White Canary and Arrow’s Habit of Whitewashing

It’s no secret that we are huge fans of Arrow and the whole universe of DC heroes on The CW. So the idea of the network spinning off yet another show — tentatively titled The Atom, by the way — set in that shared universe has got all of us Nerds salivating with anticipation. Ever since it was announced that Caity Lotz was also going to star in the spin-off, fans have been guessing how she would be brought back and which character she would play since she, you know, died on Arrow. Uh, spoiler?

Over on ComicsAlliance, they’re speculating that Lotz will be brought back as White Canary. Being a big fan of Caity’s, I’m stoked she’s coming back to the universe. The only problem is, despite the character’s name, White Canary ain’t, uh, white.

Right now, it’s all just a rumor, though I can pretty much confirm with 99% certainty that it’s true. For one, I was tipped off on her character’s identity back in February and two, the producers of Arrow have a troubling habit of arbitrarily whitewashing a lot of DC’s established characters of color.

First, a little background on White Canary. In the grand scheme of the DC Universe, it’s fair to say that the White Canary is pretty minor. Created by Gail Simone during her run on Birds of Prey, the White Canary was a mysterious villain who came to Gotham to blackmail Dinah Lance and challenge her into dueling with Lady Shiva. Oh, and she’s Asian.

With Sara Lance somehow returning to the Flarrow universe as White Canary, she joins a growing list of Arrow characters who have been whitewashed for the series. Maybe if this was the only time, I’d give them a pass1, but many folks have noticed this disturbing trend on the show.

The first time Arrow had me raising an eyebrow about whitewashing was when they introduced Sin in season two. Readers of Black Canary’s adventures in the Birds of Prey comics know that Sin was essentially adopted by Dinah after our hero rescues her from a nameless Asian village in which she was being groomed to become the next Lady Shiva.

When she was brought on to Arrow, the producers changed her back story and her ethnicity when they cast actress Bex Taylor-Klaus for the role. No longer is she a martial arts prodigy, Sin is a street kid living in the Glades who befriends Sara and Roy.

At last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, prior to the launch of season three of Arrow, the writers revealed that the big bad of the season was going to be none other than Ra’s Al Ghul. This wasn’t that much of a surprise since Nyssa and the League of Assassins became major players over the course of the second season. But the news of such an iconic DC villain appearing on the show had fans speculating about which actor could possibly pull off playing the Demon’s Head.

Many of us nerds of color assumed that they would cast a person of color in the role since Ra’s — despite the ethnically ambiguous way he’s sometimes drawn — has always been depicted as either Asian or Middle Eastern. Also, since they cast Katrina Law — a woman of color — as his daughter Nyssa, it only made sense that an actor of color would similarly be considered. That is, until they announced Australian actor Matt Nable was cast.

Of course, Liam Neeson already played Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins, so this isn’t the first time the character was whitewashed for live action, but the Arrow producers really missed an opportunity to cast an actor of color when they decided to go with Nable instead.

Nable/Ra’s isn’t the only DC supervillain whitewashed for season three of Arrow. Danny Brickwell, aka Brick, has been a presence on Arrow since the show’s inception. Though he had been mentioned in name only since the pilot, the villain took center stage in a multi-episode arc in the middle of the season. Of course, when it was time to shine the spotlight on the villain — who is typically portrayed as Black in the comics and animated series, the producers, once again went a different direction and instead cast Vinnie Jones, aka the Juggernaut, bitch.

Basically, the general rule on Arrow has been that if you’re a Black or Asian character in the comics, chances are they’ll cast a white person to play you on the show. So what happens when the canonical character is Black and Asian?

In the comics, before becoming Green Arrow, Oliver Queen was known as a womanizer and has several flings with multiple partners. One of those women was Sandra Moonday Hawke. However, when confronted with the news that she was pregnant, Oliver essentially pays her off to go away. Years later, her son Connor tracks down Oliver and the two train for months in an Ashram temple. Connor eventually assumes the mantle of Green Arrow after the apparent death of Oliver.

