A circle of ignorance: whitewashing & white habitus

As many of you are aware, the film Ghost in the Shell featuring Scarlett Johansson is coming out in many countries this week. This isn’t a review, but a few arguments for why you should avoid this movie and other media that use whitewashing. In an interview with the magazine Marie Claire, Johansson talks about the controversy and says:

”I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.”

It becomes apparent that Johansson doesn’t understand why exactly the movie is being criticised; the actual problem is that she is playing a character that in the original reads as Japanese. This might not be offensive to her, but it is to many of us. When people of colour point out the dangers of whitewashing the standard replies are often ”trololol triggered” or  ”focus on real racism”.  In fact, whitewashing is ”real” racism, and this kind of  racism affects our lives and society at large. Since racial minorities tend to know what whitewashing is and how it affects us, I’d like to spend this post talking about how whitewashing affect the white majority that often points out how meaningless and a waste of time our critiques are. So why is this topic so divisive?

I believe that Johansson and the film’s producers, along with many other white people are stuck in ”white habitus”. “White habitus” is used by scholars to describe racial dynamics occurring in real life. This refers to the socialisation process that ensures that the perceptions, feelings and views on race by white people remain in power and unchallenged  Whiteness is reinforced as the human default,  that is not a race or ‘the’ race. Being seen as not a race but a universal category, this view on whiteness helps hiding the power, practices and ideas between racial relations as well and also deflecting any group-based blame or privilege.

In films where the main characters are mostly white, the movie reinforces whiteness and white features as the norm. Choices like these by the developers do not only reflect values and
norms of a society, they also reinforce them . Moreover, studies show that the lack
of racial minorities in the media also reinforces whiteness as the human default, which is not a
race or ‘the’ race. As mentioned earlier, whiteness becomes simply a state of being and not a race, leading to whites being seen as individuals, while minorities are seen as representing their racial groups. This helps explain how society sees and blames the acts of racial minorities, who often are victims of group-blame.

White habitus can, and should be challenged. Mainstream media, including films often show ethnic minorities as threats, such as offenders of crime and terrorism, but also as competitors for other resources such as jobs in the context of stealing these from the majority. In a study from 2012 by Durkin et al, the researchers come to the conclusion that children appear to learn from media messages promoting ethnic inclusiveness. The results showed that white children were not inherently prejudiced against other racial minorities, but if the overarching attitudes towards ethnic minorities are hostile, it is very likely that children of the white majority will pick up similar attitudes. In conclusion, a more positive representation of ethnic minority groups might lead to a more positive attitude towards these groups.

Johansson’s choice to take this role helps preserve a society with racial inequality. I believe these are very important things to keep in mind when discussing inclusiveness and representation. Discourse often focus on minority representation only and is therefore seen as problem to be discussed in minority communities only. But this clearly isn’t the case. We need to hold the perpetrators accountable. A great way is to speak up and refuse to see movies that contain whitewashing and other types of harmful representation.  Let’s make it impossible for these companies to keep producing non-inclusive media.