The Persisting Justification of Racism

Note: Been dealing with some formatting issues on the site e..g the spacing in this article. Working on it and will hopefully have it resolved soon.

When I was younger I had stereotypical notions of Texas being the most racist state in America. The Deep South still has a terrible reputation but more recent research I’ve done on America’s racial climate brought Massachusetts, and Boston in particular, to the forefront. As I was looking through an article detailing Boston athletes’ comments on Boston’s racism, I came across this comment:

 

It is no secret that Boston has always worn the label as a racist city. A well deserved one at that. But until people STOP using labels to describe ethnic group it will never stop. And that includes all groups. The African-American community needs to stop using the N word for everything. Lose it from your vocabulary . It doesn’t help your cause when you call each that name excessively. Maybe if the word disappears some of these hateful things can be avoided. Sounds a little naïve but it has to start somewhere”
This poster is right, his comment does sound naive. I almost don’t know where to start with this comment. The article detailed several testimonials about racism athelets received in Boston stadiums and Boston as a whole during their time playing for Boston sports teams. After reading all of the experiences, all this man can say is that maybe things like this wouldn’t happen if we didn’t use the N word.
“You’re the ones we learned it from. I heard nigg** back in 1971.” (Ice Cube: ‘Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It’).
It is not like blacks historically used the N word to refer to themselves, and then white people used it to insult us. The use of the n word is a re-appropriation of a term that is still used to denigrate the black population. I have heard people arguing that the true injustice is that black people can use the term and they can’t. After all, shouldn’t we be equal?
Firstly, this argument is dripping with paternalism and condescension. Secondly, it ignores context and history. Third, I would gladly trade not being allowed to say the n word for all the benefits that come with whiteness.
On average
1) Girls are more likely to date you
2) People will be more welcoming if you move into their neighborhood
3) People will be more willing to send their kids to school with your kids
4) You will be more likely to be hired for a job (Affirmative action actually benefits white women the most)
5) Less likely to get followed when you shop
6) Less likely to get pulled over by police
7) Less likely to get killed by police
Now, if someone said I can get all that but I won’t be allowed to say the n word, I would gladly take that deal. The white people who think they are victims because they can’t say the n word, represent the true “triggered” victims they always mock. They are surrounded by benefits and privileges that make their lives easier (as a whole), but they ignore all of that and focus on things that are trivial in comparison. I remember reading a testimonial from a woman who was upset because she saw a fruit stand that had a black Jesus painted on it. She felt victimized and ranted about how black people would get upset if she put up a white Jesus at her business. I remember reading this piece as part of my research for my Master’s paper, as best I can remember it came from White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism but I may be mistaken.
This woman is blind to how white supremacy has created the popular image of white Jesus. European painters depicting Jesus in the 14-16th century were very unlikely to depict him as anything but white due to their own views on other races. Centuries later, depictions such as the Sistine Chapel still fuel the American conception of Jesus. This has been cemented by the most popular depictions of Jesus on film and on television. So, this woman ignores the dominant images of white Jesus all around her but feels the need to lash out at a fruit stand for showing something different. It is true that recently there have been more rules regarding displays of religion in some workplaces, which can sometimes affect displays of Jesus. That is not an issue of white Jesus vs Black Jesus though, it is often more of an issue of Christianity vs other religions, which is a whole other article.
Moving back to the comment that inspired this article, the poster also says that we can eradicate racism by simply getting rid of labels. It is true that the labels of “black”, “white” etc. were birthed for the purpose of creating legal and social hierarchies. Hence, the frequently cited argument that race is just a social construct. However, people are not blind. They have always noticed skin colour. The desire to create a hierarchy was a result of the idea that people with darker skin were inferior. Even in the bible, the Cushites (called Ethiopians in the King James version) are described as dark-skinned Africans.
People will still see colour if we remove the categories of race. People already factor in skin colour when deciding what areas they want to live in, who looks suspicious, and who they want to date or marry. I have a hard time believing that tendency will disappear simply because the dark-skinned folk aren’t called “black” anymore. Dating profiles will say “no dark-skinned guys” or no “guys of African descent.” People will cross the street when they see a “dark-skinned guy” approaching. You see where I’m going with this.
What truly baffles me about this post is that this poster doesn’t spout the usual “I don’t even see colour” rhetoric that I would associate with his comments. His comments on removing the categories of race displays the same naivety that the colour-blind worldview does, but he, let’s call him “Blind”, actually acknowledged that Boston is a racist city. Many people would be happy to tell the Boston athletes that the racist incidents were very isolated ones or that they brought it on themselves somehow. Blind displays some more conviction but undermines it by shifting the conversation to race labels and the black community’s use of the n word.  Although he might not mean to, he resorts to blaming the victim. It’s the equivalent of asking a rape victim how she was dressed.
Although “Blind” didn’t make this argument, his comments also reminded me of the black-on-black violence cop-out that is often used by racists to shut down discussions of police shootings of black civilians: “Well black people are killing each other all the time anyway. Maybe they should work on that first instead of race-baiting.”
White people are also killed mostly by other white people, at least in the US. The next time a black person kills a white one, can I just retort that white people are killing each other off anyway?
Even the people who can acknowledge that racism is an issue, can have backwards ideas about its causes or resolutions. I believe that part of this problem is that some white people take it personal when you discuss acts of institutional racism or individual prejudice. They hear you discuss racism and get a knee-jerk reaction to accuse you of racism, or to simply discuss how enlightened and colour-blind they are: “I don’t even see colour, you’re so racist for talking about it.”
These people will then get “triggered” if they see a movie where a white character got changed to a black one (even though this happens less than whitewashing) : “Why is Hollywood forcing diversity on us? I hate this liberal propaganda.”
Welcome to the new colour-blind era.

