I Am Hapa (US), January 29, 2016

Keanu Reeves and the White-washing of Hollywood

Recently, I was reading Hernan Vera and Andrew M. Gordon’s Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness. The book is excellent and I highly recommend it. With one caveat: Keanu Reeves isn’t White.

I say this because in chapter 3, “The Beautiful White American: Sincere Fictions of the Savior”, Vera and Gordon examine the White savior complex that is so frequently found in American films. Movies like Indiana Jones, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Matrix are a few of the films that they critique, and for the most part, rightfully so. The movies do focus on a white male protagonist who swoops in to save the helpless people of color from the clutches of other whites or in some cases, the aliens. This trope is beyond problematic, but in the attempts to identify the issues, the authors incorrectly label Reeves as a White man. He is actually hapa - of native Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, and English descent. To label him as otherwise is not only disingenuous, but damaging, as it denies Reeves’ identity.

Sure, maybe Vera and Gordon didn’t realize at the time that Reeves is of mixed heritage. After all, Reeves can pass for White, and maybe they just didn’t know better. It was 2003 after all. (Not that this excuses them.)

If that were the case, then why did Paula Young Lee, a columnist at Salon, identify the casting of Reeves as whitewashing as recently as Dec. 23, 2015? The headline is certainly a mouthful: Hollywood’s despicable whitewashing continues: This bland Keanu Reeves cop thriller started as a diverse, female-centered bilingual drama. While I’m not here to debate the merits of Reeves’ acting or whether this movie should’ve had more actors of color (the answers being: meh and absolutely, respectively), I am definitely not here for monoracial assumptions of mixed race folks. When we assume the monoracial identity of mixed race people, we are denying their ability to identify with the multiple aspects of their racial and ethnic identity. Danielle Patel of Mixed Race Identity writes that,

“There is a sense of being regarded as fragmented rather than with the comfort of wholeness. It is almost as if being mixed race is not a valid identity in its own right… It is not ok for a monoracial person to tell a multiracial person how they should or should not identify.”

To quote one of my friends, “White passing privilege is a thing with societal benefits, but white passing isn’t necessarily a privilege.” Yes, Reeves passes as White and in doing so he receives benefits - no cop will harass Reeves they way they do celebrities of color - but he does so at the erasure of his identity.

When Lee, Vera, and Gordon assume the monoracial identity of Reeves, they actually play into an older legal battle on the concept of multiracial identity. Back in 1938, a married couple had a falling out. The wife, Verna Cassagne, wanted a divorce, but her husband (Cyril Sunseri) didn’t want to pay alimony, so he sought an annulment. On what grounds? On the grounds that Cassagne was a Black woman.

Due to anti-miscegenation laws in Louisiana, Sunseri could have the marriage annulled if he could prove Cassagne was Black - phenotypically, Cassagne was as White as the next White 1930s Southerner. So the court threw out her phenotypical evidence and demanded to see some paperwork proving her White heritage. Eventually, Cassagne was found to be Black via her great-great-grandmother, who was a slave. The marriage was annulled and the court ruled that,

Given the great social significance of and investment in rigid racial boundaries, the court was not prepared to allow the conduct of some members of the community to bind the larger culture by permitting a kind of racial amnesty for people like Cassagne who could pass. Passing was not and could not be the same thing as being white.

-Katherine M. Franke “What Does A White Woman Look Like?: Racing and Erasing in Law.” (2016)

Legally, White passing people are still not White, but laws are merely a representation of the will of those in power. But today, the one-drop-rule is pretty much disregarded. So what about socially? Franke continues:

The cultural contestation of racial meaning and identity must be reclaimed from government as a significant foundation of our struggles for racial empowerment. Empowerment requires not only that we demand what we want, but also that we define who “we” are.”

As mixed race people, we must have the freedom to define our own identities. Thus, monoracial people deciding our identities for us is dangerous behavior that renders us invisible.

