Tuesday, October 1, 2013

“He Looks Mixed Race”. “Divergent” & White Privilege.

The Daily Dot have a great write-up on “Divergent” author Veronica Roth’s apparent U-turn on the issue of white-washing in film casting in regards to the movie adaptation of her book (disclaimer: the article’s author is an online friend of mine). Where Roth had previously said “I really hate whitewashing. I really do. It’s VERY important to me that it not happen”, she now speaks frequently about her satisfaction with the casting of Theo James in the role of Four, a character she described as being mixed race. James is decidedly not mixed race, although some defenders of the casting have said that he looks mixed race enough to get away with it. Yeah, I’m not touching that mess.

It’s not just Roth and the film’s creative team that are silent on the issue of white-washing. Fans of the film have been quiet on the topic too, with occasional defences like the ones mentioned above. Then there are the fan castings on sites such as Tumblr, where white actors are chosen for characters who aren’t white. This may just be a typical fan activity but it’s a sign of a much wider issue nonetheless. The assumption is that white is the “default mode”, even when a character’s race is explicitly described as otherwise. Remember the casting of Rue in the movie of “The Hunger Games” and the cries of shock from some really racist jerks that she was less sympathetic as a result?

I don’t think Roth has much say on the casting of the film of her book. She certainly hasn’t been on lengthy bragging sprees about how “interfere-y” she’s been like Cassandra Clare was with “The Mortal Instruments” (her backtracking on that has been one of the pop culture highlights of my year). I understand not wanting to annoy the film’s producers or cause a fuss that could turn into something more public. However, her noted U-turn on the issue has to be addressed. We have to discuss the wider implications of what she’s said, what she hasn’t said and how the white privilege prevalent throughout the fandom and the industry has polluted the world at large.

There’s still an overwhelming assumption in both publishing and film-making that non-white protagonists aren’t profitable. You can’t put a black girl on a book cover because nobody will buy it. There’s no way the Western world will watch a remake of “Akira” with Japanese actors in the roles because Keanu Reeves is as Asian as we like to get. Everyone can relate to a white protagonist but only people of colour can relate to a protagonist who is a person of colour (see also the male-female debate on this topic). We all know these assumptions are dated and bigoted bullshit, so why do they continue to flourish? That’s a way more complex debate than I, as a big honking white lady, am able to discuss. Just think of a combination of deeply entrenched white privilege, institutionalised racism and the major corporations of our creative industries being run almost exclusively by white men.

Authors and bloggers in YA are known for their ability to speak out on these issues. Diversity in YA is a topic we’ve discussed many times on this site and around the blogosphere. There are a lot of great authors trying to bridge the gap with their work (although the fact that the majority of the big authors in the category are white does bring up another issue of diversity). Yet I see no YA authors, publishers, editors or the like speaking out against this miscasting in “Divergent”. Clare was praised for pushing for an Asian actor to be cast as Magnus, and rightly so, but silence prevails with this instance. Does the issue of diversity and white-washing only deserve discussion when some ceremonial back slapping amongst colleagues can take place? All those calls for diversity sound hollow when silence wins out on a glaring issue like this.

I’ve seen a lot of people defend the “Divergent” casting by claiming that they “don’t see race”. I loathe that answer. It translates essentially to “I’m so blinded by my own privilege that I can’t possibly imagine how terrible it is to be erased from the cultural narrative”. This isn’t just a one-off issue that we can look over and pretend we’ll learn from. It’s systematic. It’s everywhere and it’s not going to go away just because some people are too afraid to criticise something they like.


I’m not expecting Veronica Roth to march into the studio with a copy of bell hooks and demand they change the entire film or else. I understand that her power as an author on that front is extremely limited. However, that doesn’t change her silence here, especially after she was so vocal on the issue of white-washing before she became indirectly involved. It’s particularly disappointing given how Roth has been vocal in addressing issues with her own work in the past, a refreshing change from what we as YA bloggers have sadly come to expect. If Roth won’t speak up, it’s up to everyone else to step up to the mantle. There’s no time for cowardice or foot shuffling. If you’re going to preach diversity then you damn well better practice it.

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