Have you ever turned on the TV and noticed that a white actor is playing the role of a BIPOC character? Or, maybe you’ve noticed that BIPOC characters are not included whatsoever in a story or series where they should be?
This is whitewashing.
Merriam Webster’s dictionary describes ‘to whitewash’ as altering something in a way that favours, features, or caters to white people. As an example, this might be portraying something in a way that increases the prominence, relevance, or impact of white people and minimising or misrepresenting BIPOC people.
“The erasure of Black, Indigenous and Asian people — especially the darker skinned people within these groups — in order to centre whiteness, is something that I have witnessed countless times,” says Aysha Campbell, a masters student in the department of humanities with a research focus in Black studies. Campbell is specialising in the use of sound and space to depict Black life within literature.
Pratik Virwani, a first-year student studying public relations, says that, “whitewashing, I believe, is more common when it comes to politicians and the side that the news channels are inclined towards. The most common cases and widely used scenarios are when a news channel majorly focuses their coverage on an external event if something negative surfaces about the side they support, instigating ignorance.”
Evidence of whitewashing is not difficult to find when looking at the statistics — 52 per cent of the members of parliament in Canada are comprised of white males, while they only make up 36 per cent of the population. In an article published by The McGill International Review in 2020, it was found that less than 15 per cent of staff at CBC were BIPOC.
“I feel like white washing is very prevalent in historical and contemporary western cultures and media,” says Campbell. “The fact that I read and watched The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo in and outside of school growing up and I never found out that the author, Alexandre Dumas, was a black man until I was an adult is an example of whitewashing.”
Along with politics and journalism, Hollywood films are notorious for whitewashing. As an example, Mickey Rooney, a white actor, played Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The role is described as “horribly racist” through Rooney’s over portrayal of stereotypes. Despite being a white actress, Emma Stone played the role of Allison Ng in Aloha (2015), a character who described herself as being a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese.
Olivia McClymont, a second-year education student, explains that, “a big example of whitewashing is the overwhelming negative reaction to the new live-action The Little Mermaid being played by a woman of colour instead of someone who is white. Some people are claiming the character as ‘their princess’. The fact that it matters a lot to the community that she can’t be Black is ridiculous.”
The Little Mermaid (1989), a popular animated Disney film about, well, a mermaid, is fictional. Ariel is quite literally a mythical creature who has a tail — part of what makes myths and fairy tales so important is that they become cultural products, reflective of our own social evolution.
Campbell says that, “the type of erasure that occurs when whitewashing is demoralising to communities of colour because it tells Black people, Indigenous people, Asian people, and other people of the global minority that they are not worthy to be at the centre, to be seen, or to tell their own stories. The lack of representation also hinders the imagination of children of colour when they don’t get to see themselves in the media they are being offered.”
“Less subtle and more overt examples are the use of white actors to play the roles of characters or depictions of real life Black, Asian or Indigenous people in cinema and TV,” adds Campbell. “More recently with TikTok, we have black creators making viral dance trends and white creators copying them, becoming the face of these trends, and getting the credit for them.”
Sheldon Pearce’s article, “The Whitewashing of Black Music on TikTok” published by The New Yorker in 2020, discusses just how prevalent the whitewashing of Black art, specifically music, is on TikTok. They also consider how “the optics play into a long, infamous history of white appropriation of Black arts.”
Campbell explains that, “the impact that whitewashing has on the financial gains of people of colour can be seen with TikTok and the likes of Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio, who rose to fame and riches off doing dances and not giving credit to the Black dancers who created them — like Jalaiah Harmon and her Renegade dance —ultimately denying Black creators access to the money, fame, and sponsorship deals they were getting off of doing those dances.”
Along with music and dance, whitewashing can also be found in various fashion or makeup trends, including the “clean girl aesthetic”.
The clean girl aesthetic, as explained by Nena Lezama in their article “Why the #CleanGirlAesthetic TikTok Trend is Problematic” is a tightly slicked back bun with hair parted in the middle. The look is completed by adding simple gold jewellery accessories, such as hooped earrings or necklaces. This look has been garnered by famous influencers and celebrities, such as Gigi Hadid, Hailey Bieber, and Kendall Jenner.
By becoming a trend, it implies that this look is something new and innovative — but, it’s been rocked by women of colour for decades.
