My friend Meg is a far more cogent, far more knowledgable writer than I am, so am going to post her comment which she left below the original article here:
“The thing is – casting directors are perfectly capable of whitewashing parts without you (the general you) having to. And though chromatic actors sometimes are cast in traditionally ‘white’ or ‘default’ roles, there’s a much longer and grander tradition of minority characters – especially ones in title roles – being cast as white. Avatar: The Last Airbender’s protagnist was suddenly not East Asian. 21 – a book about a bunch of East Asian kids gambling – was made with white leads (Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess). Ben Kingsley plays Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most recognisable and renowned Indians in the world – he’s good in the role, but really, Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world – weren’t there any venerable Indian actors who would be as good in the role? Especially considering that it’s a film that deals with colonialism and the struggle for freedom against the domination of the British – a delicious, if somewhat unsettling irony.
Similarly: Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra, an Egyptian queen. Taylor Lautner in the Twilight films playing a Native American. Place in the wider context of yellowface or blackface – deliberate acts on the part of those in power to mock, stigmatize and caricature minorities.
This also plays in to the long and grand tradition of white/male/cis protagonists with minority sidekicks. Even films that are about a particular culture/time/place somehow manage to be fronted with white men – The Last Samurai effect.
Another point that ties into your experience with making a character with a “default” (read: Christian, white-sounding) name black – the huge backlash against Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall in the Thor films:http://www.salon.com/2011/04/20/thor_casting_viking_movies_open2011/
It’s Norse mythology, of course there aren’t black people in it! (Forget the fact that the Norse gods are actually aliens, and then team up with super powered humans on Earth. I mean, really, it’s the casting of a black man as a Norse God that *really* breaks the realism of the film.)
But these arguments about realism and ‘mythic integrity’, relying on the default=white argument, are constantly used to keep people of colour off the screen. And they become particularly insidious, I think, when you look at the British television and film industry in particular. So much of it relies on period drama – which seems to automatically discount people of colour unless their race is particularly remarked upon, or they are in some way symbols as well as characters – the recent Mystery of Edwin Drood, for instance, which cast Indians from (I think) the West Indies as the Landless siblings. Not that I’m down on that – it’s great, and I was incredibly pleased to see brown faces in a period drama – but they are notable for their rarity, and bear a weight of explication, of thematic meaning tied to their race, that white characters rarely have to. It’s the Mad Men problem. It does make sense for fiction based in a particular time period to reflect the cultural mores in its casting, but it becomes an issue when so much of what is produced is about nostalgia for a past which – from my perspective anyway, *doesn’t bloody include anyone who looks like me*.
There are some notable exceptions. But they are *notable* *exceptions*. Dancing on the Edge – the recent BBC series about a black jazz band in 1940s London, is great. Even Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a marvellous example of casting a black protagonist in a role originated by a white man. But these examples are just a drop in a vast, vast ocean – so, I guess what I’m trying to say is – echoing Wendy above – write characters who are deliberately not the white/male/cis “norm” on the page. It’ll still be a struggle to get them on the screen and stage. But write them, because there aren’t enough out there – and that makes a difference.
The only novel I read that was about India with Indian characters during my IB in bleeding Bangalore was Passage to India by EM Forster – and we read it with no reference to colonialism, or discussion about his perspective – or his wild stereotyping of the “sly, cunning, lazy” natives. So write ‘em, because you’re already writing against the weight of a selectively created history, yeah?”