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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Colour blind - Casting for Asian & Asian American Roles: Why I Find This Problematic

Colour- blind casting is still happening today- yet the likes of Hollywood doesn't seem to think it is that much of a big deal. Well, I should explain why it is, and why they do it and that they are not aware of what they are doing. And the repercussions this has on Asian viewers of their shows and movies on this issue. 

For those in the know, colour - blind casting is the practice where casting directors cast an actor or actress in a particular role, without taking into consideration, nor be wary of his or her's ethnicity or race. 

I'm not specifically talking about actors or actresses playing roles that were originally undertaken by Caucasian or Black characters in literature, fiction. Although that is a separate discussion altogether. What I am discussing, is actors playing characters on TV and film, trying to pass themselves off as a member of a specific ethnic sub- category that, in real-life, they are not representative of. All because their ethnicity is not the same as that character's. 

Community's Ken Jeong is Korean- American, but on the show he plays a Chinese- American named Ben Chang. This is one in the many examples of colour-blind casting. 

I recently came across this post on Dienekes' Anthropology Blog and saw this image, which you can see above. Here, it shows 3 faces: Chinese, Japanese and Korean. I had difficulty deciding which is which, as the photos all looked similar. The eye shapes usually give it away, but here I could see little difference between each of them. If you want to know the answer, click on the post link. 

Usually, Chinese - Americans are different to Korean and Japanese Americans, in the same way as Chinese - Canadians are different to Korean and Japanese Canadians. They all have very distinctive ethnic features that whilst mark them out to be Asian, are not vertically identical from an appearance stand-point.

Yet, in Hollywood, if you are an Asian- American actor, they just see you as just that - Asian - American. They just don't notice the little differences. It's like saying ''yeah, you're Asian - American, but we're not going to go out of our way to ask those actors which Asian group they are from, or are descendant from''. 

One of the notable and infamous examples I can use is Memoirs of Geisha. Even though the movie featured Asian actors, there was anger brewing that the Japanese female geisha characters were played by Zhang Zhi & Gong Li - who are both of Chinese origin. The Colour-blind casting that occurs in Hollywood, is no different to that above incident I mentioned. 

Remember the furore on the internet that later surfaced on social media when news broke that Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana was casted to play an African- American soul singer, Nina Simone? That as well. 

If we are to use a more recent example, then let's take Korean-Canadian Sandra Oh - I am not lamenting or taking anything away from Sandra's acting abilities and credentials whatsoever. But on Grey's Anatomy, she plays a Chinese American doctor, Christina Yang. Yang is a Chinese surname. I shouldn't take issue with this, but I am, because I couldn't help but feel somewhat frustrated thinking that during that casting process for that role, there were (probably) a few other Chinese American actresses, who auditioned for and could have played Christina. But in the end, none of them got it. And yet because Sandra did so well in the casting process, she got chosen to fill that position, because they wanted an Asian American actress. And yet not taking into consideration the racial differences between Koreans and Chinese. And the character is Chinese American. 

It is about as bad as casting Afro-Latino actors in African- American roles. This white-washing issue is a problem which needs addressing. 

It is and ought to be a problem, because whilst I am all for diversity within the arts, entertainment and media industries, when one is casting an actor for a character of a particular ethnicity, there is a distinct and increasing lack of awareness in distinguishing the differences between different ethnic cultures. Henceforth, if the character is of Korean American descent, the actor playing the character needs to be Korean-American in real-life. 

Television relies so much on portraying people of different ethnic backgrounds to showcase and reflect the diverse world we live in today. And yet, if television is supposed to be a reflection of reality and of America's melting pot of cultures, then it needs to be accurate as well and not to mislead the people, who are watching the programme. Especially to people of that racial group. Race and ethnicity is and can be such a complex concept to discuss itself, which is why the producers and creators shouldn't misinform the audience by colour-blinding actors in casting the characters. 

African- Americans or Black Britons who have Ghanaian roots (such as actor Idris Elba), are different to African- Americans with say English or Native American roots and Black Britons with Jamaican roots or are of African descent. Not all Black people are the same - you also have light- skinned Blacks and you have dark-skinned Blacks. 

My eyes light up when I see someone on TV who looks like me, which doesn't happen a lot; I am of Chinese origin and seeing a person of Chinese descent (especially non-native Chinese) playing a character of Chinese descent, or a presenter of Chinese origin, intrigues me. It's not so much about authenticity- it's about accuracy, more than anything when it comes to ethnic representation and depiction. 

By grouping Asian - Americans as one, instead of by sub-categorizing them, you are just lumping everyone into one bowl and homogenizing them. 

Which is not the way to go about it. 

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