Fake Indians and Cowboy Khans

Whitewashing in pop culture happens when a non-White character is portrayed by a White person. The term became really popular in recent years, mostly because of the twitter storms of #OscarsSoWhite and #HollywoodWhitewashing. Films like The Social Network, Exodus, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Prince of Persia, and Argo are frequently mentioned when it comes to whitewashing. We had a look at some of the worst examples, and some of the ones that might actually be acceptable.

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

You can’t dig into Hollywood’s racist history and not bring up Yunioshi. This cringey Asian stereotype as portrayed by Mickey Rooney is just… wut? To be fair, it’s not so much the fact that Yunioshi is played by a White man in this case; we can probably agree the whole character tells of misjudgment. Producer Richard Shepherd later said, “If we could just change Mickey Rooney, I’d be thrilled with the movie.”


John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956)

“Hey, John Wayne is pretty good as an uber-man on a horse, right?” – “erhm yeah…” – “So with slanty eyes and a Fu Manchu, he’s basically Gengis Khan!” – “You serious?” – “Shush! Money!”

We don’t know who thought this was a good idea (except apparently Wayne himself, who fought for the part), but it wasn’t. Audience hated it, it bombed at the BO, and now it’s generally regarded as one of the worst castings ever. By the way, if you do want to see a movie about the Great Khan, watch Mongol instead.


Fisher Stevens as Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit (1986)

From 'Master of None'
From ‘Master of None’

As Aziz Ansari mentions in his comedy series Master of None, the “Indian” lead in Short Circuit (1986) is definitely a White guy. Why did they not just hire an Indian actor? Maybe they felt inspired by Peter Sellers’ rendition of the funny Indian man in The Party (1968). But here’s the thing: Peter Sellers can get away with it, because he’s Peter Sellers. After he showed off his versatile comedic skills in Dr. Strangelove and The Pink Panther, we were sort of able to forgive Sellers for his brownface. And no, Mike Myers, the same does not go for you. The Love Guru (2008) was not just an insult to Indian people, but to film itself.

All the ‘good guys’ in The Last Airbender (2010)

Here’s a more recent one. When fans of the cartoon series heard there was going to be a movie adaptation, many were thrilled. When they heard M. Night Shyamalan would direct, many lost interest. And then the cast was announced. For a series clearly influenced by Asian cultures and traditions, the lead actors looked awfully pale. With a guaranteed audience, this could have been a major opportunity for lesser known Asian talent, but somehow the production went ahead with an unknown cast of White kids. Oh wait, sorry, the evil Fire Lord and his children were played by people of color.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Okay, so this one is a bit tricky. Khan Noonien Singh is supposed to be a Sikh from Northern India, yet he is portrayed in this film by White man (and demi-god) Benedict Cumberbatch. You could say that is whitewashing, and per definition wrong; but is it? The whole reason why Khan is supposed to be a Sikh is because Western audiences (still!) find it easier to see non-Whites as villains. Was detaching Khan’s villainy from his skin color then actually a noble thing to do? In any case it’s better than what happened in 1967 and 1982, when the role was taken up by Ricardo Montalban; a Mexican.


Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange is coming out soon and we’re all very excited! Binkidink Fumblefetch is back and the trailer looks amazing! But what is Tilda Swinton doing as ‘The Ancient One’? Isn’t that character supposed to be a Tibetan wizard? It’s hard not to shout “whitewashing!”, when you see a white man “heading to Tibet in order to learn about enlightenment from another white English person,” as The Hollywood Reporter put it.

Honestly, the creators of Doctor Strange could not have stayed close to the original material anyway; evil Fu Manchu types tend not to be the most culturally sensitive. So what could Marvel have done with the character? We applaud the fact that they gave top billing to a woman, that in itself is still an achievement these days. But should it have been an Asian person? It could have been a Tibetan actress/actor, but most of the Tibetans in America are activists. If China decides to boycott your movie there is no way you’ll get funding. So maybe a Chinese film star? Now that would be culturally insensitive… And if you hire any other actress you risk getting comments like “oh so you think all Asians are the same, don’t you?” So we kinda have to give Marvel a pass on this one. 


However, we’d like to end by saying whitewashing is but a part of the problem we still face with on-screen diversity. If we are debating wether or not the role of the non-White character should have been given to a non-White actor, we risk missing the real question: why can’t Doctor Strange be non-White? People of color should be allowed to play the lead on screen even when the story doesn’t demand a person of color. Like Aziz Ansari said: “Why can’t there be a Pradeep who does whatever Bradley Cooper does in his movies?”

We’ll be posting more articles on whitewashing and non-White representation this week, follow us on facebook and stay posted!



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