Posters of Doctor Strange (2016, Marvel/Disney) and Ghost in the Shell (2017, DreamWorks/Paramount); Photo from Death Note (2017, Netflix). These are films and series criticsed for whitewashing.
Recent films criticised for whitewashing: Doctor Strange (2016, Marvel/Walt Disney), Ghost in the Shell (2017, DreamWorks/Paramount), Death Note (2017, Netflix)

Hollywood’s Whitewashing and Cultural Integrity: What the Debate Gets Wrong

The cultural integrity argument launched against whitewashing suggests that aligning the race of the actors with the race of their characters is necessary in order to retain the cultural context of a movie. However well-intended, this argument is conceptually problematic.

One of the most heated controversies in American popular culture discourse nowadays revolves around whitewashing – Hollywood’s age-old practice of replacing originally non-white characters, settings, and stories with white ones. The latest debate revolves mainly around East Asian cultural properties, for which Hollywood seems to have a penchant.

The plethora of petitions, opinion pieces and social media tirades offer many arguments against whitewashing, one of which is the “cultural integrity” argument. This argument asserts that certain film roles and narratives conceived as non-white, especially those adapted from other cultures, carry cultural nuances that would be lost if played or told by white actors, or if their racial identities are completely abandoned.

Rebecca Sun of The Hollywood Reporter bemoaned the casting of Tilda Swinton in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, contending that this is yet any case of “erasing an Asian person from an inherently Asian narrative.”

Indie comic writer Jon Tsui, in response to Ghost in the Shell’s choice of actors, argued that Ghost in the Shell is “inherently a Japanese story”, and Johansson’s casting “is not only the erasure of Asian faces but a removal of the story from its core themes.”

On Netflix’s Death Note, The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey asked “can an intrinsically Japanese story really be so easily adapted with a white lead?” Sarah Rose, the owner of the petition to boycott the film, stated that Death Note “is full of Japanese culture, history, and identity – and the Japanese narrative is essential to the plot and storytelling…,” and that it “…shouldn’t be cast with all white actors – as it goes against the very soul of the story.” At the time of writing, this petition has almost reached its goal of 17,000 signatures.

Hence, the cultural integrity argument launched against whitewashing suggests that aligning the race of the actors with the race of their characters is necessary in order to retain the cultural context of a film.

However well-intended, this argument is conceptually problematic.

By arguing that a person of a certain race cannot fully interpret and express the substance of a culture originally associated with a different race, this argument presumes a guaranteed, intrinsic, and inviolable link between a race and a culture. But there is no such thing.

Race is a common category used to divide and classify humans by easily observable traits in physical appearances such as skin colours, hair texture, and eye shapes. It is therefore a feature of a person’s biological make-up, and passed down genetically from parents to offspring.

Culture, on the other hand, is socially transmitted. Culture is the cumulative set of shared knowledges, experiences, customs, conventions, beliefs, values, worldviews, mindset, and material objects, that belongs to a particular society. Culture isn’t just the clothes you wear or the food you eat; it’s how you greet your neighbours in the elevator, how you react in cases of emergency, how you face unfairness. A person adopts the culture with which he is in frequent contact; this could be the culture of his parents, his neighbourhoods, his college friends, or his workplaces. Culture doesn’t run in the blood; it is adopted, practiced, and lived.

Thus, a person’s race does not speak much of her culture. A white person brought up in China would speak Mandarin better and understand Chinese identity more than a born-and-raised American of Chinese descent, who would be more at home with American culture. Being racially Chinese, and being of Chinese culture are two separate things.

This is not to say that race is nothing but physical appearances. Every race has its own legacy and baggage, born from history and entrenched preconceptions. A white Chinese, by virtue of her skin colour, enjoys privileges that her racially Chinese peers can never have. And no matter where he’s from, a black person is burdened by the slavery of his race, by the shadow of prejudices and bigotries.

But this doesn’t guarantee that any and all black person is well-tuned to African cultures. And having Asian facial features doesn’t automatically enable one to tap into the cultural wealth of Asian societies.

