Whitewashed TV isn’t Just Racist, It’s Boring

Originally posted at Salon.com

Perpetuating stereotypes isn’t just immoral — it’s bad TV. That’s why shows like Sleepy Hollow are so crucial.

When I was seven, I asked my mom if I could dye my hair blond and get blue contact lenses. It’s probably the first serious conversation I ever had about my appearance and all I wanted to do was look like Luke Skywalker. I wanted it so badly. She was appalled and I couldn’t understand why. Star Wars was Everything. There were no Latinos running through the halls of the Death Star, blasting storm troopers. Of course I was caught up.

I’ll be 34 this year and we’re only beginning to see a change in the scenery when it comes to diversity and the fantastic. A recent UCLA study found that even though racial and gender diversity in television remains appallingly low, more diverse shows bring higher audiences while less diverse ones struggle. Meanwhile, some major networks may finally be getting the message. At this year’s annual Fox Broadcasting confab, titled “Seizing Opportunities,” the underlying theme was more diversity equals more money. Speaking to an invitation-only crowd of executives, producers, agents and media coalitions, Fox COO Joe Earley said this about welcoming more diverse shows:

Not only are you going to have more chances of a show being made here, more chances of a show being a success on TV, more chances of making it into syndication, more chances of a show selling globally and making you millions of dollars, but you are going to bring more viewers to our air and keep us in business.

Cultural critics have rightly decried whitewashing in the name of social justice. Networks are now beginning to see dollar signs where they once imagined dearth. But beyond money and morality, diverse programming is also a question of quality. “Racist writing is a craft issue,” the poet Kwame Dawes said at this year’s AWP conference. “A racist stereotype is a cliché. It’s been done. Quite a bit. It’s a craft failure.”

Without an understanding of culture, power, and history, diversity is useless; it’s blackface. And television has often given us nothing but that: cheap stand-ins and tokens to up their numbers and check off boxes.

Sleepy Hollow, Fox’s runaway hit of the season, does amazing work balancing the supernatural with a modern noir aesthetic, and as NPR’s “Code Switch” points out, it features not one but two outstanding black women who are neither sexualized vixens nor Aunt Jemimas. Both Abbie and Jenny are normal, intelligent, flawed human beings, not cardboard stock characters. It seems so simple yet we’ve seen it so rarely in television’s long, racist history.

Sleepy Hollow does best when it takes a critical, complicated approach to race and history. A scene in a recent episode grappled with the irony of Thomas Jefferson being a slave owner and father of American independence; Ichabod Crane, who has returned after a few hundred years sleeping off a mortal ax wound, ends up reevaluating his hero worship of Jefferson. With some exceptions (like, as fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed enjoys reminding me on Twitter, the continued lionization of President Washington), the show approaches race and history with a refreshingly contextual, critical lens. It doesn’t gloss over the all-American legacy of slavery and genocide. And as Mr. Dawes points out, this is an issue of craft. The critical lens gives depth and gravity to the work. Ichabod is a stronger character, more human and more humane, for deconstructing his glamorous view of Jefferson.

Game of Thrones has delivered some of the more refreshing and unusual narrative moments in recent TV memory. But then Daenerys Targaryan catapulted into her white Jesus avatar state and my entire Twitter timeline and I did a collective face-palm. The story line climaxes with the final scene of the season: Daenerys crowd-surfs over a sea of toothless and adoring brown faces. A sexless orgy of white self-adoration. Epic cliché, epic racism. Also: boring.

In James Cameron’s Avatar, a white man once again plays savior, this time to a planet of tall blue aliens unambiguously suggestive of Native Americans. What if they’d cast Michelle Rodriguez, who plays a stereotypical no-nonsense doomed Latina side character, in the lead role instead of Sam Worthington?

Audre Lorde wrote that poetry “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” TV and movies, our modern mythology, fall somewhere along this spectrum of poetry, idea, and action. The realm of the fantastic offers a rare opportunity for artists to challenge and expand our concepts of privilege, resistance and social justice. We must, after all, imagine the changes we want to see. And these images, reflected back at us again and again, have the power to filter our own self-reflection, our own sense of power toward lesser and greater purposes. What quality of light will we predicate our hopes and dreams on?

