Last Wednesday Margaret Cho revealed that Tilda Swinton reached out to her on how to deal with the backlash she received due to playing the Ancient One in the film ‘Doctor Strange.’ In the comic book this character is a Tibetan man, so many thought that the role would go to an actor of Asian descent. However, this film follows the same path as Ghost in the Shell by casting a white actor to play a role that should go to an Asian actor, thereby continuing the whitewashing of characters of colour.
If we lived in a world where systemic racism didn’t exist, then it wouldn’t be problematic for a white actor to play an Asian character. Unfortunately, systemic racism is very much alive in today’s society. Hence whitewashing characters is detrimental to actors of colour, especially Asian actors, as they are already underrepresented in film and television. In fact, whitewashing is detrimental to POC (people of colour) in general, as they have fewer opportunities to see someone who looks like them on screen.
Both Cho and Swinton had a conversation via email about whitewashing in Hollywood. However, Cho told actor Bobby Lee on his podcast Tiger Belly, that she thought that the exchange between her and Swinton made her feel like a ‘house Asian’, an Asian person who’s a servant to a white master and keeps their secrets.
Many people have come to Swinton’s defence saying that it was great that she’s asking about how to tackle the whitewashing problem in Hollywood, and have even criticised Cho for calling the email conversation ‘a fight.’ Nonetheless, Cho called the exchange the fight to highlight how weird she thought it was about the entire exchange.
Moreover, nothing in Swinton’s email was commendable. Firstly, it’s strange that Swinton expected Cho, a stranger to her, to educate her on the issue of whitewashing, when there is plenty of information readily available on the internet, in essays, speeches and books tackling the very issue Swinton wants to understand.
Nonetheless, the worst thing about Swinton’s email was that wreaked of white fragility, which in fact hinders understanding the experience of marginalised groups, such as POC. Dr Robin DiAngelo writes that white guilt is a ‘state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.’ Examples of such defensive moves are emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and engaging in behaviours like argumentation, silence, and even leaving the stress-inducing situation. In Swinton’s emails, we can see that she’s quite defensive and argues how she playing the Ancient One isn’t really that problematic when it really is.
It certainly is normal to argue your case in a conversation with differing opinions. Nevertheless, Swinton sent the email asking for Cho to explain to her what was so wrong about a white actor playing the role of an Asian character, and instead of listening to Cho and trying to understand the argument, she gives a nonsensical reply that she being cast in the role instead of an Asian person is actually quite forward – maybe even feminist (the white kind of feminist). This is because, according to Swinton, it avoids the Dragon Lady trope and subverts the idea that all wisdom is male, and other white-feministy things. Yes, a lot of Swinton says is great for women, but the matter at hand is race. By listing these “cool” things that the film gains by casting her instead of an Asian actor, Swinton is sidestepping the problem in question, which was the main reason why she sent Cho the email.
The end of Swinton’s email is perhaps even worse than the comments above. When Cho suggested how Swinton could help projects which give Asian voices a platform, Swinton does mention that she is supporting such a project, which is great, but given the whole tone Swinton’s emails, mentioning this project seems defensive, especially since it follows the phrase ‘by the way’. In reality, it seems as if Swinton mentions this project to say that she should not be criticised for taking a role that should have gone to an Asian actor because she’s supporting one Asian project. Sadly, by the end of the email, it appears that she still does not understand why playing the role of the Ancient One in Doctor Strange is problematic, and this is the result of her white fragility.
White fragility perpetuates racism, as it doesn’t allow white people to fully engage and understand this type of discrimination. The only way to legitimately tackle race problems for POC in Hollywood, such as whitewashing, is to genuinely connect with their experiences, instead of trying to prove that you’re not racist. Unfortunately, Swinton does the complete opposite of this, and this is why her email is so problematic.