My Racial Awakening

In this brave new era people who discuss racism are viewed as society’s greatest dividers and agitators. Meanwhile, the people who’s lives are structured around racist assumptions and beliefs use the excuse of “colour-blindness” to shut down any discussion of racism. I have discussed this in my previous piece, which Talib Kweli was gracious enough to read and retweet. Since that piece discussed my current passion for the topic of race, I wanted to use this piece to discuss the reason I joined the discussion.

Until I was about thirteen, my view of the world was similiar to most conservatives. I thought racism was something historic, with only a few outliers remaining, such as the Klu Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis. Elementary and high school taught me about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and Jim Crow, but never taught me about the more subtle forms of racism that are far more prevalent. My lessons on stereotyping and racial profiling were all extra-curricular ones until University. My experiences fortunately did not subject me to violence, but I don’t think they should be ignored simply because they didn’t result in violence or death. No matter what justifications people will want to use, my experiences show that people are not as “colour-blind” as they claim.

When I was thirteen my stepdad (at the time) and my mom announced that they were moving to England due to a work transfer. While they sorted out the move, I lived in Jamaica for one year with my uncle.

I think my time in Jamaica actually offered the most stark contrast possible to the experiences I would have in England. I moved from a country that was over 90% black to one that was less than 5% black. Of course, Jamaica has its own issues of discrimination, with colourism becoming a growing phenomenon, which is also leading to more skin bleaching as people try to lighten their skin to something they view as more beautiful.

However, when I was in Jamaica, I definitely didn’t receive the same level of scrunity for my skin colour as I did in London. At thirteen, I wasn’t as self-conscious as I am now. I initially ignored people staring,  people crossing the street or holding their purses tighter when they saw me. London has a decent black population, but the area I was living in was apparently one where they weren’t as welcome. Some people will be quick to say that this is an issue of class then, not race. However, I retort that this is an issue of race and class intersecting. What I experienced would not have happened to a white thirteen year old living in London.

I was one of the few black people at the first school I went to in England, and I think this also facilitated my release from blissful ignorance. Of course, being one of the few black people did not guarantee racism. I didn’t mind that people noticed I was black. I was never conservative enough to view their ability to see me as a mark of discrimination. Contrary to conservative doctrine, seeing someone’s colour isn’t racist. The issue is how you treat them due to their skin colour. I never felt discriminated against at the school like I did on the streets or in my own apartment. The issue at school was a more harmless form of ignorance, that nevertheless made me realize how different my race made me. As mentioned before, my mother didn’t want me growing my hair long, and this is a habit that has stuck with me. However, I would usually grow my hair out for a few weeks before getting it cut. I’d have a nest of curly hair less than an inch long on my head, which still managed to fascinate some of my classmates. I can remember plenty of them running their hands through it.

Yes, London may be a relatively diverse city but these kids didn’t grow up in that London. Southbank International School was a home for the children of wealthy Brits and expats, many of which apparently didn’t mingle that much with people of other races. There was even a rumour that I was related to the only other black person at the school, a girl a few grades older than me. This girl and I never spoke. I didn’t even know her name. It seems like people assumed we were related simply because our skin was the same tone. At the time, I didn’t consider this a subtle manifestation of racial ignorance. Although I realized how ignorant the assumption was, I found amusement in it. I didn’t find amusement in what greeted me outside the school.

I loved the gated complex we lived in, courtesy of my step-dad’s company. It was amazing seeing so many high end cars in the parking lot, everything from Aston Martins to Maseratis. The building’s staff were very familiar with my parents, and knew me well. As I look back on the experience, I realize how warm and welcoming they were to us. While I revelled in this new environment, certain things started to annoy me after a while.

“Do you live here?”

This was a question I received from other residents. This question was never an attempt to start a conversation. It wasn’t followed by a request for directions, an introduction or any form of small talk. Usually the only response I received was a stare or maybe “Just checking.” I answered this question with a smile on my face the first few times, not thinking that my skin colour could make someone question my presence. Sometimes I may have walked through the gate after someone else, and I thought it was a fair question since I didn’t enter the security code myself.  Other times, I thought that maybe my casual dress begged the question. However, some of the residents asking me were also dressed casually. Before racist assumptions come into play, I have never been one to wear excessive jewellery or baggy pants hanging low. I don’t wear hoodies often either.

