When we first start acting, brown actors tend to play “brown characters.” As casting directors and producers get to know us and trust our range, the roles we play tend to vary. And getting to play roles with white names feels like a victory. I know I felt that way when I first “graduated” from playing Khalids and Babirs to Patricks and Freds. […]
But to me, after over 13 years in the industry, these do not seem like victories anymore. Playing more interesting and larger roles is, but squeezing us unrealistically into a white box is a subtle form of ethnic erasure, and it is not a win. It is saying to the audience and to brown actors that people with white names are more interesting and relatable, and people with brown names are one-dimensional and obsessed with and/or defined by our brownness. Not only does this contribute to the continued stereotyping of brown people, it is false.
Amir Talai on brown actors playing white characters.
This reminds me that I first encountered Malek playing Brodude McBlandname #5, a.k.a. Josh Washington, in Until Dawn.1 So… yeah. About that “white names” thing.
Related: Steve Jobs has been portrayed at least four times in film and once on stage, and always by a white guy.2
For the record, in Liesmith, Sigmund was named Sigmund before this issue was something I’d really thought about. Ditto with Wayne, who’s Indigenous Australian, and Travis, who has his own set of issues.3 I’m not sure if I’d rename any of the characters now, except maybe for Travis, but I’ve certainly tried to give all new characters ethnically-appropriate names. (Which is why the protagonist in BAD MEME is Ngoc Bich Tran. Try casting Bich as a white girl. I double dare you.)
In other news: I need to watch Mr. Robot…
- To be fair to Until Dawn; the game has a more multi-ethnic cast than, like, 99.9% of all other games out there, which is particularly notable given its characters are modelled directly off their actors. Plus, it doesn’t do that thing of having whiter-than-white characters as Josh’s family members and just hoping no-one notices. Even still, the cast have the most laughably generic names, particularly for the guys; Josh is accompanied by Chris, Matt, Mike, and Jack, for example. But tl;dr, go play Until Dawn, ’cause it’s pretty great. ^
- For those of you who missed this memo: Jobs’ biological father is Syrian. Jobs’ relationship to both his biological parents and his ethnicity was, to put it mildly, complex, but even still. Dude’s the most famous Arab-American you never knew about. ^
- Though, on Travis, it always kind of makes me smirk ruefully when people tell me they imagine him looking like Tom Hiddleston. And it’s like, look. I get why. But the fact Travis doesn’t look white is an explicit plot point when Sigmund is trying to decide whether or not he’s the same person as the red-haired-pale-skinned Lain. FWIW, in the future reality where Liesmith is a massively popular TV series and/or film, I have physically left casting directors in a bloody pulp for trying to cast a white guy to play Lain/Loki/Travis. The whole point of the character is that he’s not Northern or Western European so… yeah. About that. And, yes, Travis’ ethnicity is both a Jobs reference and a reference to the 13th century headcanon that the world “aesir” comes from “Asia”–it doesn’t, but whatever–and that the Norse gods were the living descendants of the king of Troy, who migrated into Europe after the city fell. ^