In its original sense, “whitewashing” meant covering or cleaning something up. In today’s cultural landscape, it is a stain that won’t rub off. Now, “whitewashing” describes the habit of casting white actors to play non-white characters, often to shoehorn in a star, sometimes out of racial insensitivity, invariably to the detriment of people (and especially actors) of colour.
Film and television used to be able to get away with whitewashing, but when the word is associated with a project these days it tends to stick. It comes up at every press conference, it generates a cloud of Twitter memes. The signs point to it starting to make an impression on the people who make movies. On Monday, in what could be a pivotal development, British actor Ed Skrein announced he would be stepping down from his role in Hellboy, a reboot of the comic-book franchise, just days after his casting had been announced.
In the comic books, Skrein’s would-be character, Ben Daimio, was half-Japanese, so his casting was met with protest, particularly from Asian-Americans. Skrein listened to them. “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts,” Skrein wrote on Twitter. His decision has been applauded by many, including Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. “Thank you @edskrein very nicely done … ” he tweeted. In addition, Hellboy’s producers have committed to looking to “recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material”.
“I was actually blown away by the news,” says Keith Chow, editor of the Nerds of Color blog, which has campaigned against whitewashing for many years. “He is probably the first actor to do something like this in such a public way. I was joking with friends that…