An Essay on Color-Blind Casting
I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I just wanted to put down some thoughts. I don’t have a blog or much means of publishing it, so I don’t know who, if anyone, will see this, but it’s kind of cathartic for me. Its intention is not to attack or to condemn or to complain, and as such I will not name specific names, although I definitely could, but rather to inform, educate, and question, ideally.
First of all, in writing this, the only real credibility I have is my experience and my opinions. I’ve talked to a lot of people, I’ve argued with a lot of people, I’ve learned from a lot of people, but my thoughts are my thoughts, and you are welcome to disagree with them. I am a minority actor based in the UK, and this is where most of my experiences and thoughts stem from. I have an MA in Sociology from a very prestigious US university. I can’t say a couple of courses and research papers on race and power gives me any more credibility in what I’m saying, but I do like to throw it out there to make myself sound more important.
Second of all, I’m going to write this essay using White and Black as the foundation of my minority discussion. Even though I might be talking exclusively about black actors, I think the points in this essay are applicable to all racial minorities in the entertainment industry, as well as women (white or otherwise). I myself am an Asian actor and not a black actor, but I think it will just make it easier for people to understand if I use black actors to illustrate my points, and ‘black’ is faster to type than ‘minority.’ However, you could effectively replace “black” in this essay with “Asian” or “Latino” or “disabled” or “middle-aged female” (in which case “color” would be replaced by “gender” obviously), and hopefully the points will be just as relevant and salient.
Let me start by the definitions that I have come across for “Color-Blind Casting.”
The one that seems to make the most sense in literal terms is also the one that I’ve heard almost exclusively from white people. It goes something like this:
“We saw people of all colors, and we cast the best actor for the role.” Often, this is a white actor. More on that later.
The definition that I (and I imagine most minorities) use is more like this:
“We've taken a role that does not have an ethnicity specified, or that would ordinarily be played by a white actor, and have decided to cast a minority in it, thus having the audience watch this piece ‘blind’ to the actors’ colors.”
In this essay, I’m going to try and touch on a few points, including why I believe the latter definition above is the one that should be used, what my response is to many of the responses or excuses I get about not casting minorities, and what can be done, if anything, to ameliorate this situation.
I’m also going to make the very big assumption that everyone in the industry is in a position where they actually WANT to increase or promote diversity in the entertainment industry. If this is not the case, then effectively you’re a neo-Nazi and will probably leave terrible comments at the end of this piece, and I don’t care about you.
The Bad Definition
Firstly, let me talk about why I think the first definition of “color-blind casting” is bogus. Again, I’m going to talk in terms of black actors.
In order for one to make this statement, someone would have had to see all black actors that could have been suitable for the part and all white actors that would have been suitable for the part. However, this does not happen, because it’s just not possible. I can guarantee you that when casting for a role, you’ll always be able to find a black actor who is better than the white actor you cast, or a white actor that is better than the black actor you cast, because there are really good black actors and really good white actors. Now it’s a possibility that because of the size of the role or the budget you had to offer, Chiwetel Ejiofor was not available, but then the excuse would not be, ‘we saw all and picked the best.’
What happens with this definition then, is it seems to simply be giving the white producer/director/casting director/decision-maker (and remember, this definition I’ve only really heard from white people) some peace of mind or an excuse to legitimize the casting of a white actor over a black actor.
I will also say that this method of ‘Color-Blind Casting’ will often result in casting the white actors over the black actors (which we might realize is antithetical to the second definition, as the second definition is an attempt to provide opportunities black actors otherwise would not have). My arguments are as follows.
a) The Level Playing Field
Let me say this. In the acting world, it is not a level playing field for white and black actors. If you’re taking two actors of different races, their experiences are probably going to be vastly different. This whole “Color-Blind Casting” (definition 2) thing is a relatively recent phenomenon, and so black actors have for the most part only been playing parts specifically written for black people. Firstly, there are not very many of these, and secondly, they are not very complex or deep (If you’re thinking “there are great parts for black actors” remember to think about all the other minorities, and women over forty). So while the white actor with an equally long career has been playing Hamlet and leads at the big theatres, the black actor is playing drug dealers and bit parts, and maybe some big roles at some of the progressive fringe theatres. I can tell you this from experience: the more you work, the better you get.