Anyway, on Arrow, there is a similar plotline about a woman in Oliver’s past who becomes pregnant with his illegitimate child but is paid off (by his mother on the show) to terminate the pregnancy and go away. This character is never named, but most fans assumed she was Sandra Hawke. The only thing? The actress, Anna Hopkins, is neither Black nor Asian.


The two eventually cross paths again and we learn that not only did she keep the baby, but he’s a boy — presumably named Connor. So if this character is ever revealed to actually be Sandra Hawke, that means they’ll have to whitewash Connor Hawke eventually too.

The oddest thing about the Arrow producers whitewashing so many characters is that they have similarly racebent several characters in the other direction to great effect. On Arrow, casting Maori actor Manu Bennett as Slade Wilson was a (Death)stroke of genius. They also seemingly merged the Hector Ramirez version of Wildcat into their depiction of Ted Grant by casting J.R. Ramirez in the role, though they haven’t given the character much to do since. Also, is he even alive anymore?

Similarly, the producers of Arrow are also the masterminds behind The Flash, and we’ve praised them on multiple opportunities for making that universe one of the most diverse on all of television.

With Jesse L. Martin’s Joe West also being the best character on television.

Even on this Atom spin-off, casting Ciara Renee as Hawkgirl is another step towards diversity in the DC television universe. So why take a step back with white White Canary?

And before you say that I’m being hypocritical for praising a series when it casts a person of color in the role of a traditionally white character while complaining when the reverse happens, let me just point you to this tumblr to illustrate why such an argument is invalid.

  1. Oh who are we kidding? It would still be effed up. 

43 thoughts on “White Canary and Arrow’s Habit of Whitewashing

  1. First off – That Tumblr explanation at the end was frakking AWESOME. Just. Plain. Awesome.

    I don’t entirely agree. I think we should keep the characters’ races consistent at this point, because there is a fan base to be looked at.

    I find this to be a bit of a parallel with the Thor genderbending that went on recently. Thor is my favorite superhero. I love Norse mythology and all things spun off from it. That’s his appeal to me. But then, Marvel reacted to a huge call for more strong female leads, and decided that Thor was just a title or some such.

    I fully support the idea of getting more strong, female characters out there in geek fiction, regardless of format. (TV, comics, movies, video games, etc.) However, I don’t think we can start robbing Peter to pay Paul on this.

    It would be one thing if it were necessary. Like, when we’re preparing for that party, we only have so many chocolate covered raisins. You have to split it fairly, because not doing so makes you a jerk, and possibly a bigot. But we don’t have a limited supply of character ideas. Our imaginations are infinite.

    The Thor situation disappointed me. I was really enjoying the prior story line that Thor had rolling along. The God Bomb series had me drooling for the next issue. I was especially interested in the three granddaughters Thor had in the series.

    Then, they flipped it around and had Thor stripped of his hammer yet again, and yet another person pick up the hammer. They used a tired trope in the comic’s history to get a female character on the board.

    A move, IMO, that was completely unnecessary. They had his granddaughters they could have moved forward with, and they had Lady Sif – a character that is gaining in popularity over the last few years because of her appearances in the Thor movies and on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. HUGE WASTED OPPORTUNITY. Give us a Lady Sif comic. She deserves her own run.

    Diversity should be a win for everyone. Nobody should feel like their thing that they relate to has been taken away. If that little white girl’s favorite candy is chocolate covered raisins, then she has every right to feel cheated if someone takes from her bowl and pops her candy in someone else’s. The douche who hosted the party (DC and the Arrow writers in this instance) should be held accountable for not evenly distributing the goodies in the first place. And they should go out and be creative in order to get enough tasty chocolate goodness to make things fair for both guests. Without trying to hoodwink the girl with yogurt covered raisins (cuz those things are gross).

    The point: They shouldn’t change any races, and they should make a genuine effort to create, and do great writing for, characters that are POC.

  2. So DC’s shows have taken away diverse representation while Marvel’s shows are taking away diverse empowerment.

  3. Uh, they’re not whitewashing White Canary? They’re calling an already-white character White Canary. It’s a code name, not her actual name or background.

    1. Go read up on White Canary’s history and then slap yourself in the face. This role is an Asian role. White people can’t deal with casting an Asian actor for the role? Because Hollywood that’s why. It’s not called the “Great White Way” for nothing.

