Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Aasif Mandvi calls out Hollywood’s whitewashing

May 15, 2012

Actor and comedian Aasif Mandvi spoke out this week about Hollywood’s practice of “whitewashing” (a subset of the practice we’ve nicknamed ‘racebending’ on our website.) Guns blazing, too!

Mandvi opened with a satirical editorial on Salon.com, parodying the mindset of Hollywood executives. We’ve posted an excerpt below but make sure to read the entire editorial at Salon!

“All I have to say is that whitewashing has been going on since as long as Hollywood has existed — it’s a tradition — and rather than non-white people complaining about it, they should embrace it. It will make going to the movies so much easier and more fun. But there are just a few things you need to understand.

“First, stop watching movies as ethnic people and start watching them as white people. There’s nothing that white people like more than seeing other white people in movies and on television. When you go to the movies with your ethnic “judgment” eyes, you miss my point. Watch as a white person, and suddenly your outrage turns to understanding and laughter.

“…My point is, I’m not the bad guy. I’m just the rich guy. When you look at it through my studio executive lens, you understand how important it is that both white people and non-white people believe that Indians, Asians, Mexicans and Arabs are truly just white people in brown makeup.

“…I am even prepared to make a deal with you ethnic people out there. Every time you let me cast a non-Caucasian character with a Caucasian actor, I will give you two or three non-white actors in smaller supporting roles. Why not lead roles? Because I’m trying to make a living here. I have spent a lot of time and money throughout history convincing everyone that white is normal. I have even convinced non-white people that white is better, prettier, smarter, stronger, and that only white people can truly be the heroes. Everyone has bought into it, and now you want me to just abandon all my hard work?”

Aasif Mandvi is best known for his role as a correspondent on The Daily Show; he was also cast as Commander Zhao in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender adaptation that launched our website. Mandvi is also the co-writer and star of the foodie film Today’s Special, inspired by his Obie-winning one-man play, Sakina’s Restaurant..

Image: Aasif Mandvi in “Today’s Special”

Mandvi’s editorial is accompanied by a slideshow called Whitewashing: A History” by Max Rivlin-Nadler. (Full disclosure: Racebending.com’s Michael Le provided feedback on the slideshow; but we didn’t know it was meant to accompany Mandvi’s editorial.)

Mandvi’s editorial went to press around the same time as CNN blogger and Arab American comedian Dean Obeidallah‘s editorial on Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie The Dictator and his use of brownface to depict a stereotypical Arab dictator.

Image: Sacha Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen in “The Dictator”

In his editorial, Obeidallah writes:

“I’m in no way arguing that Arab culture is off-limits or cannot be mocked…But for some reason, the entertainment industry appears to truly enjoy ridiculing “brown” people, Arabs and Indians, and has no qualms about casting people not of our heritage to portray us.

“…Here is my simple request to the entertainment industry: If you are going to mock and ridicule us for profit, can you at least cast Arabs and Indians to play us? And while we’re at it, why not include us in the creative process as co-writers and directors?

“…I understand that the entertainment industry is about making money, not correcting negative stereotypes — even those they helped perpetuate. But why not cast a person who is actually Arab as the sidekick to the star who is pretending to be Arab?”

Dean Obeidallah’s editorial on The Dictator and Aasif Mandvi’s scathing editorial triggered additional coverage on the issue of whitewashing, on national television! Today, CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux hosted Aasif Mandvi on her show to discuss his editorial, working as the “brown correspondent” on the Daily Show, and “Whitewashing” Hollywood: Casting white actors in non-white roles.

On CNN, Mandvi said:

“This practice of whitewashing in Hollywood has been going on for a long time. The problem is that there’s this attitude that white is the normal and everything else is not. And so there’s this kind of idea that a lot of times roles that originally come from sources — like comic books or novels and things like that — are ethnic roles, are often given to white actors when it’s converted into a film.

“…I think this upsets a lot of ethnic people — ethnic actors — because this was, this is something that is perpetuated by Hollywood and this idea that white is the norm and if you want to identify with the hero — identify with the person on the screen — he or she has to be white. America’s not the same as it was 50 years ago and I think those things should change now.

“…I think it’s just a mindset that exists from a long time ago, you know that like I said white is the sort of norm. If we want to project ourselves onto the screen in the form of a hero or heroine, that person has to be white. And that’s been sold to us for decades.”

It isn’t easy for performers of color working in the industry to talk about “whitewashing.” We want to applaud both Aasif Mandvi and Dean Obeidallah for having the courage to speak up and start a conversation about diversity in Hollywood.

Categories: blog

About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • Anonymous

    I’m confused. Mandvi appears in THE DICTATOR, in which a white comedian plays an Arab. Did no one ask him about this? Why does his Salon article omit any reference to the movie he’s appearing in? This seems like some weird public relations thing. 

    • Anonymous

      SBC is Jewish, not white. His ethnic root goes back to the Middle East.

      • Anonymous
        • Anonymous

          What argument? SBC is Jewish, not white. That’s a fact that can’t be denied.

          • Anonymous

            Race is socially constructed. We could argue all day about whether Cohen is “white.” The important point here is that he has white privilege. 

            Would you be more comfortable if I pointed out that Cohen is an Orthodox Jew doing a racist, Orientalist portrayal of Arabs?

          • Anonymous

            Hmm, I thought race was biologically constructed. Anyway, I’m sure Orthodox Jew is a religious classification, not a racial one.

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  • Anonymous

    While I think it’s great that they are speaking about this with such honesty I can’t help but find it ironic that Asif Mandvi took part in a whitewashed movie? Why doesn’t he speak honestly about The Last Airbender specifically?

    Also, just last week the trailer to Ben Affleck’s “Argo” was released which is more or less the new “21” in the sense of treating a real life story on the big screen that involves a nonwhite person as the lead but casting a white actor to portray that character. In this case, a Latino person. A shame that Mandvi isn’t directly connecting it to it since it is the next episode in this sad history that Hollywood has no plans of stopping.

    Can you folks at racebending consider contacting Hispanic and Latino groups to make them aware of the “Argo” situation so that this issue can be brought about by more media outlets and the discussion can include that film and the reasons why this is a determinant to both film talent and moviegoers?


  • Anonymous

    And apparently it is a weird public relations thing. 


  • Thawhtet8

    Actually, Aladeen’s Uncle
    is much better than Aladeen (Brownface Cohen) even though he tried to sell his oil to foreign companies. Then again, it is  meant to show bad guys wins (well mostly).