“This phenomenon with TikTok is not new but part of a long history of white people appropriating Black cultural production and getting the recognition and money off it while the Black creators are erased from history,” explained Campbell.
Major fashion companies, such as Louis Vuitton, are exploiting the keffiyeh, a scarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, as a high-end fashion item. Meanwhile, individuals are suffering due to political unrest in the Middle East.
Sarah Ayoub, a fourth-year film and media arts student, says that, “I notice in the media how the keffiyeh is being seen. What once was a symbol of resistance for my people is now being portrayed as a fashion symbol that people wear without knowing the meaning of. My family will wear a keffiyeh during the war, but people will wear it as a cool pattern and don’t know why we wear it, nor what it means.”
“In the fashion world, women are able to wear a scarf over their head and it’s seen as peak fashion, but when I wear the hijab, I get called names and people assume I don’t speak English or that I’m oppressed,” adds Ayoub.
What’s more, religious clothing has historically been stigmatised and persecuted. In countries such as France, Denmark, and India, the hijab has been banned while headscarves flooded runways this past spring.
“Whitewashing is harmful because the history of these issues gets erased,” continues Ayoub. “When hijabs become just a scarf and no longer a piece of clothing women use for modesty, and keffiyehs become just a pattern being sold by Gucci and Shein, our history gets erased.”
Whitewashing even goes as far as to impede on the wellness industry.
Reema Kumar, a first-year environmental engineer and biology PhD student says, “I was born and brought up in India and have observed numerous traditions and cultures across the country. After social media took over, I saw a lot of these practices being altered according to the West. Indeed, there is a lot to aspire to, however, certain traditional practices fade away in the masses,”
Kumar explains that, “yoga and meditation are often ‘sold’ as different products. However, because of the lack of clear understanding of yoga, people are unaware that one is a part of the other. Yoga has been practised in the Indian subcontinent for ages, long before globalisation.
“There are numerous aspects to it, and it is not just exercising. It is indeed a great practice of inclusion in one’s life, but a thorough knowledge would bring a lot more wonders than picking up just a few points out of it.”
Nabihah Parkar, in their article published by the Huffington Post in 2022, explains how a yoga teacher was banned from using Sanskrit terms in their practices, as well as chanting “Om” or saying “Namaste.” In addition, there is a general lack of representation of BIPOC yoga teachers in Canada.
“Everytime I see these occurrences happen, I experience a mixed bag of emotions: frustration, anger, disappointment, annoyance, and even resignation because it’s been happening for so long and so often,” says Campbell. “Even as I’m discussing this topic now, I’m getting heated because of the harm this racist practice causes Black communities and communities of colour.”
Unfortunately, these examples only scratch the surface of where whitewashing might be experienced. Ayoub further encourages consumers to critically assess items and educate themselves before making purchases.
“Ask yourself, is this new or have I just seen this on a different skin tone? Is this new or might this have a history behind it, and how can I educate myself?”
“Whitewashing is a way of diminishing the meaning behind something in one’s culture. Everyone’s culture and background matters, so the fact that someone could think that theirs is more important than anyone else’s is wrong, especially when they claim things that are not theirs to own,” explains McClymont.
Kumar adds to McClymont’s thoughts, saying that there is a vast variety of cultures and traditions in the world and many experiences to be had. “If everything gets seen or experienced from one perspective, we lose the authenticity of it. It’s true that we share our experiences but imposing our perspectives as the ultimate truth does injustice to the original experience,” says Kumar.
While adverse impacts of whitewashing are evident in various forms, it is important to have an open mind, stay informed, and to be aware of the harm that it causes.
“People need to gain information from various perspectives, even outside their scope of learning,” says Virwani. “Most things taught during our childhood may turn out to be wrong as there is new research and evidence surfacing everyday, so it is important to keep an open mind.”
“It is important to develop an understanding about anything you see around you, even if it doesn’t concern you at the moment, it might hold some relevance or connection to a part of your life. Ultimately, and most importantly, don’t judge people or information blindly, negative or positive,” continues Virwani.
We must remember to approach new (and already established) ideas with an open mind, always being ready to learn and to show respect to one another. Experiencing and learning new things outside of your own culture can be extremely enriching and provides a well-rounded perspective on the world. While it’s encouraged to appreciate cultures, it’s not okay to appropriate or whitewash.