      1. I actually doubt most people here have even read “Birds of prey” : End run to know about the comics white canary. Its not whitewashing, it just happened to tie in with Sara’s former monicker of “The Canary” (No she was simply referred to as The Canary not Black Canary like a lot of people think), it was oddly enough similar to Gandalf from LoTR becoming Gandalf the white from Gandalf the grey, Sara is reborn into something purer and leaving the darkness behind and becoming a “Hero in the light” as Laurel said.

    2. You obviously didn’t read the blog or look at the picture of original white canary. Let alone have any knowledge of the history of the Arrow universe. Yet another commenter with no clue, the part is played out. Go do some research before you open your mouth or better yet go to YouTube and comment with your fellow uneducated commenters.

  4. Hypocritical? No. Unpersuasive? Yes.

    People are free to reasonably support minority casting for Hollywood projects, but to treat such casting as a moral good such that any possible room made for actors of color is always preferable strikes me as one-sided and limiting as the idea that only actors of genetic European stock should be allowed on television. Keith, your argument (and that raisin tumblr) treats casting choices as a public commodity to be fought over, like social justice prizes denied people of color for far too long. I disagree.

    If you feel that way, great. But when you suggest that the Flash’s embrace of cross-racial casting should be praised while Arrow’s whitewashing of historically non-White characters should be shunned, you act as if the race of the character matters more than the character’s portrayal. I don’t see how that helps; given earlier accounts on this blog, Jesse Martin’s Detective West admirably portrays Black fatherhood; that’s about acting/ writing substance, not just showing up on set with a Black face. Arguments like the one in this post devalue plot, characterization, and acting to pretend that people of color somehow lose as a group when individual actors of color are not hired.

    This is difficult to accept generally, but I really don’t see how it applies in superhero narratives, since they focus so heavily on White male power fantasies. Arrow and Flash are no different in this; both feature White protagonists who routinely save the day; having people of color flood the screen to watch/ assist a White hero does not strike me as major racial progress. So no, you’re not being hypocritical Keith, but the argument presented here fails to persuade.

  5. I have to disagree with you here. Berlanti and company’s shows including Arrow have given too many roles to minority actors to criticize them on the issue. Kimono is not black in the comics, nor is Walter Steele, they are on Arrow. John Diggle did not even exist. Not only that, the people of color cast are intricate to the storylines.They aren’t the boss that sits behind the desk while the white hero saves the world.

    Compare the Arrowverse to Gotham, That show is white as a sheet of copy paper.

    1. Gotham isn’t a real place. For all the lore they’ve created, the ethnic make-up isn’t not definitive. It’s up to the current creators.

  6. Another unnecessary article about racial bias… Why is it wrong to change White Canary to a white character, but it’s okay to change Joe and Iris West to black characters? It is completely hipocritical (despite the clever rasins tumbler).

      1. Yeah, I read it. It basically says it’s okay to take something from group A rather than group B because group A has more. Since group A cannot do the same as group B, it is pretty much the definition of hipocracy.

  7. It could be that the producers are going with the truly race-neutral path of choosing the actor they like best for the role, regardless of race. Without knowing who auditioned, it is impossible to be certain. How many actors or any color are going to beat Vinnie Jones out of a menacing gangster role? Getting him was a coup. As for Ms.Lotz, I imagine that there was some interest in bringing her back after becoming so popular, and a scouring of DC lore made that the best fit.

  8. How about they just cast the best person for the role, REGARDLESS of their ethnicity.. seeing as that is the very definition of equality.

    Do you feel similarly aggrieved at the casting for Johnny Storm in the new Fantastic 4 movie? What about the rumours of a black actor being cast for the role of Jimmy Olson in the Supergirl series?

    1. The “best” actor is too subjective. One reason minority members are drawn to sports is because it’s objective. If we are racing and I cross the finish line first, I’m faster, I’m better. You really can’t prove Tobey McGuire is not as good a Spiderman as Andrew Garfield.

      When casting iconic characters, the casting director typically selects an actors who looks like prior live action versions of the character or how they are presented in books. Not coincidentally, most iconic characters are white.

