What Is Whitewashing — and Why Is It So Harmful?

From films to textbooks, whitewashing continues to play a leading role across American culture in ways you might not immediately recognize — but should take notice of. Learn the real definition of whitewashing and how to combat it.

What Is Whitewashing, Exactly?
Photo: Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

Although it's fair to say that American society has taken some strides toward equality for oppressed communities, racism continues to rear its ugly head in many shapes and forms. One of those is known as whitewashing. Defined by Merriam Webster as "to alter (something) in a way that favors, features, or caters to white people," whitewashing typically involves eliminating or replacing Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) for their white counterparts on TV and film. Take, for example, Breakfast at Tiffany's, in which white actor Mickey Rooney was cast to play a Japanese man. But the erasure of BIPOC in entertainment is just one of the many ways whitewashing occurs in America.

Here, learn more about what whitewashing is, how it plays a role in privilege and society, and what you can do about it.

What Is the Definition of Whitewashing?

A good example of whitewashing in entertainment is "the practice of casting a white actor as a person of color," says Tina Harris, Ph.D., professor and endowed chair of race, media, and cultural literacy at the Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communications. "The decision to do so avoids accurately reflecting the physical racial, ethnic, and cultural markers of the group to which the character belongs," and, as such, "reinforces the belief that whiteness is superior to all other groups and renders BIPOC invisible and voiceless."

Whitewashing in the entertainment biz also occurs with "the hiring of white directors and other key crew over qualified people of color," according to Meghan Sanders, Ph.D., associate director of the media effects lab at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communications. In fact, less than 6 percent of writers, directors, and producers in U.S. films, for example, are Black, according to a 2021 report. "We can also think of whitewashing extending to the nominations' slates for awards such as the Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys," notes Sanders. (Think: #OscarsSoWhite.)

Now, let's be clear: Whitewashing, such as that in Hollywood, has been going on for decades. In fact, one of the earliest (and most notable) instances of whitewashing is the 1915 release of The Birth of a Nation, which portrays the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War. The explicitly (and disgustingly) racist film features white actors in blackface depicting Black men and women as barbaric, sex-crazed savages. And then there are more recent examples of whitewashing in media, such as the 2015 movie Stonewall. The 21st (!!) century film centers around a cis, white gay man when, in reality, the leaders of the Stonewall Rebellion were two Black and Latina trans women.

That being said, whitewashing goes beyond just the hiring of white professionals in place of BIPOC for positions on and off-screen. It also encompasses a white portraying a person of color (e.g. Rooney Mara as the Native American Princess Tiger Lily in Pan), the creation of worlds that are exclusively white (e.g. The Lord of the Rings), and the erasure of BIPOC from depictions of certain times altogether (e.g. 1920s New York City in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). In fact, according to the

As mentioned, however, the act of whitewashing isn't reserved for just Hollywood — it's visible in literature and the retelling of history in, say, your high school textbook. "In a global sense, whitewashing is the erasure of contributions and even existence of non-white people [and] cultures in society," explains Sanders. "It is the act of covering up something 'bad' or something that should no longer be seen." (

Think of it this way: Besides slavery, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks, what else did you really learn in school about Black history? If your answer is "not much," then you're not alone, but you're a part of a collective ignorance because of the lack of education. A 2015 study conducted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture together with Oberg Research found that, on average, a mere 8-9 percent of the time in U.S. history classes is devoted specifically to Black history — and some states even neglect the subject altogether. (Although, ironically, Black history is American history; a good reminder, folks.) What's more, history textbooks and their content vary from state to state, leaving a ton of room for misinformation and more whitewashing.

For example, in 2015, a widely-taught history textbook from publisher McGraw Hill described the Atlantic slave trade as an exchange that brought "millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations," according to NPR. The whitewashing is in the neglected details. For anyone wondering what's wrong with that sentence: These people were not workers — they were enslaved against their will to do said work. Once notified of the editorial error, McGraw-Hill scrambled to fix their major mistake, offering to ship corrected copies to schools for free or provide a sticker to cover up the aforementioned copy along with a lesson plan about the cultural context of language, according to NPR. Still, at the time, more than hundreds of thousands of copies of this whitewashed account were already in the hands of students across the country.

The Impact of Whitewashing

"As a result of [whitewashing], there's a misrepresentation of the ethnicity or the culture of the character in question," says Harris. When decisions are made to, say, cast a white actress in place of a BIPOC actress, "it sends the message that we can't find anyone good enough to play this character and [that] the best person to embody that is a white person," she explains. "It's perpetuating this standard of white normalcy or whiteness as the default standard." It also further suppresses and silences the voices of BIPOC, prohibiting them from the much-deserved opportunity to share their stories just as much as the next person. (

What's more, by eliminating BIPOC talent, culture, and people, whitewashing prohibits society from seeing these individuals in certain roles and fields (think: entertainment). Not only does this further the fallacy that white professionals are superior to those of color, but it also incorrectly depicts people of color as unqualified or unworthy of certain positions in society. Without being able to see positive reflections of themself media, it can become increasingly more difficult for members of the BIPOC community (especially children) to value themselves. This phenomenon is known amongst experts and researchers as "symbolic annihilation," which is essentially the idea that if you don't see yourself represented in the media you consume, then you begin to believe that because of this, you are somehow not important, according to research.

As for whitewashing in education? That can be detrimental as well because "it perpetuates this myth that we are in the post-racial U.S. and that we're living in a country, or even a world, where all things are shared, and they are not," says Harris. Teaching and, in turn, promoting an altered, untrue narrative leads children to believe this misinformation and sets them up for, in Harris' words, "a harsh reality."

Odds are they'll go on living in a bubble only to eventually have a "rude awakening" when they interact with someone from a group that's systematically oppressed," she says. "[When that happens] they could possibly question their ideology and its evolution or they might be more entrenched in believing those ideals." (

And need not forget about whitewashing's impact on a personal level, specifically on one's psychological health. "Not only does whitewashing remove opportunities for qualified and talented creatives, [who are] already often shut out of consideration for key roles and projects, [but] it [also] has a significant and definitive effect on self and collective esteem," notes Sanders. "When groups of people, especially children in these groups, don't see people like themselves in certain spaces, in authentic ways, or as making valuable contributions, it limits their own sense of what they feel is appropriate and possible for themselves."

"If whiteness is the norm and what should be aspired to, that means being Black or brown is not the norm and should be something to be distanced from," she continues. "People lose a valuable sense of self that is tied to race and or culture." Altogether, this — as well as racism overall — can lead to a host of psychological consequences, including depression and anxiety, as evidenced by research and the American Psychological Association. (See more: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)

How to Combat Whitewashing

For one, you should make a concerted effort to support media and creators who are producing stories centered around BIPOC. Think: Opting to see a film that accurately portrays minorities and employs minority characters for such roles instead of paying to see the big blockbuster underrepresented minorities. It's also always a good idea to continue to educate yourself on whitewashing as well as the history and nuanced nature of injustice. Gathering more knowledge better equips you to recognize whitewashing, call it out, and protest for an accurate depiction and fair treatment instead.

And on that note, an especially key way to combat this form of racism is by being an honest and effective ally — not a performative person who just posts a black square on their Instagram grid and calls it a day. (See more: How to Be an Authentic and Useful Ally)

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