The new Bradley Cooper/Emma Stone film, Aloha, has regenerated a long seated controversy over the whitewashing of Hollywood movies. Aloha, a movie filmed in Hawaii about the Hawaiian culture, has no Hawaiians in the cast except for a few very minor roles.
This history of this whitewashing goes back most notably to the 1931 film Charlie Chan Carries On starring Swedish actor Warner Oland as Chan. Oland had also played Fu Manchu in an earlier film. However, the practice of casting white actors in ethnic roles began much earlier.
My own experience with this phenomenon came when I was pitching a script I’d written about the first African-American military pilot, Eugene Jacques Bullard, nicknamed the Black Swallow of Death during his time flying with the Lafayette Escadrille in France. Now keep in mind, this is a true story. At the end of the pitch, the studio executive I was pitching asked – in all seriousness – if I could make the main character white.
The publishing industry has also been accused of whitewashing – portraying ethnic main characters on book covers using Caucasian features and very, very light skin tones.
Cultural icons of all sorts have also been subjected to this whitewashing –
Why, for instance, is Jesus, a Jew born in the Middle East, almost always portrayed with extremely Caucasian features and very long hair?
I recently found myself thinking about how much of this is consciously or unconsciously done, especially in the case of novelists. I recently finished the manuscript for my new book, Lie Catchers (due for publication in August by Pro Se). The book is fiction, but very much based on my experiences as a detective and interrogator with the Los Angeles Police Department.
I was surprised with myself when about three quarters of the way through the first draft, I realized all my fictional cops were white and most of my fictional suspects ethnic. Gender balance was there in the pages, but the ethnic balance in no way represented what I knew of the LAPD.
While the LAPD can be taken to task for many things, ethnic and gender representation is not one of them. From 1977 through 1990, I experienced the department’s growing pains as many more women and minorities joined the force. It wasn’t necessarily a smooth transition, but the fact it was occurring in the second largest police department in the nation was encouraging.
At one point in the mid-nineties, you could look around an LAPD detective squadroom and see ethnic clusters of detectives. By the end of the nineties, these barriers had been almost completely broken down…LAPD cops were no longer black, brown, white, or Asian – they had all become blue. Today’s LAPD almost perfectly matches in percentages the ethnic and gender make-up of the city it serves – unlike Ferguson, which has one black officer on their small department, which serves a community almost 95% black, a definite recipe for disaster.
So, how did I end up with all white cops in my novel and what should I do or not do about it? I wrote the second draft of the novel with this problem very much in mind, changing not just the ethnicity of some of the cop characters, but attempting to deepen their characters to reflect their race without reverting to stereotypes.
I didn’t feel forced to do this from white guilt or cultural pressure. I did it because my novel was based in the reality of a multi-cultural LAPD, which I wanted to reflect.
You might ask if it is really possible for a white writer to create real ethnic characters. Of course it is – you need to look no further than Shaft created by Ernest Tidyman or Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night) from the typewriter of John Ball. Both are strong, lasting, black characters created by white writers. And there are many, many more examples.
As editor of the Fight Card series of boxing novels (www.fightcardbooks.com), I personally reached out to ethnically diverse writers to bring their viewpoints and realities to the series. As a result, some of Fight Card’s best monthly entries (Brooklyn Beatdown, Fist of Africa, Rise of the Luchador) have featured Black or Hispanic fighters. Boxing is a racially diverse sport. In its rich history there have been racially motivated flashpoints, yet stripped down to its basics in the ring, it is the pure experience of one man (or woman) facing off against another in an event to determine – corruption aside – the best fighter. I wanted and needed Fight Card to reflect that reality.
But here’s my question. Should any writer, in today's atmosphere of heightened race related challenges, bow to public pressure to create a more ethnically diverse cast of characters within the confines of their fictional worlds?
Should Walter Mosely, for instance, be required to insert white characters into his Easy Rawlings novels for the sake of diversity? Should the black-centric works of Chester Himes or Robert Beck (better known as Iceberg Slim) be rewritten to integrate white characters, for the sake of today’s politically correct racial diversity? Perhaps that sound ridiculous, but could those books be written today without causing a PC outrage?
I think they could…and rightfully so…But this leads me to an even more potentially controversial question: In today’s society, do white writers in particular have a responsibility to be more aware of their inclusion and handling of ethnic characters? Would this be catering to the PC police or an effort to support understanding and diversity?
Does the subject of whitewashing, as it pertains to writers, even matter? Or is it a total non-issue? Should we all write what we write without giving specific thought to an ethnically balanced cast of characters? Where does a writer’s responsibility regarding race begin and end?
Seeking answers, I turned to several of my writing buddies…
Derrick Ferguson is the creator of the popular pulp adventurer, Dillon. Both Derrick and his creation, Dillon, are black and I wanted his perspective.
“I'd much rather hear an author changed some of the characters because his or her gut told them the characters should to more accurately reflect the multi-cultural background of whatever city their story is set. This is much preferable than doing it to cater to the PC-infested world we live in. The only agenda I ever had and still do with characters such as Dillon, Levi Kimbro and Sebastian Red is to put black heroic characters in situations we've never seen them in before.”
