Opinion: White people, be like Ed Skrein. Stop apologizing for a lack of diversity and do something about it

Actor Ed Skrein arrives at the 2016 MTV Movie Awards in Burbank. A week after his casting in the upcoming "Hellboy" reboot sparked outcries of whitewashing, Skrein has withdrawn from the film.
(Jordan Strauss / Associated Press)

Yesterday, Ed Skrein made waves in Hollywood when he backed out of a role in the forthcoming “Hellboy” reboot. “I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage,” Skrein wrote on Instagram. “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts.”

Hollywood has produced film after film where white actors play characters of color, a practice critics refer to as “whitewashing.” Over the past few years, many white actors who have accepted these roles have publicly apologized or justified their decisions after doing so. But Skrein is the first actor in recent memory to publicly resign from a major Hollywood movie citing this reason.

Being a white advocate for racial justice means putting people of color forward for economic opportunities, not droning on about how important it is for them theoretically to have access to those opportunities.

Scarlett Johansson came under fire for playing an Asian character — “Major,” short for Major Motoko Kusanagi — in 2017’s “The Ghost in the Shell.” “I certainly would never presume to play another race of person,” she said in an interview. (She did presume to play another race of person.) “Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.” (It was offensive to many Asians, Asian Americans and other fans of the manga-turned-anime franchise.) The language here is important — it’s not that she didn’t want to play a character that was offensive, it was that she didn’t want to feel like she was playing a character that was offensive. Johansson was the top-grossing actor in the world the previous year. When she accepted a role written as a Japanese woman, it was because she absolutely wanted to. What she didn’t want to do was have to feel bad about it.

Don’t start a diversity initiative where white people gather to ask the few people of color at the office how they can be better. Just hire people of color.

When Cameron Crowe cast Emma Stone as a part-Asian character in 2015’s “Aloha,” both the actress and director eventually apologized — but they made a meal of it. Stone cried for herself: “I’ve become the butt of many jokes,” she said. Eventually, both said they had learned from the experience, and were glad for the dialogue. But, as with Johansson, Stone and Crowe made informed choices, and Stone centered her feelings about being criticized. Crowe vowed to tell stories with more racial diversity in the future; we await that vow’s fruition.

This is not a new phenomenon. The history of whitewashing in film is as long as the history of film itself. But the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite campaign, created by managing editor April Reign, brought much-needed attention and heat to these long-simmering issues.

And yet:

— Isn’t art about transposing and challenging boundaries?

—When white American actress Linda Hunt won the 1983 Academy Award for playing a half-Asian man, or when half-Indian British actor Ben Kingsley won the year before for his representation of Gandhi, did they not deliver thought-provoking performances?

— What of the people-of-color-led cast that represented the white Founding Fathers in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play “Hamilton”? Should these minority actors also not be “allowed” to play across racial and ethnic lines?

— If the goal is to move toward greater racial equity and diversity, shouldn’t we be more flexible about casting, not less?

The issue is not that actors shouldn’t play across race or ethnicity in every instance; it’s that so few minority characters are written into films and TV shows that white actors shouldn’t take these very rare opportunities away from their minority colleagues.

Stories that need to be told about people of color by people of color are legion, but you won’t find many of them coming out of Hollywood. A USC study found that of 2015’s top 100 films, forty-nine included no Asian or Asian American characters and 17 featured no black/African American characters.

In stepping down from “Hellboy,” Ed Skrein matched his action to his rhetoric (better yet would have been if he’d researched the character, and auditioned for another role). Skrein’s stepping down does not, as it will inevitably be argued, show that white people can’t catch a break in our PC world.

It shows that white people don’t need to hoard every single break. Fellow white people: Don’t pray for increased diversity in Hollywood. Hire people of color. Don’t accept one of the too-few roles written for a person of color. Advocate for that role to be given to a person of color. Don’t start some diversity initiative where white people gather around and ask the few people of color at the office how they can be better. Just hire people of color. It’s time for white people to stop apologizing and act.

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