This Is What Whitewashing Really Means—And Why It’s a Problem

For decades, whitewashing has taken a diverse, multicultural world and tried to paint it one color. The picture has never been particularly pretty.

“The world is black, the world is white.” So go the lyrics to a 1970s number one hit about racism by the band Three Dog Night. Unfortunately, the world according to movies, TV, music, art, literature, and history often isn’t even that complex—it tends to be almost 100 percent white. Racism and White supremacy factor into this monochromatic alternate universe, where white dominates the big picture, pushing other colors to the sidelines or out of the frame entirely. When historians, creators, and storytellers do this, they’re guilty of whitewashing, in modern vernacular. According to one Merriam-Webster definition, to whitewash is to “gloss over or cover up,” which, in a sense, is what the racial form of whitewashing does. It creates a White world where sins against people of color, including Blacks, Native Americans, Asians, Latinos, and other minority groups cease to matter because, in revisionist history and reality, those minority groups barely exist. Race is a divisive concept—this is where it came from.

Whitewashing away sins of the past

A flashback to the four-day opening of the National Park Service’s Colonial National Monument (CNM) in Virginia in 1931 illuminates and underscores the problems of racially revisionist storytelling. Slavery didn’t get so much as a cursory mention at the segregated event, which celebrated and recreated the U.S. colonial era and featured White people in redface portraying Native Americans in reenactments. “Removing Blacks and Indians from the colonial and Revolutionary past, indeed from the American past, presented more clearly the racial composition of the imagined national identity offered as the sesquicentennial and CNM,” Matthew Wills wrote in the JSTOR Daily in 2019. “It also avoided confronting the contradictions between the vaunted ideals America brought forth and the country’s historic treatment of these groups.”

He also noted that this revisionist history was a conscious decision by the organizers. “These federal, state, and local officials and citizens crafted a racial narrative informed by the restrictive immigration policies of the 1920s,” he explained. “American history was to be [a] culmination of Northern European Protestant destiny.” The CNM’s whitewashing reflected a White supremacist history and monochromatic point of view that would dominate Hollywood, music, and classrooms for the rest of the century. Here are some other big facts that have been left out of history.

The psychological dangers of whitewashing

When people think of “whitewashing” today, they generally think in terms of Hollywood. It drastically slashes opportunities for actors of color, who are already shut out of White roles and now must compete with White actors for non-White parts. In and out of Hollywood, whitewashing also negatively affects children in minority groups, who grow up seeing very few authentic representations of themselves in entertainment, art, and history. “The result is that Whites can portray anybody and everybody, while people of color are not only prohibited from being Whites but also cannot even be themselves,” Frank H. Wu, author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, wrote about Hollywood whitewashing in a 2017 HuffPost essay. “Whiteness is the default and the norm. It sets the standard to which we should aspire but cannot achieve.”

Whitewashing gains new meaning

Although White actors had been playing characters of other ethnicities for centuries, often employing blackface, redface, and yellowface, the term “whitewashing” didn’t become a popular way to describe this practice until the late 1990s. According to Merriam-Webster, whitewashing as a term revolving around White supremacy debuted in a 1997 issue of Afro-American Red Star, in which Wiley A. Hall wrote: “Finally, the movie makers must not be afraid to lie—especially if it makes us look good. Hollywood has been whitewashing (pun intended) history since movies were invented.”

Merriam-Webster added the new sense of the word to its definition of whitewashing in 2019, explaining, “This new sense of whitewashing refers to casting White actors as characters who are non-White or of indeterminate race… It can also refer to preferring White actors, directors, cinematographers, and so on, over equally qualified people of color, as in the Oscar nominations.” Ultimately, the credibility of movies suffer, which is par for course in an industry cluttered with historically inaccurate films.

Whitewashing in entertainment

Whitewashing permeates every layer of society, but it’s been most prominent and pervasive in pop culture. For decades, it was accepted as an unavoidable fact of entertainment, from White artists like Elvis Presley and Pat Boone recording songs written and/or originally performed by Black songwriters and singers in order to make the music more palatable to White audiences, to White actors scoring Oscars and Oscar nominations for playing characters of color. That Oscar list includes Luise Rainer in The Good Earth (1937), Jeanne Crain in Pinky (1949), Yul Brynner in The King and I (1951), Laurence Olivier in Othello (1965), and Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982).

In a 2019 interview with Global News, Lisa Tomlinson, a cultural critic and professor at the University of the West Indies, cited the infamous example of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” which only became a massive hit after Pat Boone covered it in 1956. It’s a classic case of whitewashing crossed with a sort of cultural appropriation. “We couldn’t have a Black man shaking his booty, the sexuality of it, or any other stereotypes associated with blackness. Boone’s image was much more tame and family-like, much more softened, compared to Richard’s gyrations,” Tomlinson said. “The record company circulated those types of images in the form of Whiteness to appease White people, and they have that power because of the institutional system.” Here are some other examples of cultural appropriation you probably never thought about.

An early whitewashing protest

One of the first highly publicized protests against whitewashing arrived after the musical Miss Saigon (based on the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly) opened in London in 1989. Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Engineer, a half-Vietnamese, half-French character, and he wore bronzing cream and prostheses to make his eyes appear slanted. In 1991, when the production moved to Broadway, protesters descended upon the theater over the whitewashing of the Asian character via yellowface.

