A Note on Whitewashing, and Honest Storytelling

A 2004 essay by science fiction legend Ursula K. Le Guin is required reading for this discussion.

By Rinku Sen Apr 12, 2011

We talk a lot at Colorlines.com about "whitewashing"–when Hollywood producers take art that is about people of color and put a white face on it, purportedly in order to reach a broader audience. Whitewashing stories always draw lots of attention and feedback from our community, and understandably so. Most recently, questions have swirled about the potential casting of white actors in roles originally written as characters of color in comics and in books for young adults. Hatty Lee reported last month on the plan to cast white actors as the Japanese characters in Akira. And Shannon Riffe expressed outrage over the casting of the white Jennifer Lawrence as the dark-haired, olive-skinned heroine of "The Hunger Games." We don’t often hear from the creators of these characters about how they feel about Hollywood whitewashing their people. Last week, however, I came across a 2004 essay by science fiction legend Ursula K. Le Guin ("Left Hand of Darkness") in which she reflects on the television adaptation of her Earthsea trilogy. It is essential reading for the whitewashing discussion.

Le Guin says that most of her characters are not white, reflecting the actual population of the world. She writes:

My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes"). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now–why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?

She writes also that she didn’t get a single chance to comment on the script and casting of the miniseries. Her "consultant" status, granted by the sale contract, turned out to be nothing but lip service. Le Guin is particularly upset that the main character, Ged, whom she wrote as having red-brown skin, had been turned into a "petulant white kid."

The best thing about Le Guin’s essay is her straightforward and funny description of how she navigates literary racial politics. She’s aware, for example, that white readers have to be eased into identifying with characters who aren’t white, so she waits to deliver the information that a character is of color until the reader is already hooked into the story. She says that not one editor or reader has ever given her a hard time about the writing, but that once visuals kick in, things change. "I’ve had endless trouble with cover art," she writes. " ‘Hurts sales, hurts sales’ is the mantra. Yeah, so?"

She goes on to write that if a reader of color ever objected to her characterizations, which hadn’t happened yet, she would listen. As the daughter of an anthropologist she’s intensely aware that cultural imperialism is a very real possibility, and that she has the responsibility not to go there. Read her whole essay here, it’s worth it for anyone interested in honest storytelling.