So, is Reeves being cast truly a case of White-washing? No. As a person of non-white heritage, Reeves being cast is not White-washing. While audiences may not read him as a person of color, that is not his fault, nor is it his responsibility to ensure that people make the correct assumptions about his identity. That is not and never will be the job of mixed race people.

Is White-washing an issue? Most definitely. Are mixed race actors to blame? Not at all.

Article Focus:





GuestWhite is also a mixed race (2016-02-06 13:49:27)
 The issue should not be skin colour at all. No one can tell enough about you from just your skin colour to classify you as a person. The issue of race is based on fear of something different, unpredictable.

In our culture, we think we are so civilized and sophisticated, skin colour should mean nothing more than a feature of a specific human being - like the shape of your nose, a mole, a scar... they all add up to characteristics which create the whole. All of those are superficial. You can't actually know anyone at that level, let alone where their ancestors and heritage came from.

I'm "white" but just as Keanu is Hawaiian, Chinese, etc. I am Canadian, Austrian, German, Scottish and whatever else farther back in time. What does it matter to you or anyone else? You don't know me. Being "mixed race" is more than skin deep and should be about more than skin tone/ colour.

Anakin McFly
(2016-02-06 16:59:19)

Technically that's ethnicity, not race - race is the larger category and historically has only had 3-5 types, primarily Asian, Caucasian and African, with ethnicities being subcategories of that. e.g. Austrian, German, Scottish etc are all white ethnicities, though that categorization too is politically influenced - Irish people used to be considered black.

You're right, it shouldn't be an issue, because ultimately race is just about what physical characteristics a person has (and not even that, sometimes; there is often more biological variance within a race than between two average people of different races).

But the problem is that much of the world doesn't see things that way, and continue to hold subconscious or conscious prejudices about different races. Such that race does end up playing a big part in how we experience the world and how other people treat us, and how we treat others, even if we're not aware of it and do our best to be see everyone as equal.

A lot of it happens subconsciously and only gets revealed in controlled studies - such as experiments which sent out identical resumes for job applications but changed only the name to be stereotypically white or black, and found that the 'white' applicants got called for interviews 50% more often than the 'black' ones: http://www.nber.org/digest/sep03/w9873.html
(There have been similar studies involving gender, where applicants with male names were favoured over identical applicants with female names.) Or racial profiling, or where people regardless of race have a tendency to find black people more suspicious - there was an experiment in which they got a white boy to pretend to steal a bike in broad daylight, attempting to break the lock and even admitting he was trying to steal the bike when someone asked what he was doing, and it was a long time before anyone bothered to stop him, vs when they got a black boy to do the exact same thing and almost immediately people started freaking out and yelling at him.

An easy conclusion might be that all those people were racist, but that wasn't the case - many of them we're strong proponents of racial equality, but subconscious bias still ended up affecting their actions. They affect mine too, despite my best intentions. And then there are all those people who are blatantly racist and proud of it.

I wish, very much, that we were in a world where race (or gender, or sexual orientation, or class status) didn't matter one bit and people could just be people, judged on the content of their character. But until we get there, there are still discussions and dialogues to be had, and that need to be had in order to break out of that cultural programming so we can get there; ignoring racism might provide some appearance of peace, but it doesn't make it go away nor stop the people who are cheerily racist and continue to make life hard for people.

You might be interested in the Implicit Association Test, which is available online for free: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html It's a measure of subconscious bias when it comes to race, gender and other factors, and is pretty insightful. It doesn't always translate to conscious bias though (I'm gay and extremely passionate about LGBT rights, but that test revealed me to be strongly homophobic in my subconscious responses, which sadly wasn't even a surprise because I've got years of internalized homophobia stored up in there). Similarly, there are likely also people who have little or no subconscious racial bias but choose to be racist anyway because they benefit from it. In the end, actions are what matter, but self-awareness always helps.