Sometimes I was dressed more formally than the residents interrogating me. The uniform for one of the schools I went to was a suit, complete with a green blazer. This uniform was nothing like the uniform worn by the staff and also should have signified that I wasn’t a homeless person wandering into the building. Additionally, I was often clean cut and sported no facial hair at the time (mother’s orders). As I look back on my justifications for the questioning, I wonder what the residents thought I planned to do if I didn’t live there. Did they think I was planning to sneak past the security at the front desk and ransack as many apartments as I could find?

These experiences continued to pile up, and after a while, I could not help but ask why I kept getting asked this question. The answer didn’t really come to me until a flight back to Canada during one of my school breaks. My stepdad and I had first class seats and while I enjoyed the privileges that came with it, the experience was somewhat overshadowed by an encounter with a flight attendant. I went to use the first class bathroom, and she stepped in front of me and pointed to the bathroom in coach.

I was confused, but didn’t think to argue. I had to pass my stepdad to reach coach, and he stopped me to ask where I was going. When I explained that I couldn’t use that bathroom, he assured me I could and told me to walk back towards the front. When I did, the same flight attendant stopped me and pointed to coach again. My stepdad saw everything this time, and angrily pointed to my seat “He sits here.” With that said, the flight attendant finally let me use the first class bathroom.

It took me a while to accept what happened. I remember fuming in my seat, wanting an apology from the flight attendant. Once the initial rush of anger passed I tried to justify what happened. Maybe my age had something to do with it? This proved to be a faulty justification since teenagers have parents who could have possibly paid for their ticket. My dress?  I remember that the weather was warm at the time so I know I wasn’t wearing a hoodie. I was dressed casually but there was no afro, low-hanging pants, excessive jewellery or metal gilded teeth in sight. There was no valid reason for this flight attendant to assume I was a delinquent sneaking in from coach to use the first class bathroom. She didn’t even ask me if I was in first class or ask me to present my boarding pass. She didn’t say a word to me. She just blocked my path and pointed to where she thought I belonged. The fact that I COULD be in first class didn’t even register in her mind.

Needless to say, by the time I moved back to Canada at age fifteen, I wasn’t a blissfully ignorant person anymore. I was embittered, injected with righteous indignation. Although I am still committed to exploring and denouncing racism, I know that this period was one where it dominated my life in an unhealthy way. I wasn’t just aware of how the world worked, I saw it as a poisoned entity. There were times in the years ahead where I genuinely saw racism where it didn’t exist. However, I think this stage is a natural one for anyone who was taught by his insitutions that racism is long gone, and then gets kicked in the teeth by reality.

By the time I entered the University of Ottawa, I still had more to learn. I was followed while shopping for the first time while in a SAQ in Hull, Quebec. A white friend and I entered the store, and an employee rushed over after a few minutes to ask if I needed help. I had my hands on a bottle of Appleton and advised her that I was fine. As I waited for my friend to make his selection I noticed the employee leaning on a shelf near to me, keeping her eyes trained on me while ignoring my friend. Although I was well aware of racism, this was a specific type of profiling I had either never experienced or never noticed.

There are plenty of minorities that will often argue that a racist incident, or a form of racism, must be a fabrication because they’ve never experienced it themselves. I never denied that black people could be watched more intensely than whites when they shop, but I somehow thought Canada was immune to such idiocy. Most of the time I saw it in entertainment or heard about it, the employees made some attempt to be subtle. I thought that maybe she was watching me because I had a bag on, which could be used to conceal items, but my white friend had a bag as well. Maybe some part of me wanted to believe she was just admiring me for my good looks.

I went to SAQ for a second time years later. My friends and I were travelling through the area and decided to stop in. While they were mainly focused on cheaper alcohol, I was eager to see if my first experience with SAQ was an isolated one. Lo and behold, I see an employee on the other end of the store move to a wall that gave him a good view of the entire hard liquor section. He folds his arms and leans back as he watches me move down my desired aisle. Two of my friends were in another section of the store and the employee ignored them. A group of at least four white girls walked in a few minutes after us, and they were also ignored.

There was no bag on my back this time, so it wasn’t like I could shove a 40 ounce bottle of liquor down my pants and try to walk out. I don’t believe in God, but I can’t help but feel like some force conspired to give me the perfect circumstances to test out SAQ’s racism. I say SAQ’s racism because “watch black people when they shop” appears to legimitately be a company policy. Two different employees, years apart, adopted the same protocol. Either they support the racist ideas that fuel that policy or they disagree but feel the need to just follow orders like the Nazis did. As soon as I left SAQ that day I knew I would never step foot in one again.

I remember watching Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, and hearing a modicum of hope from James Baldwin when he says (don’t remember the exact phrasing) “I must have optimism because I am still alive.”