132 thoughts on “Whitewashed TV isn’t Just Racist, It’s Boring

  1. I think it’s a part of human psyche to see things in their perspective as I find that the post tried to elude itself from the Asian stereotypes and religious biases in the shows. Though I totally support the point of view. 😉 🙂

  2. totally!! i even think it’s actually worse for Asians….no leading roles at all… and why there is no Asian clans in GOT or Lord of rings?

    1. Regarding, no Asian clans in “The Lord of the Rings”:

      Probably because Tolkien didn’t write them into the story. Tolkien was born in England in 1892 and died at 81 in 1973. And he wrote “The Lord of the Rings” between 1951 – 55.

      He also taught Anglo-Saxon history at Pembroke College, Oxford. I think that probably influenced his thinking while he was writing the novel. I don’t think there was an Asian studies major back then.

      But that hasn’t stopped the studio and director behind the second installment of the Hobbit from adding a strong female character as a warrior elf named Tauriel—who doesn’t exist in the “Hobbit” novel—to attract Caucasian feminists to see the film.

      In fact, there are literally no female characters in the “Hobbit” novel probably because Women were still considered second class citizens in Tolkien’s time. Tolkien served in the UK’s military during World War I and the only women who served in that war were nurses. None were in combat roles.

      So, maybe there’s a possibility an Asian clan or character will appear in the third installment of the Hobbit or maybe in “The Silmarillion” if that Tolkien novel is turned into film.

      1. An “Asian clan” did appear in the Lord of the Rings – the men from the south recruited by Sauron – the ones with the mumakil. You’re right that Anglo-Saxon history influenced Tolkien – more than influenced, as he wanted to create an English mythology. (The legends of King Arthur are originally Welsh and embellished by the French.) There are no female characters in the Hobbit (and very few in Lord of the Rings) because women of that pseudo-Saxon period probably wouldn’t go on quests – there aren’t any women in Beowulf’s band of warriors, for example. To call Lord of the Rings racist or sexist would be like calling the legends of King Arthur racist or sexist, which they may be from our modern judgement, but you can’t change the story to make it politically correct. With Game of Thrones, Daenerys wasn’t being worshipped because she was white, it was because she was the one who freed the slaves and, also, is the freaking Mother of Dragons. The decision to make all the slaves black, however… I would have preferred it if they had been a mixture of races.

      2. kiwipom91.

        You’re right! I forgot about the Asian clan that fought for Sauron near the end of The Lord of the Rings.

        And then there was Éowyn, disguised as one of the male warriors, the niece of King Théoden of Rohan, who kills the Nazgul Witch-King near the end of the Rings. Of course she had help when Meriadoc stabs him in the leg and distracts him so she can kill him with her sword.

        I’ve only read the book and seen the film three times. You’d think I’d remember these details.

  3. I always say “Burn Hollywood Burn” for their homogenized way television depicts the story and narrative of life in America. Then when I bought into a show “Grey’s Anatomy” they whitewashed or neutered all the black men on the show and I stopped watching. Great piece.

  4. Yes. I agree and I don’t care how un-PC I sound saying things like, “It is 2013, if you start something now that you intend to take internationally, I do not want to see a whole bunch of colored little people being headed by a white chick or blokes playing Superman fantasies…Sorry, the crazy dream of the great white race leading the little ignorant masses of colored people was OVER ages ago except in Hollywood? Please! Well said. fr CeciliaYu.com

  5. Of course diversity is a craft issue — to disagree with this implies that the actor’s physical traits don’t influence our (the audience’s) perception of the actor’s character — and of course it’s just the opposite, physical traits have all kinds of underlying cultural/historical implications. Thanks for sharing — I esp. like that Audre Lorde quote.

  6. Good writing rocks, as much a bad writing sucks. The same goes for acting. I’m a theatre critic and couldn’t care less who is on stage (race/gender wise) as long as they are talented and have chemistry with the whole cast. Historical accuracy doesn’t even matter that much if it’s acted well.

