automatically, but because of the homogenized culture the media presents to us. Racebending put together a chart of the races of leading actors; 82% were White. And definitely more interchangeable; if I have ten actors, eight White, one Black and one Asian, and the part calls for a Black character, there's no choice as to who should play them. If the character's White, suddenly I have plenty of options.

    I'm saying we should make the pie bigger and create more options for people of color, not keep it the same size and take away options for Whites. Let's face it, White kids aren't running out of role models anytime soon, no matter what career they want. (Well, as long as they're male, able-bodied, heterosexual...) But when a Black kid like Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to be a scientist, he's told, "No, you should be an athlete instead," because there are plenty of famous Black athletes but few prominent Black scientists.

    Race is not the only facet of a character; they're more than even just the sum of their demographics. A White, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, Christian character can still manage to be utterly unique and memorable if the creator does their job right. But race is something that is scrutinized in our culture and White is still seen by many as "normal", color as "Other".

    And in case there's any confusion, I am White.

  6. I've been researching this topic since beginning a film project. Oddly enough I when I had the story in mind, I automatically went with the default of a white protagonist. When the realities of no budget indie filmmaking reared it's head I was "forced" to cast from the pool of actors who were enthusiatic about the project, and began to research the probability and reality of a p.o.c. character in Victorian England. Surprisingly enough I discovered that not only was it possible, but historically accurate. While there weren't a plethora of Black Victorians, they were certainly there, and quite a few were very well known. Then the strange problem occurred. How do you now sell the idea? It's easy to bash Hollywood and television, but the fans themselves seem to be as resistant to the idea of non-white characters as general audiences. Regardless to how many moan about the travesty of Le Guin's Earthsea, or the casting of The Last Airbender, quite a few had no problem with it whatsoever.

    I also don't know how I feel about bookstores marginalizing ethnic writers by having things like "black literature/romance" sections and the like. One, because many of these stories are intended to be universal (something minority artists are continually being accused of not doing), and second, because mainstream America automatically assumes that anything segregated like that is not for them. A p.o.c. on the cover or in the trailer = a p.o.c book/film, i.e. not for me. Why the reverse of this is never questioned is telling, especially when you consider that Hollywood also thrives on foreign sales, and often any ethnic presence in work is eradicated from covers, or posters so as to present the film/book as being about white people exclusively.

  7. Yes, there's certainly a self-perpetuating cycle where people get their perceptions of history from inaccurate sources (like Hollywood) and then assume actual accuracy is wrong. For example, a large percentage of cowboys were freed slaves; yet because of all the whitewashing that went into the early cowboy movies, a Black cowboy is now seen as politically correct revision. It's a variation of The Coconut Effect (warning: TV Tropes is a known timedrain).

    The people who have no problem with whitewashing are not the ones I worry about, because if x% of the fanbase doesn't care and y% does, it makes sense to appease everybody by not whitewashing. I worry about the fans who actively encourage whitewashing, because then the formula becomes x% doesn't care, y% wants this and z% wants that. Then producers/authors/whatever are balancing y against z. And yes, there are some who actively encourage whitewashing, usually in the name of "historical accuracy" (which as you point out isn't that accurate). Just look at Idris Elba, a Black actor, being cast as Heimdall in Thor. Cries about historical accuracy went up all over the place, never mind that his character was actually an alien whom the Norse misinterpreted as a god.

    And I definitely hate the literary ghettoes of "African American fiction" and "Gay and Lesbian fiction" and whatever else have you. Supposedly they're to help promote diversity by making it easy to find works by/about marginalized groups, but they just make it harder by promoting the idea that authors of marginalized groups can only write issues novels about being marginalized. (I heard a horror story about a Black author who wrote a romance between two people of unspecified race; it was shelved in African-American fiction, not romance, where it slowly perished.)


You can use some HTML tags, such as < b>, < i>, and < a>.

Anonymous comments will be deleted. Selecting the "Name/URL" option does not require a URL and you may enter whatever name you please as long as it isn't "Anonymous".

Due to a recent influx of spam, all comments will be held until approved by a moderator.

For everything else, the golden rule is Don't be an asshole. I hope I don't have to elaborate on this; it should be common sense.