Blackwashing or Blackface; The Hidden Institutional Racism in the Entertainment Industry



by Jonathan Baird


       What is blackwashing? Blackwashing is the move to transform the race of a traditionally white entertainment property such as “James Bond” to one that is more ethnically diverse. It has traditionally been used as a term of negativity, representing pushback from the white power community towards the inclusion of people of color in popular entertainment. In this article’s context it will be used as a convenient term for the intersectionality implicit in the entertainment industry.  This paper will further attempt to address the continuing collusion between entertainment and the culturally normative public in their efforts to sanitize diversity in media.  The push to blackwash and gaywash established characters in film, literature, and TV comes from essentially the same racism and misogyny that brought us blackface and minstrel shows. It is a calculated ploy by the largely white entertainment establishment to marginalize and stereotype black and LGBTQIA cultures. These “washed” characters are nothing more than blackfaced white heterosexual men. A safe, acceptable characterization that is internally white with a facade of diversity.  An alternative that can be presented to the cisgender culturally static public for their amusement. These characters in turn harbor no real danger of displacing white hegemony.

      If we can accept that the push to blackwash traditionally white characters is simply a modern version of black face, then we can look beyond the façade of diversity that the entertainment industry is currently projecting and see the real ethnocentrism of those who control the industry. A quick look at the money behind Hollywood, television, major book publishers, even internet entertainment executives will reveal a slate of racially homogenous faces. Even when we note the odd pocket of diversity, these men or women are not pushing diversity for the sake of any social justice paradigm. These pushes for diversity are merely a new coat of paint applied to the faces of  established properties. A safe way to portray a minority character without exploring the deep connection between race and culture. Black skin, but white on the inside, a calculated minstrel show that appeases minorities and poses little existential threat to whites. While you will hear the odd cry of reverse racism applied to these properties when they are diversified, these are cries of the hard core extremists who will never accept diversity in entertainment.

        When we look at why this is happening it is little wonder that we see the practitioners of this farce defending social justice and cultural diversity. Those in Hollywood and beyond have a vested interest in the money that an emerging diverse society has to offer them. It is not surprising they mask their characters in diversity. It is also telling that these characters are still culturally white. Remarketing established characters as new and diverse maintains the minority white audience while pandering to the new globally brown marketplace. What then is the essential difference between what entertainment producers are giving the public and the minstrel shows of the late nineteenth century? Was there a mandate to put on minstrel shows? The underlying reason for the minstrel show was both to belittle minority characters and pander to the entertainment potential of the unusual without exposing white audiences to actual diverse actors.  Blackwashing comes from the same type of intersectional behavior. It is microdiversity. A method of pandering to both minority and white audiences by providing safety from unexpected cultural confrontation while limiting new and culturally stimulating minority characters from being established. The fact that these examples of diversity are simply blackface is the result of systematic racism.

    You can’t deny the underlying racism that is involved when one rebrands an existing character as “Black”, “Gay”, or “Female”. “Black” Spiderman will always be defined by his color.  The same can be said for properties such as ”Black” James Bond or “Female” Doctor Who. A compromise that is something lesser than the original and must be defined by their secondary characteristics. When the character is differentiated from the original merely by his skin color, his worth is bundled up in historic and cultural racism. Real cultural diversity would be the creation of new characters that stand on their own merits and are not defined by cisgender and white cultural hegemony.

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