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Real Talk on Racism and Whitewashing in Hollywood

Nancy Wang Yuen, Author of 'Reel Inequality,' on Media's Diversity Problem

A version of this article was first published in Faithfully Magazine No. 2 (Summer 2017), available for purchase in print and digital editions.

Nancy Wang Yuen remembers watching as a child the popular sitcom "Three’s Company," set in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles was home for Yuen in the 1980s, too, but the sitcom’s White cast did not represent her lived experience in the culturally-rich city.

“Even though my neighborhood was racially and ethnically diverse when I was growing up, the world looked completely [W]hite on television,” wrote Yuen in her book, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. “I absorbed a very narrow vision of U.S. culture. All throughout my childhood, I did not see myself represented in film and television beyond the occasional cringe-worthy Asian nerd or massage parlor worker.”

Yuen emigrated from Taiwan to the United States just before she began first grade. As she got older, Yuen took notice of Hollywood’s lack of ethnic representation in the media.

As an undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Yuen took a sociology course, and it piqued her curiosity about how Hollywood plays a role in perpetuating racial stereotypes and disparities. Her curiosity morphed into a career as a sociologist at Biola University, where she chairs the Department of Sociology and published Reel Inequality, released in December 2016. Reel Inequality examines the challenges and stereotypes actors of color face in Hollywood.

“Even though people of color comprised 37.4 percent of the U.S. population and purchased 44 percent of domestically sold tickets in 2014, actors of color played only a quarter of the speaking characters in the top one hundred films,” Yuen wrote in the book “These discrepancies demonstrate systemic barriers that prevent actors of color from accessing the same opportunities as [W]hite actors.”

Although White people make up about 62.6 percent of the U.S. population, they make up between 74 and 96 percent of personnel in Hollywood. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2016 drew attention to Hollywood’s racial bias when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated only [W]hite stars for its acting awards.

Hollywood prides itself on its inclusive and progressive ideals, but Yuen’s research exposes the movie industry’s disease: colorblind racism.

Hollywood gatekeepers such as producers, casting directors, and writers deny that systemic racism exists in their industry. They insist Hollywood provides an equal playing field and blame the disparity in actors of color on factors such as scarcity or talent.

Nancy Wang Yuen.
Nancy Wang Yuen.

But Yuen does not buy this explanation. Hollywood gatekeepers claim there are not enough talented or A-list actors of color from which to choose, but they do not apply the same scrutiny to White actors. For example, Chris Hemsworth was not a well-known actor when he was cast for “Thor.”

“They don’t impose the same rationales and filters for White actors that they impose on actors of color,” Yuen said. “Hence, there’s this hypocrisy in Hollywood. It trickles down into this cultural belief that White actors sell and actors of color don’t.”

Hollywood’s Systemic Problem

Hollywood’s lack of racial and ethnic representation is a systemic problem that stems from its beginnings in the 1900s, which explains today’s lack of opportunity for actors of color.

“The first characters of color were portrayed as morally and intellectually deficient by [W]hite actors in blackface, brownface, and yellowface—makeup used to portray characters of a different race,” Yuen explains in Reel Inequality.

White actors playing characters of color presented them as “comedic buffoons or lecherous villains,” and actors of color were “mainly background characters, stereotypes, and occasional foils to [W]hite leads” when they appeared in the media during the 20th century, according to Yuen. From 1930 to 1956, an anti-miscegenation clause in Hollywood banned portrayals of interracial marriage on screen.

“Those racist laws are still affecting how Hollywood does business today,” according to Yuen. “They may not say that, but there’s not a historical precedence of casting actors of color as themselves. There’s more precedence of casting White actors as characters of color.”

In the 21st century, Hollywood continues to whitewash films that should include actors of color in lead roles. For example, Scarlett Johansson was tapped to play the lead character in "Ghost in the Shell," a film based on a seinen manga series from Japan.

Hidden Figures movie
"Hidden Figures." (Photo: courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Hollywood’s track record on racism is directly connected to the misconception that actors of color cannot sell at home or internationally, as that bias arises from the industry’s failure to provide opportunities for them to shine to begin with. Yuen questions Hollywood’s logic that only White actors can carry the box office or that audiences can only identify with actors of their own ethnicity. As an example, she points to "Hidden Figures," a based-on-true-events movie whose main leads were four Black women.