Taluthah (2016-04-30 23:27:31)
 whitewashing once again
I disagree concerning Cloud Altlas though. The movie mixed race and gender on purpose to express the idea of same soul in different bodies, genders and times
Anakin McFly
(2016-05-01 09:23:04)

Thanks for sharing! And yeah, it seems to be getting worse of late; I also remember reading how Hollywood movies are actually less diverse in terms of race and gender than they were perhaps 20 years ago, partly because they want to play it safe and partly because of racial politics in the US.

I'm less bothered by Tilda Swinton's casting than Scarlett Johannson's, despite being unfamiliar with both sources. At least with Tilda we rarely as it is get older women playing old wise characters, whereas that's a stereotype when it comes to old Asian men. Gods of Egypt was very distracting though.

I also wish people stopped describing Keanu's race as was convenient for them - in that article he's described as an Asian lead without qualifiers, while in another article on this I read he was given as the first example of white actors playing non-white roles. Both are pretty offensive. Framing him as an example of a famous Asian lead does a disservice to fully Asian actors who have a much harder time getting far in Hollywood compared to Eurasian ones, and for some weird reason lots of people seem to think Keanu is a white guy and treat him accordingly, accepting him in roles they wouldn't accept a fully-Asian actor in. But then describing him as white and as whitewashing roles does a disservice to all mixed race actors, and disrespects Keanu's own racial heritage and the problems he faced in Hollywood as mixed, especially early in his career, as well as dismisses all the nuances of how his race affects how he's seen by the audience. There have been a lot of interesting articles about that, especially with The Matrix.

But that flip-flopping on Keanu's race has led to such paradoxical things as some people praising, say, 47 Ronin as a good example of casting mixed white/Asian actors as such characters, while other people criticize that same role as an example of whitewashing; or some people saying that Keanu should play more Asian roles instead of exploiting his ability to pass as white, while others are saying he needs to stop that and leave those roles to Asian actors who don't have the privilege of being easily cast in white roles. They're all valid points, but only when it comes to mono-racial actors, and I wish people could be more nuanced about this and stop trying to shove him into one side. A lot of it seems to depend on how the author reads Keanu's race.

It also makes me really appreciate how great Man of Tai Chi was in this regard - Keanu playing a racially ambiguous character in an all-Asian cast.

Taluthah (2016-05-01 17:55:39)
 I guess that's the fate of being mixed, sitting on 2 chairs, sitting in between, sitting on your own.

Having a hard time in one country to get your family name correctly spelled and pronounced, the other country it's your first name.

and so on...

Guestsmd (2017-06-09 03:25:35)
 Thank you for writing this!
Like Keanu Reeves, I am also around 3/4 White and 1/4 Asian and throughout life I would be told that I was lying about my Japanese heritage by some, while others would ask me if I was Asian or mixed. Sometimes even within the same day, lol.
I've come to find out it's all based off of peoples'(usually black and white) ideas on what a white or Asian person is supposed to look like and the features that people chose to focus on which seems to be skin color at the highest focus and then hair/eye color and lastly hair texture and facial features.
GuestA refreshingly intelligent, thoughtful, balanced site on important issues (2018-02-23 14:30:48)
 I've only read a few posts, but I can already tell this site is one of the best, most balanced, most intelligent out there on the subject of Asians, race, and hapas. And I guess it makes sense it's from a Chinese Singaporean. So much of the internet, and therefore the world, is so racist in such a stupid way these days - it's mind-boggling. I never read of anything this correct, in so much depth, than in here. Thanks Anakin!
Anakin McFly
(2018-02-23 14:37:38)

Thanks, although if you were referring to the original article above, I did not write that - it's a repost of an article from the blog 'I Am Hapa'.
GuestWhite identity (2018-03-11 01:37:03)
 I love anti-white identity because it reinforces white identity.
Anakin McFly
(2018-03-11 07:58:51)

There’s no such thing as “anti-white identity. What’s that supposed to be - people who identify as anti-white? People who are against white identity? People who don’t want people to identify as white? None of those make sense, and what does that even have to do with the article?

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