Believe it or not, there are many people out there who have and continue to be experience far worse racism than I have. There are unarmed men shot dead by cops or wannabe vigilantes, whose deaths are justified due to their status as dangerous “thugs”. The concept of arresting someone without killing them seems to disappear when black people are in question. “So what if two cops were lying on top of him before he was shot? He was a thug anyway.”

Society has a conscience, but its conscience has a blindspot. I have my own obstacles and experiences that bombard me with the truth about our utopic post-racial world. They exist, and no amount of willful ignorance or right-wing slander will change that. They impact me, but they don’t kill me. I’m alive, and going strong.

The Final Frontier For Racism

As one article put it, it is the last bastion of racism,
What is it you ask?
Is it employment discrimination or housing discrimination?
No, those things do exist, and they are often justified by racists,
But at the very least employment discrimination and housing discrimination are explicitly illegal.
No one can say in court that it was not racist for them to deny someone a job or a house because of their race,
They can’t say “it’s just a preference”.
To some extent, even the people naïve enough to believe in a post-racial society can acknowledge the reality of housing and employment discrimination at times,

The discrimination that is always justified, by anyone that has their own “preference” is dating and sexual discrimination.
“I’m not racist, I just don’t like black guys.”
“I just don’t find (insert race) people attractive. That’s not racist though.”
“I don’t even see race, but I want to make sure I marry someone of my own race.”
We’ve heard it all before.
There’s nothing wrong with preferences themselves, but it depends what we have a preference for.

I have heard asinine analogies coming from supposedly “colour blind” people.
Comparing liking one fruit over another, or one hair type over another,
Those preferences are different,
Those are not racial preferences,
Racism exists when there is a belief that one race is superior to another due to inherent characteristics e.g. whites are smarter than blacks, blacks and Hispanics are lazier than whites, and whites are more attractive than blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Arabs

Online dating gives us so many options,
While some sights do not allow users to filter for race, some do,
Can you honestly say there is nothing racist about checking a box that restricts people of a certain race from showing up in your searches,
It is a situation where you do not know the person,
You know nothing of their personality, intelligence, interests
You made the decision to isolate them only due to their race.
Even if you can’t filter the races you see, you can still choose to respond to messages from one race more than another.

It is a fact that people of the same race may just naturally get together, and there is nothing wrong with that,
The problem is that many people go through life with the mentality that they will or can never connect with someone of a different race,
Some will argue it is a natural inclination, nature vs nurture,
However, I have to disagree
I believe nurture is responsible for stimulating what we view as attractive
Whether it is images in the media, or cautionary words from conservative parents, all external stimuli can merge and become invisible to the person they affect.
If your parents tell you to avoid certain races from an early age, you will grow up thinking your aversion to other races is natural,
If the media you consume is disproportionately dominated with certain images of beauty, you will think your attraction to that image of beauty is a natural one.

I don’t want to pick on online dating, or dating as a whole,
Racism still exists in plenty of other areas of life, but dating is one where racism is defended the most,
Ingrained racial prejudices are reduced to preferences that are no more harmful than liking apples over pears,
While we continue to point to Obama as proof of our post-racial world, we also strive to exclusively date our own kind,
The post-racial world is a myth, the end of racism is a myth,
You can either continue to live in your cocoon of denial or try to take a harder look at yourself.

Will you be one of the people that read this and gets defensive and angry?
Will you call me a racist because I dare to expose racism and try to work past it?
Or will you actually try to understand what I am saying and take a real step towards acknowledging and understanding racism, thereby working to diminish it.

Our “Post-Racial” World

“If you want racism to end you have to stop talking about it.”

“You guys are so sensitive, you see racism in everything.”

“Black people always pull the race card, they’re the real racists.”

“I don’t even see colour.”

 

Liberals and minorities hear these complaints all the time,

Coming from people who both benefit from racism and want to silence discussion of it, or people who are genuinely well intentioned but also very ignorant,

Even figures like Morgan Freeman have championed this post-Civil Rights era mindset,

And the people who find racism tough to discuss were quick to follow his lead,

 

To someone with this mindset, the large gaps between employment and median income between whites and minorities have a simple explanation,

Minorities, especially blacks, don’t work hard enough and use racism as a crutch to avoid improving themselves,

 

It’s a very enticing mindset,

It makes racism a taboo topic,

Whites can deny that their race has any impact on their daily lives,

And they can easily shut down any discussion of racism by arguing that the people who discuss it are racist,

A common maneuver is to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “…when a man will not be judged by the color of his skin…”

Although MLK used the words in his fight against racism, “colour-blind” people now use it to argue that anyone who discusses racism is racist,

A newer one is paraphrasing Obama and saying “We are all one race. Human.”

Although Obama has discussed the lingering effects of racism in multiple speeches throughout his presidency,

People still like to use his line out of context

 

It is a fact that people do see colour,

Even the ones who say they don’t,

Some of the same people who say they don’t see colour do not support interracial marriage and would be opposed to more minorities moving into their neighbourhoods,

Colour-blindness is just a crutch to avoid discussing racism, and to avoid doing anything about it,

It is all part of a lingering belief that a cancer that is deeply entrenched throughout the world, can jut be ignored and swept under the rug

 

I always hear people use the analogy of a cut,

Why do we keep picking at a cut instead of letting it heal?

