Recasting traditionally white characters as people of color

A trend that we’ve seen more and more of is taking characters that have been traditionally white and casting them as people of color — think “Annie,”

“Black Men Don’t Cry – Especially On Camera’

A trend that we’ve seen more and more of is taking characters that have been traditionally white and casting them as people of color — think “Annie,” “Hamilton,” “Karate Kid,” “Aladdin” (with Will Smith playing Genie), and so forth. Of course, this isn’t just happening in film; we see this happening in all forms of media, such as comic books, where characters such as Spider-Man are “re-cast” as Latino or black (or in the case of Miles Morales, both). The question, though, is why this is being done, and is it a good thing?

My more cynical side says that this idea of turning a white character into a person of color is merely a political move, done to profit off communities of color and the enthusiasm that surrounds them. Moves such as this generate a lot of coverage and attract more people. It’s a way to generate enthusiasm and press, which is then profited off of by the companies. Of course, it also allows people to pat themselves on the back for being so multicultural and diverse, and go, “Look! I’m not racist at all, I’m writing about minorities!” 

The question then becomes so what if it’s just a political move? At least we get more diversity, right? I disagree with this stance because when you just take a character and change the color of their skin without taking into account how different the experience is for someone of color, you end up with a hollow character, one out-of-touch with themselves and their experience, which does a disservice to communities of color — who are usually looking for more representation, someone more relatable, or a role model — and allows naysayers, who are usually motivated by prejudice, to “justify” themselves. 

 Unfortunately, the color of someone’s skin does affect how they interact with society and their environment, and it doesn’t just apply to people of color — a white person living in Baltimore, a city that’s almost 64 percent black, will have a very different experience than a black person living in Baltimore. Likewise, a person of color will be treated differently throughout their life, and, as such, will have different personality traits and a different outlook on life. This applies to not just skin color, but also gender, socio-economic class, able-bodiedness, sexuality, and other factors that influence a person’s identity. Writers can’t just ignore that and hope no one notices if they want to create believable, consistent, authentic characters. 

A counter-argument to this is that art doesn’t have to be “realistic.” And that’s true — for example, “Hamilton” stars mainly people of color, but it’s a wonderful show even without acknowledging the characters’ ethnic backgrounds. The whole idea of a black Thomas Jefferson isn’t that big of a deal, because all you’re really seeing is Thomas Jefferson. This seeing-something-that’s-not-there tradition goes back to the roots of theater, where male actors would play female characters because female characters weren’t allowed on stage. The same goes for musicals, which often times don’t aim for realism. If the director isn’t aiming for realism at all, then, yeah, skin color can be ignored; but if it’s supposed to be even a little realistic, it isn’t something that should be. 

If it’s so complicated, why even bother? What’s the point of “recasting” characters — why not just create new ones? This is a valid point, and creating new characters side-steps a lot of issues I have with “recasting” them. 

However, there is some merit in recasting a character, like being able to capitalize on a pre-existing fan base and exposure. This allows two things: the ability to get away with lazy writing and the guaranteed payout. When re-casting a character, you are guaranteed to make money one way or another. If that character already has a fan base, people are going to buy your product, which is good for business. Reusing a character also allows writers to create stories without having to do too much thinking about the character’s cultural identity, which gives them a way to write about a character of color without worrying about getting called out for doing it wrong. 

I suppose an even more basic question is: Why even worry about diversity and representation? However, I think this question misses the point. Diversity isn’t just important in media because it allows minorities to relate to characters — though that’s certainly one aspect of it — it’s important because media is one of the main ways we learn and consume information, and understanding differences is important. 

 When well-intentioned people claim they “don’t see color,” it leads to misunderstandings about cultural differences and can invalidate a person’s experience with racism, because even if they don’t “see color,” most of society does. People are different. It’s one of the things that makes them so interesting and complex, and it’s something that we should celebrate, understand, and appreciate. 

The root of this issue is the lack of authentic, non-majority characters in media. Women have to be perfect, do-no-wrong, strong, and independent. Queer characters have to be, or eventually become “out and proud.” People of color have to be the perfect ambassadors of their cultures. It’s as though, by being afraid of offending minorities, the media fails to give them the same degree of representation as majority characters. Because there are so few minority characters, those few aren’t allowed to be flawed or imperfect or varied. 

Overall, recasting characters as female, as we seen in the new “Ghostbusters,” or as people of color isn’t really accomplishing what — if we’re being generous about people’s intentions — it was supposed to do, which is create better representation. Why do we need to recast characters? Why not create something original? Minorities have interesting, compelling stories, so why not tell those stories on their terms? 

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