  7. There is a difference between casting against type, Denzel Washington as an Italian nobleman in Ken Branagh’s film of “Much Ado About Nothing”, and representing diversity in story-telling and content. The author of the blog seems to suggest that one story is better than another because of the even distribution of ‘colour’/’ethnicity’ of the actors in question. This is not so. It’s all about context and story telling, coupled with decent acting. If there aren’t enough faces of the right complexion for the viewer, then perhaps there’s two problems – not enough stories with such diversity – and also, a problem with the viewer… In the case of the former, must we only tell stories where such diversity is demonstrated? In the case of the latter, is this now a tyranny of content we must face – tell stories the way i like them or be condemned?

  8. I don’t personally find a diverse cast any more entertaining than one of a single culture.
    I was going to see “Frozen” when I overheard someone ask why there were only white characters. The response was that Disney was racist.
    Frozen was based loosely on a Danish (?) tale and most of the native people there are Caucasian. I understand that everyone is pushing the diversity thing, but if one gets offended because ones ethnicity doesn’t show up where it logically wouldn’t, then the problem is that persons choice of television, not the casting office.

  9. I stopped watching Sleepy Hollow because the storyline went beyond “fantastical” to “ridiculous.” How many worn out apocalypse and/or conspiracy tale elements can the writers cram into Hollow? Diverse casting? Wonderful. Overblown writing? Good-by. Did Ichabod ever change out of his 18th Cent. clothes? After 200 years in the ground, they probably could use a good washing.

  10. Our world has changed dramatically over the last 50 years and in many different ways. There are many very good Tv shows and movies and how good they are not rated by whether or not they only contain white people. There are TV shows for example that have entirely black cast for example my Wife and Kids. I agree that more tv shows should represent more races but you cannot say that a programme is dull due to the lack of different races.

  11. maybe white people are the only ones writing this stuff… so it makes sense they would use a white protagonist. I am including a variety of races and cultures in my sci-fi book… but the protagonist is a white female, because I am. It’s not about being racist. It’s about writing what we know.

  12. Unfortunately, Game Of Thrones is based on a book that was written long ago and so saying THAT depicts racism is, well, unfounded in my eyes.

    I have a HUGE problem, though, with Keanu Reeves being cast as the lead in 47 Ronin…. I know of MANY talented Japanese/Asian actors that would’ve fit the role PERFECTLY, yet Hollywood wants that big name, so they’d rather cheapen the role than actually cast a person of the proper race.

    1. Keanu Reeves is 1/4 Chinese 1/4 Hawaiian and 1/2 English. The character he plays in 47 Ronin is Half Japanese Half English. So he’s 3/4 appropriately cast which is better than Ricardo Montebon playing a Native American.

      1. Yet the fact his character isn’t even IN the original story is the issue. His character was basically created to bring the box office because Hollywood was concerned that an all-Asian cast of unfamiliar Asian actors would mean a bomb.

        As for Montalban, you’re speaking of an era where that was an accepted practice, no matter if it was right or not. Yet in this day and age we have Johnny Depp – more white than Native if you ask me – playing Tonto, At least in the old TV series he was played by A FULL Native American (Jay Silverheels).

    2. I’d agree with you on the Montebon thing being a circumstance of the times and Johnny Depp as Tanto was rediculasly stupid and made me groan when I saw that. I don’t know the original story of the 47 ronin. I was just going of of his character being billed as a “half breed”. If his character in the original was supposed to be full Asian they should have tried to get someone that matched, but then again, this is hollywood and they cast John Rhys-Davies as a Dwarf. For better or for worse we live in a capitalist society and Hollywood cast what they think will make them the most money. I suppose if they really wanted an American actor to play it they could have gotten John Cho but he doesn’t have the name recognition.

      1. Crap, I misread your post…With his character not even being in the original story , I’m not sure why they included him other than for name recognition, but you could have done that by just placing him as one of the existing characters, but then how do you explain his western features. Stumped 🙁

  13. All these defensive people are funny. They think reverse racism exists. I almost feel bad for them.
    Kudos for unknowingly (or was it knowingly?) adding the anti-sexist element. Women and females CAN be strong, intelligent, non-sexualised characters, regardless of colour. Women of colour have been part of struggles that require exceptional physical and mental strength.