I like how you brought up that John Shaft and Virgil Tibbs were both black characters written by white writers – characters who have gone on to be pop culture icons. I myself believe the reason they've lasted so long is because both Tidyman and Ball wrote as characters who are black rather than as black characters, if that makes sense. I can only speak for me, but that's how I approach all my characters – As characters.”
Gary Phillips is the master of Black Pulp. He is the devious mind behind the Ivan Monk mysteries, Hollis P.I., McBleak – The Extractor, Luke Warfield – The Essex Man, and many other black-centric novels and short stories. As you read what he has to say on the matter, imagine him saying it in his deep, resonant voice…
“Even in Walter’s Easy books, whites or Latinos or others are there, so it’s not like he’s not portraying a full pallet of the character’s life and times. In fact, as you point out, your first-hand knowledge of what you experienced in the LAPD meant there was no way to ignore that on the page. Just as having knowledge of people like Bullard (a boxer, spy and ex-pat in jazz–age in Paris), or black aviatrix Bessie Coleman, or the parallel black life of L.A.’s 1920s-30s Central Avenue, and those stories I heard from my pops growing up about those times – what could I do but not mine that for my character Decimator Smith who I first debuted in Black Pulp. I mean, it’s not as if people of color suddenly showed up in the ‘70s.
Their stories real and imagined always existed, but weren’t always known, at least so far as mainstream – that is white publishing – was concerned. John E. Bruce, a black writer in Black Sleuth, wrote a serialized mystery in 1907-9. His African private eye Sadipe Okukenu worked for the International Detective Agency and was on the trail of a stolen diamond. But it’s Pauline Hopkins, who several years before Bruce, wrote Hagar's Daughter (1901-2), which is recognized as the first detective story written by an African American with black characters – though not as principals. And Rudolph Fisher, another black writer who like Conan Doyle was a physician published in 1932 the Conjure Man Dies, a detective story with black sleuths Dr. John Archer and plainclothesman Perry Dart set in Harlem.
If I’m going to write a story set in present day Long Beach, say. Well I think it is incumbent I have some sense of the lay of the land. I know there’s a sizable Cambodian/Cambodian-American population (as well as other Asian ethnicities) there so I might try to find though a connection some of those folk to talk to or just hang out in a Cambodian restaurant, if only to get some sense of the local “color” as it were. It doesn’t mean I feel compelled to make my main character Southeast Asian, but doesn’t it give any story more depth, more a sense of reality to reflect reality – even if I’m writing a sci-fi, a mystery or pulp?
Marvel is apparently in talks with Tilda Swinton to play the Ancient One, Dr. Strange’s mentor in the movie. Now for the uninitiated, the Ancient One was always a male Tibetan master of the mystic arts. On one hand then, a bold and admirable move with the use of an older female for the role. But make no mistake, Ms. Swinton ain’t no parts Asian – though I’m sure they won’t be putting her in Charlie Chan makeup either. The Internet lit up over this, particularly among Asian writers and activists. Should it be tit for tat and that means an Asian actor has to play Namor, the Sub-Mariner? Or maybe we can cast our stories with as much life and reflection as we can, feel free to be different, to be experimental, but don’t forget our job is to tell the story as well as we can.
The short answer is, the writer shouldn’t bow to public pressure, write what it is you want – there’s an audience for the material or there’s not.”
As well as writing numerous other highly successful novels, Jan Burke is the award winning author of the bestselling Irene Kelly novels and founder of The Crime Lab Project, which works to increase awareness of the problems facing public forensic science labs in the U.S.
If I only had one sentence, I'd say this: If you're going to tell someone's story, you have to listen to his or her story…
The truth is, none of the human world is all white. On the smallest scale of your humanity, your DNA shows your African heritage, and however long ago your ancestors ventured from it, you still carry lots and lots of it with you. On the largest scale — oh, honey, just look at the numbers. So the sooner we drop that pretense, the more honestly we are writing. Forget other agendas. This is about being real. So let's stop acting as if all the drama is about white people, and everyone else is around for set decoration.
But how, if you're in the currently powerful minority and have lived a fairly segregated life?
If you're going to tell someone's story, you have to listen to his or her story.
Listen, not guess at it.
Although they may help, imagination and empathy aren't enough. For example: if you're a competent writer who has never worked in law enforcement and you want to write about people who work in law enforcement, you'll do your homework, and not just about the job itself. You'll learn how it affects (in varied ways) the human beings — the varied, individual human beings — who hold the job. How they are treated by those who are not in law enforcement. How they think of those who are not their brethren. And more.
If you're going to tell someone's story, you have to listen to his or her story.
You can't see a television or film representation of it and think you have it in mind. This may mean stepping out of your comfort zone, doing some work, challenging your assumptions. All worthwhile, both on the page and in life.
When it comes to white people telling the stories of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, or people who combine any of the above, this all goes double, if not triple. Set your assumptions aside. Do your homework. Actively look for false portrayals in your work. And listen.
Otherwise, it's just fakery, which can be harmful at worst and distracting at best, but not much more.
Thanks to my friends for their thoughtful responses. The bottom line appears to be writing shouldn’t be about race, it should be about telling authentic stories with authentic characters. A writer’s responsibility is not to any agenda, but to the truth at the heart of a story.