Not only does experience build skill/technique/confidence, it’s also something that is considered in hiring. People like hiring people with experience. So in “Color-Blind Casting” (definition 1), the white actor is likely to be hired. Unfortunately, by not hiring the less experienced black actor, you are denying the opportunity for him to grow, and thus perpetuating this problem (more on this later).
b) White People Are Making the Decision
People are not blind to race. They just aren’t. The only people who say this are white people who are trying to not be racist. Race is actually a pretty visible and characteristic thing. So when casting, “best for the part” becomes rather subjective. I will say, the best actor for a black part is a black actor. If you decide to change the race of the character, that’s another problem, which we’ll talk about later as well. However, the ‘best actor for the part’ for a race-non-specific role is not, as hard as someone may try to be, blind to race. Now here is where I might get a little controversial, and I know completely that there are people who do not fall under this bucket. In fact, you might think you are (and you might not be in reality). People are generally more comfortable with what they’re familiar with, and thus white decision-makers are more likely to default to white actors, while black decision-makers are more likely to be stronger advocates of minority actors. There’s this great book called “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum. You’re kind of just used to what you’re used to. It’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it’s something I think people should be aware of, and a lot of white people aren’t (and some non-white people). A lot of white people haven’t had to struggle in the way a minority has, and thus don’t feel as strongly about advocating minorities (Don’t get me wrong, a lot of white people have, and a lot of white people who haven’t do feel strongly). Regardless, I would argue a white casting panel may be more comfortable (or subconsciously inclined to) casting a white person given the choice between white and black. The white casting panel? That’s another issue as well, that perhaps we can talk about later.
Thus, by definition 1 of “Color-Blind Casting,” I might argue that more whites are getting cast over blacks, and this ‘progressive trend’ might thus be the reason why we’ve seen a drop in diversity in recent years on the BBC.
Did you disagree with these points and my disapproval of Definition 1? Look at your hands. You’re probably white.
I contend that race is always a choice. When a theatre production or a TV show or a film has an all-white cast, this decision had to have been made somewhere along the way. Someone, somewhere, has decided not to cast minorities. I don’t like to see all-white casts, because I think they’re out of place in today’s diverse society. However, they happen all the time, especially in the UK. When confronted with this, a lot of ‘excuses’ come up. I want to address a few of these. We’ve already talked about “Color-Blind Casting” (definition 1) and how “I don’t see color” and “I saw people of color but chose a white person” just doesn’t fly in my mind. I will say here, that if “Color-Blind Casting” (definition 1) actually works towards the benefit of a black actor in a lead role, then I’m okay with it working in the same production in the opposite way for a minor role (for instance, if you cast a black actor over a white actor in a lead that was race non-specific, and then cast a white actor over a black actor in a supporting role, great! You’ve diversified your cast!). My main beef is with productions with no minorities in it at all, namely all-white casts. You might be confused and think that what I’ve said above isn’t the most ‘fair’ way to do something and that you’re biasing opportunities for black actors. And yes, yes I am. I am advocating that bias because there are so few opportunities for black actors, and decisions have to actively be made to include more black actors, giving them opportunity they don’t ordinarily have. The following responses are some that I get ordinarily, generally from white people who have somehow come up with an all-white cast.
a) I saw everyone of that race
And I call BS. Because you didn’t. There are a lot of actors out there, and you didn’t have the time. Potentially you saw everyone you knew, or everyone that the casting director could bring in. In which case, I would say that you need to know more people. It is difficult, because while we exist, there are not very many parts out there for you to see us in (see the Catch-22 that is forming?). If you saw everyone you knew and there was no one right, especially for a race-specific role (or a role that someone has decided should be a minority), then you need to keep looking and you need to realize your shortcomings and try to find more actors of that race in the future.
I will concede; this is difficult. When casting for a play, we resolved to have a black actor for a certain part. We saw many black actors, and then a white actor who came in for a white part fit the part so well and we cast him. We had exhausted the casting director’s and our own knowledge of black actors, and time was running out, so we cast a white actor. Think, even I, who decided on a whim to write a little essay about race and am now on word 1950 and not finished, couldn’t cast a minority when I wanted to. I understand how hard it is, but be honest about it. Don’t say there was no one right for it, because there is. You didn’t see everyone. There just was some sort of a limitation on it, and now you know where your limitations lie, and you can try to do something about it. It’s okay. Just be honest and aware about it.
What I do find absolutely terrible though, is giving up finding someone and then changing the race of the character. Granted, this is not as bad as not changing the race of the character and casting a white actor in blackface, but it still seems like an unfortunate situation. To take a rare part that some noble, glorious writer has actually written for a minority and to take that opportunity away and give it to a white man seems to me particularly heinous. Just to clarify in my story above, yes it is that heinous, but in my defense, it is slightly less heinous, as the part was originally intended for a white man, and I was trying to play the part of the noble, glorious producer and give the part to a black man, and failed. However, by changing the race of a character that was created to provide opportunity seems particularly damaging because here you are denying the opportunity for growth. As I said above, you will likely find a better white actor, but again, actors grow with experience, and you just had an opportunity to help an actor grow that was specifically intended for that actor, and by denying it, you are simply ‘keeping the black man down.’ I realize I’ve started using ‘you.’ I’m not attacking you directly, it’s just a general term for anyone making this excuse or in this situation, even me.
b) It’s a period piece.