    1. If you don’t think reverse racism exists, you’re part of the reason we will never get past all this and you’ll keep dragging us backwards. You’re just mirror of the teabaggers. That would be like me as a gay man saying that reverse bigotry doesn’t exist. It does. We have to be able to look at ourselves honestly, and take responsibility for our own actions and reactions to the world around us and try and recognize why we react as we to others actions and behaviors.

      1. Sure. Come back when you’ve finished penance?

        Racism is a construct. We’re talking about using media to sell subtle racism, to promote it. Unless you acknowledge that one group is STILL privileged over another, we are sure as hell not going to get anywhere.

    2. I wouldn’t call it reverse racism. It’s just racism. If you think only white people are racists I suggest you visit Japan—unless you have a Japanese face—and stay for awhile. Racism exists in every country and culture in the world. Racism feeds the insanity of genocide. For instance the racism of one tribe for another tribe in Africa causing attempts at genocide in recent years.

      white on white (Germans under Hitler against the Jews)
      black on black
      brown on brown
      white on black
      black on white
      brown on black
      black on brown
      white on black
      white on brown

      It doesn’t matter.

      Another example would be China. Throughout its history, every few centuries the Chinese get fed up with all foreigners meddling in their affairs and it doesn’t matter the color of their skin. The Chinese mob goes on a slaughter fest to cleanse the country of all foreigners even those with Asian faces. In fact, in China, the Chinese don’t even consider Chinese Americans as Chinese. They are also seen as foreigners and are treated worse than the Chinese treat each other.

      And as a white guy, I was almost a victim of racism while serving in the US Marines stationed in Okinawa before shipping out to fight in Vietnam. I was one of three Marines from the same unit who went to Naha, the capital of Okinawa, to have some fun. Without knowing where we were, we left the taxi in an area known as Four Corners. In the first bar we visited, a black US serviceman talked to the black American Marine who was one of us and warned him that he would get the worst of it when they beat us to death because he was hanging out with two white guys. Our fellow Marine was shook up when he told us we had to get out of there and do it fast.

      After a very fast exit, the three of us discovered that this area of Naha had been claimed by African American servicemen as theirs and no whites or salt and pepper teams were allowed in or else. Any black man seen with a white man would be targeted to be punished viciously and maybe even killed.

      When I was younger—decades ago—I worked with an African immigrant and we became friends at the time and he told me once that he had trouble with American born blacks because they had this attitude of hate against all whites. He actually preferred his white coworkers over the blacks.

      My wife is Chinese and when she came to the US on a student Visa to attend college, her first roommate was an African American girl who told her not to become friends with any whites because they were all racist former slave owners who would abuse her.

      Racism is not exclusive to White and slavery is colorblind.

      If you can’t accept that fact, I suggest you check out the demographics of modern day slavery; you will discover that of the 27 million slaves in the world today, most are not black and of African heritiage.

      A piece in the Christian Science Monitor says, “For an American audience, their conceptualization of slavery is locked into a picture from the past,” says Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net), a nonprofit in Washington. “It’s fixed in the slavery of the deep South and it’s about African-Americans being enslaved on plantations with chains and whips and so forth.”

      “Modern-day slavery has little of the old South. Of those 27 million, the majority are bonded laborers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal – workers who have given their bodies as collateral for debts that never diminish no matter how many years, or sometimes generations, the enslaved labor on. Cooking the books is an early lesson for slaveholders.”


      What’s really interesting is when Free The Slaves [a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending slavery in the world] asked the NAACP for help to fight modern day slavery, they were turned down.

      1. very sell said!! apparently on whites can be racist while everyone else is entitled to rag on us for everything. ridiculous. no wonder racism is far from being eradicated……

      2. We could also look at valid reasons for stereotyping. Stereotyping originated probably hundreds of thousands of years ago as a way to survive in a dangerous world.

        Stereotyping, as unpopular as it is today in the United States, was once considered a life and death skill.

        In a very dangerous world, one only had maybe seconds or a few minutes at best to decide if a stranger might be dangerous or not and react accordingly before it was too late.

        In most of the world even today, stereotyping may still save your life. For example, Israel uses ethnic profiling in its airports to avoid terrorists hijacking one of their flights.