Actor BD Wong, who had won a Tony Award three years earlier for M. Butterfly, which was also based on the Puccini opera, joined the chorus of protesters. “I wrote a letter to the actors’ union, which had to approve the visa, even for a star coming over,” he told the New York Times in 2017. “After decades of Caucasian actors impersonating Asian characters in television, movies and in the theater, with a certain amount of comfort from audiences at large, it finally became absolutely essential for the Asian-American audience community and the Asian-American acting community to say it’s too painful for us to watch this anymore—we can’t take it anymore, it embarrasses us, and it’s humiliating.”

Pryce continued in the role anyway, dropping the “Asian” makeup, and won a Best Actor Tony for it in 1991. Still, the protests had a lasting impact. “There was never another Caucasian person who played the part in this country,” casting director Tara Rubin told the New York Times. “We knew that the Asian-American acting community had an incredibly good point, and it was the beginning of a huge shift in the way we think about casting. And I can’t help but wonder if the increased opportunity has helped increase the number of Asian-American actors who enter the field.” History is filled with amazing Asian Americans, of course—here are 12 who made incredible contributions to the world.

Whitewashing art and history

Whitewashing the past goes far beyond how the Civil War has been traditionally taught in American schools as a battle over states’ rights in which slavery was but an afterthought and the major players were all White (Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee). It’s all over the paucity of non-White heroes in the mainstream version of American history. It’s in the depiction of Jesus Christ and other Biblical characters as being European White and often blue-eyed, although the Holy Land, where all of the Biblical stories unfolded, is in the Middle East. It’s in the literal and figurative whitewashing in statues like Michelangelo’s King David, based on a Hebrew king, and the Nefertiti Bust, based on an African queen.

It’s also in the romanticizing of slavery in Gone with the Wind and the romanticizing of European colonialism in the 1962 Best Picture Oscar winner Lawrence of Arabia, the 1985 Best Picture Oscar winner Out of Africa, and Taylor Swift’s 2015 video for “Wildest Dreams.” “Colonialism was neither romantic nor beautiful,” Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe wrote in a 2015 NPR article. “It was exploitative and brutal. The legacy of colonialism still lives quite loudly to this day.” Take a look at these 11 popular songs you didn’t realize are actually racist.

Entertainment should do better, and so must schools—not just in the United States but around the world. “Taking our curriculum to task is not an implied demand for White people to apologise for the transgressions of their forefathers,” Hasnet Lais wrote in the Independent in 2017. “Rather, it is intended to educate the blissfully ignorant about a racist Eurocentric narrative which for centuries anchored the national identity of ordinary Britons, so we can identify modern incarnations of history’s undeniable crimes whenever it rears its ugly head.”

Defenders of whitewashing

Unfortunately, as with racism and cultural appropriation, there are those who would rather downplay whitewashing or deny it altogether to avoid having to deal with the messy politics of it. In Hollywood, for instance, a popular defense is that it’s an actor’s job to play a variety of roles that are far removed from who they are, so why should playing a character of a different race be off-limits? “Philosophically, anyone should be able to play anyone, sure,” Allegra Frank wrote in a 2019 Vox article. “But the truth is that Hollywood clearly doesn’t subscribe to that idea on a broad basis; instead, it’s White people who can seemingly play anyone.”

Indeed, the controversy over the 2016 casting of Black Hermione in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, revealed the double standard. Hermione’s race, by the way, is never explicitly revealed in the Harry Potter books. “I had a bunch of racists telling me that because Hermione ‘turned white’—that is, lost color from her face after a shock—that she must be a White woman, which I have a great deal of difficulty with,” Harry Potter scribe JK Rowling told the Observer. “But I decided not to get too agitated about it and simply state quite firmly that Hermione can be a Black woman with my absolute blessing and enthusiasm.”

A new wave of color

Things are improving—at least in entertainment. Recent movies starring Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson as Asian characters failed critically and/or commercially, suggesting that perhaps audiences are finally demanding better. In 2017, Netflix launched a popular reboot of the ’70s TV series One Day at a Time featuring Latino central characters. The success of movies like Best Picture Oscar winners Moonlight and Parasite, as well as Broadway’s Best Musical Tony winner Hamilton, are proving that audiences want to see a variety of races and ethnicities onscreen and onstage, something that will hopefully lead to more opportunities and awards recognition for non-White actors. And perhaps most excitingly, on August 8, Zoom hosted a reimagining of the iconic sitcom The Golden Girls featuring four Black actresses: Oscar and Emmy winner Regina King, Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee Tracee Ellis Ross, Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard, and Tony nominee Sanaa Lathan. Another sign of our changing times? The increasing awareness of Juneteenth. Here’s why we celebrate it.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

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Jeremy Helligar
Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer and editor at People, Teen People, Us Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly. He has covered entertainment, pop culture, travel, politics, race, and LGBTQ issues for Reader's Digest, HuffPost, Queerty, The Root, Variety, and The Wrap, among other websites and publications. Before returning to New York City in 2019, he spent 13 years living and working in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Bangkok, Cape Town, Sydney, and across Europe while writing his two travelogue memoirs, Is It True What They Say About Black Men? And Storms in Africa.