If you keep talking about racism it makes things worse,

 

To someone who is supposedly “colour-blind”, there is no cut,

They will ignore the cut, bleeding, and infection because they will stubbornly argue there is no cut,

 

“You have a cut.”
“No I don’t.”

“On your arm. I can see it.”

“I’m fine, you’ve got to stop being so sensitive.”

“I’m not being sensitive, but it’s a pretty bad cut. Maybe you should get a Band-Aid or something.”

“I don’t need to do that since there is no cut. Even if there was, it’ll go away if you stop talking about it.”
“What? You don’t need to let the cut ruin your life but you need to acknowledge it and take care of it. It’s right there, you’re bleeding.”

“Yeah I’m bleeding, but the blood’s not coming from a cut. You’ve got to stop pulling the cut card.”

 

This is what it is like to argue with someone who denies racism,

Their denial is often followed by anger at people who dare to point it out,

To break the illusion,

 

Acknowledging race does not equal racism,

Acknowledging biological differences does not equal racism,

It is only racism if we believe one race is inherently superior to another due to their race, such as believing that white people are naturally more intelligent than black people,

It is a disservice to minorities to repeatedly tell them all their experiences with discrimination are only in their head,

And to tell them that if they simply have the right attitude, things like housing discrimination and racial profiling will go away,

Sadly this mindset is so prevalent nowadays and has become even more popular with Obama’s election,

We are living in a “post-racial” world where many people still prefer to date their own race and live in areas surrounded by their own race.

 

 

 

The Sad Truth

It’s a truth that I denied for as long as I could,

I can’t live in denial anymore,

 

One undeniable truth about being a minority is that people of different races will often outnumber you,

In some ways you will be at their mercy for social acceptance and employment,

I used to think that if I encountered racism in one area, then I could simply hope to find another area where people were more accepting,

Living in three different countries, and over five cities has made it clear that I was naïve,

Racism will always be present, I only get to choose the level of racism I deal with, and the group that I get it from,

Racism persists, not just in the odd person, but among the majority groups as a whole,

They use your skin colour to put you in a hierarchy and treat you like an alien, even if you have been in the country longer than they have,

There is no cultural mosaic,

This country is only a patchwork of different segregated communities,

Where different groups flock to their own, building their own insular communities and pushing out different groups.

Statistics on multiculturalism mean nothing when there is no true co-existence and acceptance between different groups,

 

As time passes, and people keep pretending the world is now “colour-blind”, this problem will only get worse,

People will keep rationalizing exclusionary behaviour, seeing it as only natural for people who look the same to flock to one another and reject difference,

There are those who think humanity is on the right track to racial progress,

But I believe we’re regressing,

Colour-blindness only pretends that we all have the same experiences, negating minority experiences of rejection and racism,

It is nothing more than a tool for avoiding the discussion of racism

 

 

Whitewashing and Double Standards

Some may be familiar with the term, “whitewashing”, which is used by online communities to describe instances of characters of color being portrayed by white actors in live action films. As many will be quick to point out, Hollywood is a business. A business whose largest domestic segment is middle-class white people, which is why Hollywood films are crafted to appeal to this demographic (Stoddard 27).

Studio executives also believe that crafting a film for this demographic requires white actors, since they are deemed more relatable for other white audiences. However, racially homogenous China is Hollywood’s biggest international market. This is despite the fact that Asians comprise less than 3% of Hollywood’s lead roles. Although a country like China may look past the race of actors to enjoy a film, it is assumed that American audiences cannot do the same. White actors are deemed as normal and universal.

Predictably, instances of whitewashing often result in online debate, where some argue that whitewashing is no big deal since “It is acting after all” or that any critics should just “let the movie be”. For many readers, they have either used these arguments before or heard them from someone else. In many ways these arguments echo a valid sentiment: we should be color-blind. Let’s not judge someone’s race, only their talent or marketability. However, it is a fact that Hollywood is more willing to take risks on an unknown white actor over a minority one, indicating that white is inherently viewed as more marketable (Stoddard 373). This also means it is easier for an unknown white actor to get roles that can eventually lead to them becoming a marketable box-office talent. Also, the true test of this color-blind theory is if it applies to instances of actors of color playing notable white characters.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

The most recent example of whitewashing controversy that can be used for comparison is Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), where ancient Egyptians are portrayed by white actors. Like Ridley Scott said, he couldn’t get the movie made if his lead actor was “Mohammed so-and-so”. Scott previously said that Egypt was a “confluence of cultures”, which is what explains the white actors. However, the Mohammed comment makes it clear that minority actors were never considered for the part. In addition, the only roles that went to minorities were those of servants, guards or soldiers.

DF-00727R - Seti (John Turturro, background) presents the future leaders of Egypt: Ramses (Joel Edgerton, left) and Moses (Christian Bale).

