In light of the Oscar Boycotts, and the constant ridicule that many films receive for placing white actors into racially specific roles, I started wondering what is the cause behind whitewashing.
And I'll start with these scenes from Superstore staring America Ferrera:
Many critics have shot at Superstore for presenting this scenario about having the Latino workers promote salsa with a fake accent and speaking in Spanish. Claiming it is racist. The irony here is that it directly reflects hiring practices in general.
One could argue that the employees in the Superstore are asked to play an acting role, as a pitch strategy to sell the salsa. Putting aside that they are already hired by the Superstore for sales, the principle is sort of the same here.
Why is it that it is racist for the Superstore boss to ask the Latino employees to sell the salsa, but not racist for filmmakers to hire ethnic actors for race specific roles in films?
Filmmakers are almost stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to hiring actors for race specific roles. On one hand, if they ask only for Asians for an Asian character they could be labeled as racist because they're choosing to fill that role with the racial profile and arguably stereotype of Asian actors. Whereas, if they fill the role with a white actor or, more often than not, prominent or popular actor, which in the US is unfortunately white in majority, they're also called racist for "whitewashing" the ethnic role.
In many cases it would seem that presumed ethnic roles that go to white actors is an act of whitewashing, when in reality many factors go into hiring actors for roles. And because there are many laws that prevent employers, including filmmakers, from prejudicing themselves based on race, a filmmaker can't simply say "I want a black kid for this role" just like they can't say "I want a gay actor or lesbian actress for this role."
Ultimately filmmakers choose the actor that best fits the parameters of the character they're casting. Personality, general appearance, and skill all play a part in this decision, along with name recognition and fan-base. In the case of The Last Airbender many fans complained about the whitewashing of the characters of Aang, Katara, and Sokka, whom they believed to be Japanese. Ignoring the fact that each actor was chosen for their skills as actors and performers. Noah Ringer, who played Aang, is a good example. Not a great actor, but he was trained in several forms of martial arts which fit the needs of the character. It is easier to teach a martial artist to act than it is to teach an actor martial arts where the martial arts looks correct. It also ignored the fact that anime characters tend to inherently look "Asian" by association. Nothing in the anime or manga explicitly says that Katara and Sokka weren't Caucasian (and considering they lived in a polar region, they were much closer to the Inuit people in depiction than they were Japanese...).
(Side note: Don't get me wrong here, Last Airbender is an atrocity that deserves to be destroyed. It was a terrible adaptation of the animated series. But the atrocity isn't because of the supposed whitewashing, but because of poor writing, missing details, poor choreography, and an overall dumbing down and compressing the whole of Book One/Season One into a single film.)
So is whitewashing really an act of racism? In some instances, maybe, but I would bet that in most cases it has nothing to do with race at all, but the bigger bottom line, who will bring the fan-base to earn the most money. If a film has a ethnic role and you get a whole bunch of unknown actors who audition and one big name star who is white, the big name star is going to get the role. Not because they're white, but because they'll draw the audience.
Let me reiterate this; Let's say that Big Bang Theory were to be hiring for an actor for Sheldon Cooper's Older Brother, which required a nerdy guy like me (glasses, goofy smile, computer geek, gamer geek, mid-height, not really tone but not overweight and white) and Samuel L. Jackson auditioned for the role and I auditioned for the role, Samuel L. Jackson would get the part, even though he doesn't fit the description. Why, because he has the fan-base to pull in the big bucks.
Lastly, returning to my initial point, the act of whitewashing may actually, in a weird way, be an attempt to avoid the racism. By placing white actors into ethnic roles filmmakers avoid type casting and racial profiling.