      It wouldn’t matter of the best actor in the world was a 34 year old Chinese guy, he’s not getting cast as Tony Stark.

      1. Hi Marshell,
        The film industry has never been anything, if not subjective. An issue? Probably, but far from the money-hungry industry’s only one. As far as diversity, the grim reality is the same as with most other genres of society: the perception of diversity is what passes for the measure of diversity (the very heart of political correctness). This is kind of what it looks like when allowing politicians, entertainers and other untouchable institutions to be our moral compass.

        I don’t know if comparing the diversity of one exploitive industry (film) to another exploitive industry (pro sports) is doing more than highlighting both in making a successful grab for our money.

  9. If we’re going for accurately representing races, as they exist in the real world: 6:10 would be white, 1:10 would be black, 2:10 Latino (from white Latino – Non white Latino), Pacific Islanders and Natives ~ 1:10.

    Arrow is obviously a bit off, Flash is doing pretty well. Females are probably the most under represented, but not by too much on Arrow.

    Obviously, everyone should have someone that represents them, and ideally more than one choice. So a good distribution probably looks like.

    Latino (one white Latino and one non): 2:10, Black, 2:10, Ingenious American/Polynesian (one each) 2:10, 4:10 white. Personally, I don’t care if there are less white people, but if it’s about accurately representing the racial reality of America, white people should have a majority – since not being so would diminish the ability to represent real world racial issues/dynamics. But it’s comics, so I don’t see it as necessary since it obviously does not represent the real world. Maybe cut one of those off for mixed race characters or desperately needed Indian/Arabic character. Even two and drop the white majority.

    I don’t see an issue with changing race of characters, from white to non or non to white. Personally, I’m dying for a Latino/East Asian Superman. So long as you’re either A) Representing actual distribution while giving everyone someone they can identify with, or B) Throwing out actual distribution in favor of giving people more characters they can identify with. I don’t care if they make cyborg white so long as they follow either of those principles.

    1. That’s only for the United States, though. People of European descent are a minority worldwide and Arrow has had an entire multiseason flashback storyline set outside the U.S., so the worldwide ethnic makeup is relevant here.

      As for the whole White Canary thing, frankly, I think they made a huge mistake killing Sara off and making Laurel Black Canary in the first place. Laurel is a whiny Damsel in Distress type played by your typical actress who was cast for her looks rather than her ability to pull off the physicality of the role. She’s anything but a blow for diversity (which isn’t just about race). This is a pretty obvious attempt to fix that mistake, while still keeping Laurel around. I’m okay with that.

  10. I was really disappointed Ras wasn’t cast as Middle Eastern though. The whole “Middle East Ottoman Mysticism” of Ras is what makes him so romantic imo. They’ve established he’s not the first Ras though, so maybe we’ll get an Arabic “original” Ras at some point.

  11. How about we just hire the best actors for each role that are available, and stop worrying so much about what color they are?

  12. So making white characters black or Asian or make characters female that are made is OK, but not the other way around?! Don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for keeping characters true to the comics, and creating new original characters to provide a more diverse character cast. However this road of rebranding and “whitewashing” goes both ways. Get over it, or make the big two be real to the comics and not take the easy and lazy road out by just changing the race or sex of a major character. Make them create an original character with real culture that anyone of that particular race/sex can be proud of.

  13. I don’t think it counts as whitewashing to use the same code name of a POC character for a different character who is white. It would be whitewashing if they took the original character and made that character white. The character Sara Lance was already white and giving her the code name “White Canary” makes a lot of sense. She is the resurrected Black Canary whose code name has been taken over by her sister. So the resurrected Canary becomes the White Canary. Makes sense to me. Race and the comic White Canary don’t seem to factor in here.

  14. So when they make a character white, it’s whitewashing… But if they make them anything else, it’s brilliance. Does nobody else see the problem with that mindset? Especially when they are doing it just as frequently either way.

    1. I don’t think it’s considered brilliance, it still might be considered thinking outside the box. If the casting director is casting the best person for the role, this shouldn’t be issue. If the goal is to increase the diversity of the cast and gain additional viewers, it’s unlikely that any show will become more diverse by replacing POC with whites.

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