Written by Vera Chok, AUG 29, 2017, published by The Guardian
This is what could have happened: white actor Ed Skrein does the job he was offered, plays a character of Japanese-American heritage in Hellboy, Asians are once again whitewashed out of the media and deep-seated racial bias in Hollywood continues to have real-life consequences – from unfair to downright violent – right here in Britain. This glitzy Hollywood news isn’t simply another casting announcement, it has serious repercussions.
Asian characters – in this case we use the more American definition of the word to include everyone from the continent of Asia – are too often played by non-Asian actors. Recent examples include Tilda Swinton in Dr Strange, Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell), Emma Stone(Aloha), Rooney Mara (Kubo and the Two Strings) – there are hundreds and a quick Google will give you this information. Look up “whitewashing”.
Remember how we have moved away from the practice of blackface(white actors blacking up) and imagine if we cast white actors in black roles today. East Asians (or “yellow” folk – forgive the term, it is not one I like but there is no good label) are particularly susceptible to whitewashing and I wonder if it is linked to how we are believed to be submissive and obedient, the “model minority”. South Asians in the UK are the largest ethnic minority grouping, followed by black British, then east Asians, but data is scarce. The census, an important government tool, does not have a system to “see” pale, yellow folk. It’s for this reason I’m so moved by what Skrein did. He did not want to erase a Japanese face. He is giving up his space – an acting role – to give a group of people (Asians) some space in a world that has historically and institutionally pushed them aside.
The erasure of east Asians in the form of whitewashing or “yellowface” sends all sorts of messages that affect our daily actions – media and advertising is founded on this very principle. The key takeaway here is that Asians are inconsequential. No one will mind if we make the character white because white people are more relatable, more sexy, more heroic – normal. “We” are white, or we want to be. Positioning whiteness as central has long been the norm.
We think of “the west” as being white. We associate “Englishness” with whiteness – the Print Room theatre recently cast a play set in China with all-white actorsbecause they say, it was “an English play”. We are not used to seeing people of colour in our costume dramas, though people of colour have been integral to British history for centuries. We are not taught about our violent colonial history and we misremember the Commonwealth as a thing of equally shared wealth. Beauty standards are “white” – straight hair, fair skin, large eyes, curvy bodies.
I’d rather not go into the rhetoric behind Ukip, Brexit and Trump where that old story of whiteness and “white culture” under threat is being sold to us. Consider culture as a way of life usually grown in a geographical location as opposed to an attachment to skin colour. A British person of Chinese descent might love chips more than rice. Shakespeare had the Jewish character Shylock ask Christians, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Do we only respond to people of our own race on our screens? Do white people represent universal humanity? What stories are we being fed and what do we believe?
As an actor, Ed Skrein is part of the business of storytelling. And he has done something momentous. He has set an immense precedent for famous white actors who have tremendous social power to turn down roles that they do not need. Skrein could have quietly refused the role, but he made a public statement to explain his resignation and publicly call for the inclusion of Asians in the media. He used his privilege as a white, male, public figure to stand up for what he believes is the right thing. He’s sticking up for those being bullied and it would be great if more people with the privilege of power looked out for those who are and have been historically oppressed and silenced.
Reni Eddo-Lodge, in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, writes that racism is not simple discrimination, it is “discrimination plus power”. It’s “so much more than personal prejudice. It was about being in the position to negatively affect other people’s life chances.” The powerful executive producer of Hellboy, Christa Campbell, responded in a now-deleted tweet, saying, “Someone comes and does a great audition to get the role. Stop projecting your own shit on to us. We are all one. We don’t see colours or race.”
If I said that I don’t see that my friend doesn’t have legs I’d be ignoring the difficulty of living in a world where our system is mostly built for people with two functioning legs. Being able to say “I don’t see race” with glibness or ease indicates never sparing a thought for those disadvantaged by their skin colour. It indicates an unawareness of power and privilege. We can become aware, and things can change for the better where we recognise our effect on the fate of others we don’t normally think about.
Skrein hopes his single action “holds significance for people”. It does. It gives Asians (and other marginalised folk) the hope that we do have allies. The producers of Hellboy issued a statement that casting a white actor in an Asian role was “unintentional”. I want Skrein’s action to inspire all makers, storytellers, cultural institutions, all “ordinary” people on the street, to examine your unintentional bias, to recognise the power you wield and to use it as best you can.
• Vera Chok is an actor, writer and performance-maker