Seti (John Turturro, background) presents the future leaders of Egypt: Ramses (Joel Edgerton, left) and   Moses (Christian Bale).

Although the instinct may be to argue that Exodus is a mythical tale, Scott said that he did not want to treat Exodus as a fantasy, since real historical figures like Ramses II are portrayed. The race of Ancient Egyptians is still contested and the purpose of this article is not to say that the casting is necessarily incorrect. The purpose is to study how Exodus’s casting is defended with arguments such as “best actor for the part” and “marketability”, while instances of race changing in other films are criticized when minorities are cast.

For many who grow tired of online debate about these issues it is easy to become defensive and fall back on the “just a movie” argument. However, it is also interesting to compare the reaction that a film receives when a minority actor portrays a white character. In the case of films like The Hunger Games, Fantastic Four (2016)and Star Wars Episode VII (2016), there is even greater excuse for changing the race of actors since the stories are not inspired by any historical figures or conflicts. Yet instances of black actors getting roles in these films resulted in a flurry of online racist remarks. Along with the aforementioned films I will also be referencing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) to study how audiences react differently to whitewashing, than they do to instances of minorities playing white characters or inhabiting roles that they deem more appropriate for white people.

For many who grow tired of online debate about these issues it is easy to become defensive and fall back on the “just a movie” argument. However, it is also interesting to compare the reaction that a film receives when a minority actor portrays a white character. In the case of films like The Hunger Games, Fantastic Four (2016)and Star Wars Episode VII (2016), there is even greater excuse for changing the race of actors since the stories are not inspired by any historical figures or conflicts. Yet instances of black actors getting roles in these films resulted in a flurry of online racist remarks. Along with the aforementioned films I will also be referencing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) to study how audiences react differently to whitewashing, than they do to instances of minorities playing white characters or inhabiting roles that they deem more appropriate for white people.

The Hunger Games

Rue, from The Hunger Games, was described as having “dark brown skin and eyes” in the book. The author also said that Rue, and the character Thresh, are “African-American.” However, Twitter provided a refuge for hundreds of angry fans after they either heard about the casting of a black actress (Amandla Stenberg) for the part. A Canadian fan began identifying racist tweets about the casting by using “#hungergames”, and he eventually compiled hundreds of tweets and posted them on his Tumblr, Hunger Games Tweets. If audiences were truly color-blind, would they write tweets like “Why is Rue black?!?!” Or “I was pumped about The Hunger Games. Until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue.”

 

rue-hunger-games

Racist Twitter

Another defense mechanism is probably to argue that these are just a few idiots online. Why bother analyzing them and thinking they represent anything significant? The problem is that hypothetically, these people who criticize this casting could be the same ones denying any discussion of casting discrimination when a character gets whitewashed. This isn’t just one troll, these are hundreds of people from only one case study. As the website’s anonymous creator, “Adam” says, “That tweet was very telling in terms of a mentality that is probably very widespread.” It is important to acknowledge and understand the double standard present in audience reactions to race-changing.

Color-Blind Racism and The Fantastic Four

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Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch

Although the increased discourse of color-blindness is ideal in theory, groups such as the American Psychological Association have denounced it because they realize that people who claim to be color-blind are more likely to support racism. As a result, scholars have coined the term “color-blind racism” to describe this new, superficially post-racial mindset.

Color-blind racists view racism as an issue of the past, which leads to a denial of racism and a belief that all races receive equal treatment. With this mentality it is easy to ignore any alleged whitewashing, since color-blind people don’t acknowledge discriminatory casting. For a colour-blind racist, race should be a taboo topic since they believe acknowledging race perpetuates racism. The discussion of racism is only relevant to a color-blind person if the act of alleged racism is deemed damaging to whites, which demonstrates the racial bias of this colour-blind veil. To colour-blind racists, whiteness is normal, while color is seen as threatening or subversive.

To color-blind racists, the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four can then be interpreted as an example of minority privilege. Instead of seeing Jordan’s casting as a selection of the best actor, color-blind racists see this casting as an example of minorities getting special treatment. The belief in minority privilege then frames whites as the targets of “reverse discrimination”.

Although there are numerous examples of whites playing people of color over the past ten years, color-blind people will ignore or rationalize these changes and then focus on the fewer examples of minorities playing white actors. While 30 Days of Night (2007), Dragonball: Evolution (2009), Prince of Persia (2010), The Last Airbender (2010), The Lone Ranger (2013), Pan (2015), Aloha (2015) and others are defended for various reasons, The Fantastic Four becomes an easy target for colour-blind racists.

Like Rue and The Hunger Games, Twitter provided a refuge for racist comments when the casting was announced. The Fantastic Four casting is incorrect; Johnny Storm has always been depicted as white. However, if audiences were truly color-blind then Michael B. Jordan’s race would not be a problem for the casting. Online comments would not say the casting is an example of “political correctness”, or that it is “racist”. Shouldn’t there be more comments arguing that race doesn’t matter, and that studios simply pick the “best actor for the part?” Even if his sister is white in the film, that should not bother someone who is truly color-blind, since they do not see color. Jordan is already familiar with the complaints. As he said in May, “Some people may look at my casting as political correctness or an attempt to meet a racial quota, or as part of the year of ‘Black Film.’