        In fact, “According to Ariel Merari, an Israeli terrorism expert, ‘It would be foolish not to use profiling when everyone knows that most terrorists come from certain ethnic groups. They are likely to be Muslim and young, and the potential threat justifies inconveniencing a certain ethnic group.'”

        And no one that I’ve heard of has successfully hijacked an El Al Flight out of Israel.

      3. I do not think that is racism. That is Xenophobia (or xenocentrism), given the colonial context. Just today, I was argued with for my generalisation when I said that reverse racism does not exist. My response was that there is a tendency to deny the power of cultural capital. Being white (and when I say this, I particularly refer to pale-skinned, fluent english-speaking UK and US nationals – spanish, the Roma, romanians – you name it- are treated terribly) automatically allows people advantages over others. A majority of racist sentiments are promoted through media within a capitalist system, through the portrayal of one skin colour as better than another in subtle, but almost obvious ways.

        I think you refer to ethnic conflict when you speak of conflict within a “race”. I do not deny that ethnic groups do not indulge in genocide among their “race”. I am, however, unconvinced of your belief that skin colour and racial stereotypes do not privilege one set of people over another, or others.

        I agree too, that I dislike Indians in england or the US because they tend to flock together, afraid to mix, seeing everyone as a threat to them. They also hold onto an archaic, fetishised notion of India as a lovely, peaceful place- or they loathe it entirely. In my experience, what I also absolutely despise is a british person finding it okay to have the audacity to ask me how my english is good, given that I have lived in India all my life, not thinking of it as racist. Racism is so normalised, they don’t even realise that they are performing it.

        When you speak of the group that considered a person of their skin colour as being against them if they support others, it reminded me of the Maoist movement in India where peasants and villagers are made to choose between the government and the rebels. They often choose the rebels because chances are they will actually be treated like human beings by the latter, while the former see them as a mere tool.

        Lastly, you must understand that a hierarchy of this arbitrary condition called “race” has been established and does continue. Saying that “racism also occurs elsewhere” is as defensive as my saying reverse racism doesn’t exist. So it just makes 2 of us who need to stop behaving like we have been wronged. We’re both sitting in front of our computers and claiming to be aware and concerned. I would like to (unsurprisingly) end on a defensive note – I do not really have the skin colour to get what I want. But in contexts where I can actually influence change where my skin is seen as lighter and therefore better (and I have had quarrels based on this), I will use it against the system that creates it, rather than looking for excuses elsewhere.

      4. Oh good god. I just read your comment on racial profiling. I take everything back, since I doubt you would be able to understand my argument. You are convinced of your position and think that it is okay to be racist “only because it is the truth”. I rest my case here.

  14. You’re thinking too much. Hollywood was started all those years ago for one reason: To make money. It’s a business. They do their best to include as many different people as possible but in the end it’s about selling tickets. India has the biggest movie making industry on the planet in Mumbai. Whitey rarely has a role there unless they’re huge stars because it’s all about what? The money!

    1. Actually, skin colour is a major issue in bollywood. They whitewash all the actresses and actors, portray villains as the darker-skinned people, and promote sexism and India’s rape culture.

  15. This white washed issue is so off based. As the case for game of thrones. It just wouldn’t make sense for the material, it’s a book, already written with families from the past that are white. If Michelle Rodriguez was the dragon lady it just wouldn’t work. Argo was a good example of bad racial casting with Ben playing the lead. But he is also the reason it got made so. Casting is simple you either are right for the written role, or your not. This isn’t third grade were everyone gets equal candy. Sorry but if a material calls for a white cast that’s it period, if it’s a black Asian or Latin cast that’s it period as well. If we start forcing our personal social needs on our art of film and television and not be a slave to the art, it will suffer. Everything will be a homogenized Benetton commercial..

  16. A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you should write more about
    this subject matter, it may not be a taboo subject but generally people do not talk about these issues.
    To the next! All the best!!

  17. Where else do you see racism?
    Are you a victim of this?
    How do the percentages of minorities in the US compare to percentages on film?
    How is not racist for you to say TV shows with a lot of white people are boring?
    Wake up man. Don’t be lead into this spin.

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