Therefore, the idea that a white actor cannot convey the cultural complexities of a non-white role or narrative simply because of his skin colour rests on shaky ground. And it doesn’t help our cause; the cultural integrity argument also undermines the case for casting non-white actors in non-white roles, unless the actors grow up in the same culture as the characters.

If we judge the suitability of an actor for a role solely by how well he can represent said role’s culture, then Edward Zo – an American actor of East Asian descent turned down for Death Note – is as unqualified as Nat Wolff – the white American actor tapped to play the main character in the film.

You might argue that this is a misinterpretation of the aforementioned arguments, which could have used “white” as a shorthand for “belonging to a distinctly different culture”. Given that these arguments are pertinent to Hollywood, wherein most white actors are unlikely to have intimate knowledge of non-white cultures, this conceptual leap is understandable. However, it still insinuates a link between racial features and cultural identity – a line of thinking with troubling implications.

The video below is a comic sketch about a group of multiracial individuals – 3 white men and women, a black man, and an East Asian woman.

Guess who is Japanese?

Not the East Asian woman.

But to the Japanese waitress, and to many other people, Japanese culture is so firmly associated with East Asian racial appearances that they are unable to wrap their head around the idea that there are Japanese who don’t look East Asian.  Despite the fact that the East Asian woman is in fact American and doesn’t speak Japanese, the Japanese waitress goes on to address solely her. She disregards all the non-Asian members of the groups, even when they desperately try to communicate with her in Japanese, even when one of men discloses his origin to her.

In doing so, she denies him his cultural identity.

By insisting that casting white actors violates “the very soul” of a non-white character or story, those advancing the culture integrity argument unwittingly commit the same misdeed as the waitress: they reject people’s claim to cultures and identities that are traditionally not associated with their races.

Discussing Ghost in the Shell’s casting, actress Keiko Agena exclaims: “We’re looking at these beautiful white bodies saying these Japanese names, and it hurt my heart a little bit.” Stage actor/writer Traci Kato-Kiriyama chimes in “It was supposed to be so touching and intimate, and it felt gross.” While their frustration is understandable, they are not sending a kind message to not just white but all non-East Asian immigrants and Japanese in Japan. Their comments inadvertently feed into the notion that only Japanese-looking people can have Japanese name and be Japanese – a notion that gives rise to discrimination against many non-East Asian Japanese in Japan.

But the non-East Asian Japanese is not the only one whose identity is denied in the video. The Asian-American woman also finds her identity as an American ignored and thrown aside carelessly without a second thought. Her feeble attempt to explain herself, to rectify the situation is drowned out by deep-seated prejudices.

This is an all-too-familiar issue to Asian-Americans, who are currently in the spotlight. Asian-Americans are often treated as “perpetual foreigners” in America, their home land; a study conducted more a decade ago revealed that Asian-Americans are perceived as significantly less American than white Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans. The situation is no better today; Asian-Americans are still misclassified as foreigners or non-native English speakers much more often than Americans of other ethnics. Frank Wu captures this predicament eloquently in his book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White:

“Where are you from?” is a question I like answering. “Where are you really from?” is a question I really hate answering… For Asian Americans, the questions frequently come paired like that…. More than anything else that unites us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigner syndrome. We are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America.

This is no small matter; such identity denial is a form of discrimination and microaggression that can impact negatively on the psyche of the victims. And by stressing the link between a race and a culture, the cultural integrity argument could exacerbate this issue. It reinforces the idea that Asian-Americans are not American enough. Asian-Americans can be trapped in the role of an outsider, effectively erased from the shared American identity.

Worse, they can be prevented from asserting their very own multicultural identities. Asian-Americans are more than just Asian or American; they might share an ethnic heritage with Asians and adopt American cultures, but they have a wealth of experiences that neither Asians nor Americans of other ethnics can have and a distinctive culture that set them apart. The rigid association between one race and one particular culture invalidates multicultural identities.

Identity denial is not the only issue of the cultural integrity, unfortunately. The argument also gives a rather false impression that Hollywood can successfully represent other cultures as long as it plays the race card right. It naïvely suggests that if more Asian and Asian-American actors are cast in Western adaptions of Asian narratives, Hollywood can somehow retain the Asian essence of the narratives. But to make a film really Chinese, there needs to be more than just a Chinese face in a Chinese plot.