Quick Comparison: The Hobbit and The Last Airbender

Avatar:The Last Airbender (ATLA), set in a fictional world, was a particularly interesting case of whitewashing since the casting was sometimes defended by arguing that the fictional world makes the intended race of the characters irrelevant. Even though the creators have described the series as a “fictional Asian world” and said that they wanted to create a fictional world like Lord of The Rings, but use their love for Asian cinema to take it in a different direction. The show and its depiction of Asians was also a source of confusion for some since Asian characters were not depicted with the stereotypical markers audiences are used to in Western TV and cinema, such as slanted eyes and yellow skin. Since the show was influenced by Korean animation, ATLA’s animation style reflects the practice of avoiding these markers.

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ATLA’s Asian character. Aang (front) and the Inuit characters Katara(middle) and Sokka (Back)

Some audiences may see the characters depicted in anime and assume that they are not meant to be Asian since they lack these markers as well, but these characters are judged by Western standards. Another way to think of it is by using the example of a stick drawing. If we draw a stick person in a country that is mostly white, such as America, England, France etc. we will assume the stick person represents a white person unless we give the figure stereotypical markings e.g. brown skin, curly hair.

In Asian countries, such as Korea or Japan, where the population is over 90% homogenous, they will assume the stick figure represents an Asian person. This principle also applies to their animation. The confusion only arises when their animation is exported to other countries, where audiences get hung up on the appearance and ignore any other signs of an Asian world, or an Asian-inspired one.

People will decry the presence of black extras in The Hobbit, a world inspired by European mythology. Yet people will also defend the casting of white actors in The Last Airbender, a world inspired by Asian and Inuit architecture, clothing, mythology and philosophies.

The Last Airbender

Pictures displaying the whitewashing of the Inuit characters, Sokka and Katara.

(Some may be quick to get defensive, ignore the brown skin and point to the blue eyes as a sign of whiteness. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, there are individuals who have the ability to manipulate the element of their tribes or groups: earth, water, air and fire. The eye colour serves as an indicator of a character’s element. In the show the Air Nomads have grey eyes, the earth nation members have green eyes, water tribe members have blue eyes and the Fire Nation have orange eyes.)

These blatant double standards cannot be ignored. Double standards where criticism of whitewashing is ridiculed as the work of “unemployed” people with nothing better to do, while minority casting generates rants about the negative influence of political correctness.

 

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The last example I will use from this article, and the second one from this year alone, is John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars: Episode VII. When the first trailer for the film debuted Boyega was briefly glimpsed in a stormtrooper costume.

Black stormtrooper

At this point, we could not be sure whether his character used it as a disguise, like Luke and Han did in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. However, many disgruntled fans believed he was meant to be a clone of Jango Fett, like the soldiers from the prequel trilogy. The only time Jango Fett was pictured without a face-concealing helmet was in the prequels, where he was portrayed by Maori actor Temuera Morrison.

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However, the producer of the television show, Star Wars: Rebels, indicated that the last of the clones would be “old and grey” by Episode IV. Any stormtroopers pictured in Episode VII will be people recruited from the general population. This means that Boyega’s character is not meant to be a clone of any previous character. However, the damage control came too late for Boyega, who also witnessed a flurry of online racism that led him to tell critics to “Get used to it.”

According to a 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, 1 in 10 films have a minority lead. This is despite the fact that America is becoming more diverse and despite the fact that Latinos comprise the largest portion (over 25%) of American moviegoers, even though they are only 16% of the population. Additionally, only 7% of Latinos identify as white as of 2010. This demonstrates that the out-dated notion of needing a white actor to draw in a bigger audience is overstated and only serves as an excuse to limit the roles available to minority actors, and in some cases, take those roles away and give them to a more “marketable” white actor. This only creates a cycle of unemployment where minority actors are not given the same opportunity to display their talent, since they are not seen as marketable or relatable enough.

Directors and actors who are involved in whitewashing rarely voice a critical opinion of the casting, with director Cameron Crowe being one of the few to openly criticize his own casting choice. While Joel Edgerton said he empathized with those who opposed the Exodus casting he also added, “it’s not my job to make those decisions…I got asked to do a job, and it would have been very hard to say no to that job.”Additionally, few actors speak out against instances of whitewashing, possibly because they fear backlash from potential employers.

Meanwhile, the few instances of minority actors receiving a role that could go to a white person are met with an onslaught of racist comments. From The Hobbit, to the The Fantastic Four and Star Wars, people will throw out the same arguments about representation and racial accuracy that they would ignore if a character was whitewashed. With this warped mindset, it becomes easy to see “reverse-racism” as the real problem in the film industry, and even America as a whole (Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich 192).

