Whitewashing in theater: Why it's wrong and what we can do about it

Theater can be a tool to advocate for social change and other important things, but one can’t ignore its extensive history of racism and exclusion. Today, a majority of it manifests as whitewashing, the casting of white actors in non-white roles.

Racism in the medium of theater is pervasive, partially rooted in its prominence as a medium primarily viewed, produced and performed by upper-class white people. Because of this, people of color are frequently excluded from the medium, which discourages actors of color from performing at all. Eventually, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Fewer people of color are included, fewer people of color try to professionally act, and then non-white roles are taken by white actors due to the lack of actors of color.

One of the earliest and most clear examples of whitewashing in theater is the opera “Madama Butterfly.” Not only is the show rooted in racism, but over half the roles are Japanese, and almost none of them are ever played by Japanese or even Asian actors. The popularity of the opera, despite inherent racism, has led to countless white opera performers having Japanese roles from it on their resume.

A more modern, but similarly harmful example is the musical “In the Heights.” The musical itself isn’t racist — far from it — and both the Broadway production and movie authentically cast Latino actors. However, several high school and collegiate productions of the musical cast white students in these roles, blatantly ignoring the cultural context of the musical.

Whitewashing is harmful when done by large-scale productions, but smaller programs aren’t exempt from perpetuating similar racism. Smaller theaters, especially community theater programs, high schools and college theater departments struggle to appropriately cast roles of color due to a lack of actors available. 

This is a sad truth, one that is often used to excuse whitewashing as inevitable. However, whitewashing doesn’t fix the lack of diversity in these programs, and in fact only worsens the problem.

Whitewashing isn’t just going to go away, especially in a medium where it is so prevalent like theater. But there are things that can be done to prevent it on a small scale.

Ultimately, a large part of the responsibility is on the actor themself, if cast in a non-white role, to reject it. That may sound harsh, but a white actor playing a role of color is inherently racist, which is why some white actors have begun to take the stance of not auditioning for, or accepting roles that are explicitly non-white.

Though some of the responsibility is on the actors, it’s also vital for people deciding shows and casting to be aware of what they can and can’t do in terms of productions to choose. Producing shows that don’t have characters of color may seem counterproductive when trying to be more inclusive to actors of color, but it can actually help with diversity. The key is to have an open mind when casting, and not to assume a character with no stated race should default to being white.

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