“I went to a Girl Scouts screening of 'Hidden Figures,' and probably 80 percent of the girls were White,” Yuen said. “We all cheered and clapped. You can identify across racial groups. That’s part of what I’m talking about in terms of the system that needs to change. There’s this staunch belief that White people can’t empathize or identify with characters of color, and the problem is that we haven’t seen any characters of color.”

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Looking for a Savior

Hollywood’s tendency to play up the White savior is also evident. Although Black women played leading roles in "Hidden Figures," Yuen acknowledged that the scene where Al Harrison—played by Kevin Costner— nobly knocks down the “colored” bathroom sign, although it historically did not happen.

“You have to have some White hero because, if [White people] are all bad, who can White people relate to?” Yuen said. “That’s the misconception.”

Yuen, a believer, contends that Christians especially should pay attention to the “White savior” theme in popular media.

“Who do we think of as a god figure? Who do we think of as a supreme being?” Yuen asked in reference to "The Passion of the Christ," in which a White actor, Jim Caviezel, plays Jesus.

“We racialize those concepts… I think that also feeds into a hierarchical favoritism and pride that creates division and sin in terrible ways,” she said.

A lack of ethnic representation on the screen not only reinforces racial stereotypes but it can also affect mental health. Research shows that self-esteem increases for White boys but decreases for children of color and girls with every hour of television they consume.

“People are very concerned about violence in terms of ratings,” Yuen said. “But no one is giving a rating on gender or racial stereotypes in a film or television show… Children are growing up and not seeing themselves represented or only seeing themselves in subordinate or villainous roles. I think it’s really dangerous, and most parents are not thinking about it at all.”

Ethnic representation in Hollywood “affirms you as a child of God,” said Yuen, whose passion for the subject is evident. Her first interaction with God was a result of watching another popular 80s sitcom, "Diff’rent Strokes." The show starred Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges as Arnold and Willis Jackson, two Black boys from Harlem growing up in a White home.

God became reality to her after she watched an episode of "Diff’rent Strokes" that showed Arnold (Coleman) praying to God.

Yuen as a child before emigrating to the U.S. (Photo: courtesy of Nancy Wang Yuen)

“God used 'Diff’rent Strokes' to reach me,” Yuen said in a Biola University lecture published online. “God showed himself through this fictional African-American kid… So the media isn’t all bad because I had no window to God, really. I was just going to school and coming home as a kid, and He knew I watched a lot of TV.”

Yuen eventually became a Christian after a friend invited her to a Korean-American summer church camp. She attributed God’s pursuit of her largely to her diverse friendships as a child, and emphasized the importance of affirming God’s image in all people through media.

Hope for Hollywood

Although Hollywood is plagued with systemic racism, Yuen has hope for the industry. Many actors of color she interviewed for Reel Inequality refuse to feed into racial stereotypes, and sometimes suggest rewrites in scripts for characters of color.

“What I found uplifting is that a lot of actors of color see themselves as activists,” Yuen said. “They see themselves as making a change because they are the faces that are on T.V. and film. By representing their respective racial and ethnic groups, they feel they are changing society.”

People of color have been creating their own paths to success, either by sidestepping Hollywood altogether or convincing the industry to meet them on their own terms. Notable examples include Issa Rae’s award-winning YouTube series "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" and Ava Duvernay’s "13th," an acclaimed documentary about the prison system streaming on Netflix. First-time director Jordan Peele’s blockbuster horror film "Get Out" is the first fictional narrative to confront the complexities of racism among liberal White people. The film earned the former Comedy Central star heaps of praise and record-breaking sales at the box office.

“[These examples] are not for a White audience anymore,” Yuen said. “There’s more authenticity in the these shows and films. We can hopefully develop empathy and be able to have real-life interactions and friendships and enter those communities with more ease, compassion and empathy.”

On average, Americans spend 15 hours a day engaging some kind of media. Yuen encourages Christians to apply a high standard when choosing the media they consume.

“How are God’s people being represented, and how can that impact the way I interact with people?” Yuen asked in an interview at Biola University. “What I’m talking about sounds like ‘race and gender stuff,’ but that’s ‘Christian stuff.’ That’s living as people who are reaching out to their neighbors. We’re called to love our neighbors. We’re called to understand our neighbors.”

A version of this article was first published in Faithfully Magazine No. 2 (Summer 2017), available for purchase in print and digital editions.
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