Is race-changing ever a right thing to do? That is not the question of this article. The question is do we react in a consistent, logical way to instances of race changing. Or are their obvious preferences in what we choose to care about?

Works Cited

Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. “Ridley Scott Responds to ‘Exodus’ Backlash.” DailyDot. DailyDot, 29 August 2014. Web. 16 July 2015.

Bonilla- Silva, Eduardo and David Dietrich. “The Sweet Enchantment of Color-Blind Racism in Obamerica.” The Annals Of The American Academy of Political and Social Science 634.1 (2011): 190-206.

Brook, Tom. “How The Global Box Office Is Changing Hollywood.” BBC. BBC News., 20 June 2013. Web. 10 April 2015.

Chan, Wilfred. “‘Star Wars Episode VII’ Actor John Boyega Takes Aim at ‘Black Stormtrooper’ Racism.” CNN. CNN. 1 December 2014. Web 17 July 2015.

Chesler, Mark A., Melissa Peet and Todd Sevig. “The Political is Personal: The Influence of White Supremacy On White Antiracists’ Personal Relationships.” White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism. Eds. Ashley W. Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. New York: Taylor and Francis Books, Inc., 2003. 253-267. Print.

Dickens, Donna. “316 Days Until Star Wars: Lucasfilm Quietly Confirms Stormtroopes Aren’t Clones.” Hitfix. Hitfix, 4 February 2015. Web. 17 July 2015.

Helen, Neville, Roderick L. Lilly, Georgia Duran, Richard M. Lee, LaVonne Browne. “Construction And Initial Validation Of The Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale.”Journal of Counseling Psychology 47.1 (2000): 59-70.

Jones, Alice. “Ridley Scott, it’s about casting ‘Mohammad so-and-so’, it’s about realising you have a duty to make stars of non-white actors.” The Independent. The Independent, 28 November 2014. Web. 16 July 2015.

Holmes, Anna. “White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race In Hunger Games.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 30 March 2012. Web. 17 July 2015.

Lawler, Kelly. “Crowe Apologizes For Emma Stone Casting.” USAToday. USA Today., 3 June 2015. Web. 23 July 2015.

McClintock, Pamela. “The Secret To A Smash Movie? Lure Hispanics.” The Hollywood Reporter. Hollywood Reporter., 2 October 2012. Web. 10 April 2015.

“Questions Related To The Last Airbender.” Racebending.com. Racebending., 2011. Web. 19 July 2015.

Romero, Dennis. “How Hollywood Keeps Minorities Out.” LaWeekly. LA Weekly., 25 February 2015. Web. 13 April 2015.

Rosen, Christoper. “Ridley Scott Addresses ‘Exodus’ Casting Following Whitewash backlash.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 29 August 2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

Roxborough, Scott. “Joel Edgerton Addresses ‘Whitewash’ Criticism of ‘Exodus’.” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter., 19 August 2014. Web. 22 July 2015.

Santos, Ridley. “Just Saw The Hobbit: Officially Over The Concept of Fandom.” Groupthink. Groupthink, 12 December 2013. Web. 17 July 2015.

Stoddard, Jeremy D. “The Burden Of Historical Representation: Race, Freedom and ‘Educational’ Hollywood Film.” Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 36.1 (2006): 26-35. Print.

Toro, Gabe. “Joel Edgerton Addresses Controversy Over Exodus: Gods and Kings Casting.” CinemaBlend. CinemaBlend., 23 September 2014. Web. 23 February 2015.

Toro, Gabe. “Michael B. Jordan Addresses Controversy Over Fantastic Four Casting.” CinemaBlend. CinemaBlend., February 2014. Web. 22 February 2015.

“USA.” Quickfacts. United States Census Bureau, 31 March 2015. Web. 10 April 2015.

Valby, Karen. “Team Hunger Games’ talks: Author Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross on their allegiance to each other, and their actors- EXCLUSIVE.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment, 7 April 2011. Web. 16 July 2015.

Vasconcelos, Eduardo. “Interview: Avatar’s Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino.” IGN. Ziff Davis, 6 September 2007. Web. 17 July 2015.

Weaver, Andrew J. “The Role of Actors’ Race in White Audiences’ Selective Exposure to Movies.” Journal of Communication 61.2 (2011): 369-385.

Can You Guess What This Is About?

It survives,
Injured in parts but very much whole,
Gripping the world with bloodied fists,
Yet so many refuse to see it,

Some believe it vanished decades, or even centuries ago,
Some believe that if we do not mention it, it will disappear,

While these people live in blissful ignorance,
Its hands seize their hearts and minds,
Growing stronger every time its existence is denied,
Its victims are drowned out by a sea of idiocy, forced to confront the issue themselves,

As our naivety guides us along,
The bloodied hands dig their fingers deeper into the planet,
Tearing it apart as they plunge into the earth’s depths,
We will soon be engulfed,
Naivety will give way to pain and destruction,
And the hands will reduce us to tortured shreds floating through space.