Mixed-race “whitewashing” and the problems of multiracial acceptance
The first time I saw Crazy Rich Asians was with my mom, a second-generation Filipino-Chinese American who cried twice during the movie, first when Rachel beats Eleanor in mahjong and second when Nick proposes on the airplane. Like many other Asian-Americans, I left the theatre with the lingering glow of finally feeling represented by Hollywood and of finally seeing faces like my family’s on-screen and normalized, with each character written beyond the usual stereotype of the overachiever or the non-speaking servant.
The second time I saw Crazy Rich Asians was with my siblings and cousin, who, like me, are half-white. This time when I saw bride-to-be Araminta (played by Japanese-Argentinian-English actress Sonoya Mizuno) explode onto the screen, I commented to my family, “She looks half!” We all quickly Googled her ethnicity, and proudly proclaimed that yes, Araminta was a halfie like us. My family also rapidly claimed the charming and beautiful Nick Young as one of us; he’s played by half-Malay half-British actor Henry Golding.
My happiness in seeing uncommon ethnicities like mine represented on-screen was quickly destroyed by my successive research on Mizuno and Golding, which turned up various articles and opinions disparaging their casting as “whitewashing.” Golding faced backlash from people asserting “He got the role because he’s half-white;” Mizuno describes similar criticism. What these critics don’t seem to understand is that racial identity is both constructed and fluid, mixed peoples deserve representation as well, and multiracial actors shouldn’t be constrained because of their multiracialism.
As Americans, we tend to conceptualize the idea of race as being perfectly represented by percentages, with the ultimate categorization of an individual dependent on their racial appearance. Indeed, the federal government imposed the system of blood quantum to quantify the amount of “Indian blood” any individual of a Native nation could possess; this number, represented by a fraction, determines eligibility for membership of a tribe and subsequent benefits. Essentially, this system of determining cultural membership by percentage of “belonging” to a tribe is designed to wipe Native populations out, as subsequent generations will always inherit a lower blood quantum than the generations before. Similarly, the one-drop rule, the idea that having a single black ancestor—no matter how far back—defines an individual as black, rests heavily on speculation of “black blood” fractions.
Defining mixed-race people’s heritage through fractions plays into the heavily entrenched idea that race is biological instead of a social construction. By pinpointing the exact claim a minority has to a particular ethnic group, race is seen to be an innate trait of a person. However, fractions cannot attempt to define the claim multiracial peoples have to their cultural heritage; even if a white/Mexican American appears to be white and statistically claims to be “25 percent Mexican,” the influence of culture, family, and heritage on this individual simply cannot be represented quantitatively. Monoracial peoples tend to construct the racial identity of biracial people as being one or the other, instead of being a unique racial and cultural experience in and of itself. Racial categories do not form binaries; mixed peoples shouldn’t have to choose which race they are, and observers do not have the right to assert their own conception of a mixed person’s race onto a multiracial individual.
Indeed, the backlash against the casting of Golding and Mizuno points more to the struggle of mixed individuals to gain acceptance into their respective ethnic cultures. In describing his childhood growing up in rural England, Golding says, “There was always a struggle with being Asian and not being Asian enough,” illuminating the painful ambiguity mixed people experience throughout their child and adult lives. For Golding, who was born in Malaysia, lived in Asia for 17 years, and underwent the traditional Iban tribe rite of manhood (bejalai), allegations he wasn’t “Asian enough” for the monoracial role of Nick was painful to his own identity as an Asian man.
Golding’s heritage as an Iban, an indigenous tribe native to Malaysia, is a huge breakthrough for indigenous actors, representation that was quickly overlooked by the East and South Asian dominant Asian-American community, which tends to marginalize Southeast and indigenous Asians. Critics were quick to erase Golding’s claims and ties to his ancestry, which sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen argues is a result of monoracial concerns over racial purity.
Golding says, “There’s no real test of how Asian you need to be to be able to own your Asianness.”
Regardless of their belonging to whiteness, mixed race Asians experience the same taunting and discrimination as full Asians; Mizuno recalls being called “Chinese take away” and mocked for being Japanese. For some mixed-race Asians, acceptance into either community is impossible, as Asian communities deride them for the “whiteness” or “Americanness,” and their white communities direct slurs toward them and their families. Prejudice against mixed people saturates other communities of color as well; Afro-Latina artist Amara La Negra describes people telling her “You’re too black to be Latina, or you’re too Latina to be black.”
If we transcend the multiple racial binaries and qualify “mixed” as a race in and of itself, we see similar themes of whitewashing in media, where multiracial people face unique difficulties in finding roles. For mixed race actors, there are little to no available parts written specifically for mixed people. Mizuno decries not being able to play an Asian part saying, “If I can’t play that part, what can I play? A part that’s half Japanese, a quarter English, and a quarter Argentinian? How many parts are there for that?” For the few parts that are written for mixed people, whites are cast in their place. In Aloha, pale, green-eyed and blonde actress Emma Stone was cast as the quarter Chinese, quarter Hawaiian character Allison Ng, and following backlash was subsequently exposed to the phenomenon of white-washing. Similarly, Israeli actress Natalie Portman received criticism for being cast as the mixed Asian lead Lena in Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Annihilation, and ironically enough, mixed actress Sonoya Mizuno played her faceless doppelganger known only as “the Humanoid” in the climactic ending scene, an evocative example of the replacement and erasure of mixed race and Asian actors in media.
Annihilation ending scene: Sonoya Mizuno plays the faceless Humanoid opposite Natalie Portman.
Many people point to the increasing demographic of mixed people in America as positive and emblematic of the end of racism. They argue that the continuous blending of races will cause us to enter a post-racial society, in which race is never clearly identifiable and therefore rendered unimportant or meaningless. These ideas seem to ignore the prejudice and struggles mixed people have today, who disproportionately suffer from substance abuse, depression, and other mental health problems in comparison to their monoracial peers. These problems seem to stem from lack of acceptance in youth resulting from the formation of social groups around cultural and ethnic lines, leaving mixed race people excluded. With growing exposure to multiracial narratives and their unique struggles in acceptance within their respective ethnic groups as well as American society at large, hopefully Americans will broaden their minds in understanding racial fluidity, leading to greater integration of mixed peoples in society.
Mixed race people have often caused us to challenge our conceptions of race and can help us understand that race is a social construct. But to fully accept and understand the experiences of being mixed-race in America, we need to see mixed peoples as both or all of their ethnicities, and not just the one they “look” like. Many famous mixed-race people, such as comedian Maya Rudolph, actor Zoe Kravitz, wrestler/actor Dave Bautista, and actor Tessa Thompson, are often perceived as the race for which they are phenotypically most dominant, instead of what they actually are: mixed.
In effect, Crazy Rich Asians was a watershed moment for both mixed race and monoracial Asians. Rising prominence of mixed-race actors such as Henry Golding and Sonoya Mizuno will only increase pressure on Hollywood to diversify, not only in casting choices, but in the stories and characters they write. The success of high-profile mixed characters such as Afro-Latino Miles Morales of Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse and even hafu Hiro Hamada of Big Hero 6 demonstrate the growing demand of mixed-race narratives directed towards younger generations in America, reflective of the growing demographic of multiracials in the US. Mixed-race peoples, long misunderstood or mis-classified by the monoracial majority, will only grow in influence in coming years. It is imperative that America learns more about the unique issues facing mixed people today, and that we grow ever more comfortable with racial ambiguity.
Illustration: Diane Lin