Disney’s Mulan (1998) is based on a famous Chinese folk tale, starring Ming-na Wen, a Chinese-American actress, and B. D. Wong, an American actor of Chinese descent as the two leading characters.

According to the cultural integrity argument, Mulan ought to have been able to retain the Chinese essence of the narrative and the characters.

The Chinese themselves didn’t seem to agree. Disney’s Mulan flopped in her homeland, with Chinese cinema-goers criticising the characters as being too American: “Americans who have experienced the once-hot woman’s liberation movement obviously have difficulties understanding Mulan’s traditional behaviour and why this story has spread so widely.”

Really, the “Japanese culture, history, and identity” of Death Note already dissipated the moment it set foot in Hollywood. Casting Kikuchi Rinko as the main lead in Hollywood’s Ghost in the Shell wouldn’t have helped the film, directed by a Brit, written and produced by Americans, to keep the “core themes” of the story. And we shouldn’t expect it to. These productions are American cultural products. It speaks the American voice, and aspires to the American dreams. It has, or should be expected to have American identity. But it can’t speak fluently the language of other cultures.

A screencap from Mulan (1998), depicting Mulan pouring tea outside, instead of into, the cup.
Mulan (1998, Disney) is considered too Americanised by Chinese cinema-goers.

Hollywood is American, and so is Hollywood’s whitewashing issue. The cultural integrity argument, by bringing in other cultures, intends to evoke their sympathy and solicit their support. But whitewashing is not a familiar concept in many societies. Therefore, when the director of the original Ghost in the Shell, Oshii Mamoru, was asked about the whitewashing controversy regarding the Hollywood’s adaptation, he didn’t see the issue at hand. For him, and for many outsiders of American society, there is nothing wrong with having a white American starring in an American production.

Hollywood’s whitewashing is about the representation of American societies and American people in American media, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. It’s about the systemic oppression that erases non-whites’ presence and perspectives in American popular culture. According to Hollywood, America is predominantly white, with a handful of stereotyped black best friends and even fewer Asian sidekicks. This appallingly wrong message is what being sent by Hollywood and received by Hollywood’s consumers both within and without the country.

When asked about casting Asian actors in Netflix’s Death Note, one Japanese says: “Honestly I’d much rather have a white or black actor in an American setting than a Korean or Chinese actor pretending to be Japanese.” In their mind, American culture is firmly affixed to white, or black people. The notion of non-white and non-black Americans doesn’t even cross their mind; any East Asians they see have to be Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, or at least from Asia. This mindset is exactly what is wrong with Hollywood’s whitewashing, and what the cultural integrity argument risks perpetuating.

Therefore, in combating Hollywood’s whitewashing, the focus should rest primarily on demanding a true representation of America.  With all its flaws, the cultural integrity argument can’t go far. Non-white actors in Hollywood shouldn’t settle for roles or narratives whose cultural aspects originally associated with their races. They should fight to be represented in American media, to claim their spotlights and tell their American stories.

Casting Kikuchi Rinko as the main lead in Hollywood’s Ghost in the Shell might not have made the film any more Japanese. But it definitely would have made it more American.

And for those who crave an authentic cultural experience, the best course of action is to demand foreign films and series on American screens – subtitles are really not that bad.

Posters of Death Note Japanese live-action films: Death Note (2006, Warner Bros. Japan ). Death Note 2: The Last Name (2006, Warner Bros. Japan). L: Change the World (2008, Warner Bros.). Death Note: Light Up the New World (2016, Nikkatsu, Django, Warner Bros.)
Death Note has been adapted for film several times in Japan. They can convey the cultural essence of the original work better than any Hollywood’s version.
Death Note (2006, Warner Bros. Japan ). Death Note 2: The Last Name (2006, Warner Bros. Japan). L: Change the World (2008, Warner Bros.). Death Note: Light Up the New World (2016, Nikkatsu, Django, Warner Bros.)

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