And there is plenty of that in the UK. I understand that a period piece can specify race, and I understand that white should be and is sometimes specified. While theatre seems to be more forgiving for “Color-Blind Casting” (definition 2) and having minorities in traditionally white roles, film and television tend to maintain the race reality of the history a bit more. My qualm thus does not lie so much with the casting, but why these pieces continue to be created in such high numbers? If we’re trying to promote diversity (again, assuming we are), why keep creating work that specifies only white people? Don’t get me wrong, I love Downton as much as the next old white lady, but for every period piece, can’t someone write or create or commission a minority-driven piece? Of course, we do run into the obstacle of a lack of minority writers, but that is probably content for another essay.
c) But audiences want them! They don’t want to see minorities!
I get this surprisingly too often. Frankly, I find it insulting to the audiences to assume that they don’t want to see diversity reflected in the things they watch. If this is the case, isn’t it all the more exciting to be able to educate them about the existence of minorities? And if they hate minorities, is this the audience you really want to be targeting?
In terms of theatre audiences, I believe that, in the words of “Field of Dreams,” ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Right now, people don’t think there are black audiences because they don’t see them. However, chances are high that black audiences don’t want to see all-white ensemble pieces on white topics. If you create a production with a diverse cast, I would like to think that a diverse audience would come and support it. I personally try (in theory) to avoid pieces that don’t reflect the racial make up of society, and I have a very high tolerance for theatre. I can’t say for certain that current audiences would be accepting of diversity, or that diverse shows will definitely bring in diverse audiences (though in my experience, they have), but I think the case that I make is backed with the same evidence that those who argue that the current audiences don’t want diversity or diverse audiences won’t come to the theatre: pure conjecture.
d) So, You Just Want Rampant Tokenism?
Perhaps ‘tokenism’ sounds bad, but I’ve come to realize that for now, the answer is YES. Just cast us, in any token role if you have to. While no actor wants to be cast solely because of his race, it’s better to have the opportunity and grow. I’ve heard it from many quite high profile directors and casting directors that they avoid casting minorities in small roles because it seems like tokenism. Thus, in some twisted way to protect minorities, they just don’t cast them.
If we can’t get our starts as the ‘token’ minority in an otherwise all-white show – the policeman, the best friend, maybe even the stereotype – then we’re not going to get the opportunity or the experience at all. Goodness knows the opportunities for minority leads are few and far between, and only one actor will land that role. Thus, cast us for the sake of casting a minority to diversify your cast. I am sure that the actor cast in the role will be happy for it, and if that actor keeps landing those roles, eventually he/she will grow to become a better actor and land better roles. Let there be quotas and tokens, because as of now, it’s the only way we’re able to get in.
So what do we do about it?
So what can be done? To put it bluntly, there needs to be decision-makers who actively choose to cast minorities. It can’t be left to “Color-Blind Casting” (definition 1), and in fact, if that’s the standing definition, I would say the term needs to be eradicated completely. Rather, the casting needs to be “Color-Conscious.” Some decision-maker - whether it is the writer, the producer, the director, the casting director - needs to make the decision that they want a role to be played by a minority, or a woman, or a disabled person, and then they need to make it happen, because that’s the only way it will. The tricky thing is, right now, there are very few people in that position of power who seem to be willing to make that decision. I would say ‘take that risk,’ but it doesn’t seem like a risk in any way to me. People seem to say that they want to increase diversity, so they should be able to actively do something about it if they want it. I guess it’s about increasing awareness, or just finding an advocate who will actually do it.
I’ve done what I can. I’ve started a production company to specifically create opportunities and cast consciously for race and gender. But my (currently relatively) small productions aren’t going to move the needle dramatically. The television producers of the big channels, the artistic directors of the big theatres, the directors of big films, they need to be convinced and make the effort. I’d like to think they’d all think that diversity is important and advocate it, so they need to actually make that change.
Generationally, it seems that the younger or up and coming generation are the ones who are the most open to non-traditional race and gender casting. So if we wait long enough, the current conservative power will retire and be replaced by the rising generation, but I don’t really want to wait 20 years. So we just need to get these powerful people conscious and active now. Any ideas on how to make that happen?