Is it ever appropriate for an actor to play a role outside their own racial group?
Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors as characters of a completely different race. The practice became so commonplace that it has been nicknamed ‘white-washing’. While white-washing in television and film is rarely as caricatured and racially insensitive as in the early days of film, ‘white’ actors are still commonly cast as characters of a completely different race and culture (think Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia, or the entire cast reversal in Avatar: The Last Airbender).
So why is ‘whitewashing’ bad?
The practice is harmful because it implies that viewers only want to see white actors on film and television, that only white actors are good enough to play leading roles. It is an issue of representation, the importance of which should not be underestimated. White-washing is particularly harmful if the film or television in question is unquestionably based in a non-western, non-white culture where it is entirely unrealistic for protagonists to be white. Basically ‘white-washing’ prevents fair and equal representation across the racial spectrum.
But is it ok for an actor to play a character of a similar race?
In the recent American sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt the love interest of titular character Kimmy Schmidt is a Vietnamese character named Dong Nguyen. Many critics have praised the show for the inclusion of an interracial love story, a rarity on American cable television.
The twist is that Ki Hong Lee, the actor who plays Dong Nguyen, is Korean-American not Vietnamese.
The argument against casting an American-Korean as a Vietnamese character might state that there are significant differences between Korean and Vietnamese people. Such a casting decision could be argued as another example of western cultures perceiving all ‘asian’ or ‘black’ people as one culture.
At this point it is helpful to stress the difference between ‘race’ and ‘culture’.
From these definitions, it’s evident that an individual may identify as one race (defined by physical characteristics like skin colour), but from an entirely different culture (defined by the society they were raised or reside in). In an increasingly globalised world, more and more people identify with a culture(s) outside what may have been defined by their race. An personal account of the difference between race and culture can be found here.
Back to our original question. If an actor physically resembles the race of the character they have been cast as – even if they identify as different culturally – is it an ethical casting decision?
After all, an actor’s job is to be someone else.It is the casting director’s job to find an actor suitable for the described character. To clarify; television and film ‘white-washing’ is racially insensitive, it disregards people of colour from being allowed fair and equal representation. But in a media landscape that has Australian actors playing English characters, English actors playing South African characters, and absolutely everyone playing Americans – whose to say a Korean actor cannot ethically play a Vietnamese character?