Some Thoughts About Default Whiteness in Media

by Keidra Chaney & Raizel Liebler

After the announcement thermioneshat a stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play set two decades after the final Harry Potter book, cast Hermione Grainger with a Black actress. some circles of fandom have spoken up about the casting in unflattering ways.

J.K. Rowling has no problem with this casting — and views it as fitting within the canon she created. So why is there such pushback against this casting? The idea of default whiteness. I  (Keidra) had something to say about this on Twitter earlier in the day:

Fictional Characters The idea of default whiteness is based around the concept that a character is presumed white unless specifically and explicitly described as not white. One of the big pushbacks in this Hermione debate is J.K. Rowling’s tweet below:

One of the arguments that I (Keidra) have gotten since posting my own tweet on the subject is that Rowling was being disingenuous in her statement because she never specifically described Hermione as non-white in the book and a white girl (Emma Watson) was cast for the movie.

What these critics fail to acknowledge is that many readers do not make the assumption that a character not explicitly described as white is white, hence my point. Hermione, based on the above description, could easily be cast as a black woman without betraying canon, not to mention nothing about Hermione being a person of color would take away from or contradict for her established backstory.

And this is the problem with presumed default whiteness in fiction and mass media, because this viewpoint makes it impossible to view a non-white person in a role even when the racial background of the character has NOTHING to do with the role. Harry Potter exists in not only a fictional, but a magical universe and yet so-called canon sticklers attempted to make up reasons for why Hermione as a black person was “unrealistic.”

J.K. Rowling didn’t retcon the Hermione character as black, she simply stated that canonically she didn’t have to be white.  And that alone was enough to infuriate some fans. The concept of a character being interpreted as non-white in one retelling of a story is the equivalent of the entire canon of a story being betrayed.

Rue in the Hunger Games film

Referencing another fictional universe in The Hunger Games, Rue,  a character who was specifically and explicitly described as black in the books was defaulted to white by some readers. Some movie viewers were dismayed at the casting of a black girl in the films, going so far as to say that her death in the film was less emotional because they had not imagined her as black when they read the book.

This, my friends, is default whiteness in a nutshell. In the past couple of years in fandom circles ,we’ve seen a very vocal push against this kind of thinking, but it’s been hard to fight. It’s actually easier to push for “diversity” than it is to push against the concept of default whiteness, the idea that stories are by default centered around white characters because they are perceived as “universal stories.” This, in short, is the reason why the conversation of representation in mass media always hits a wall. If the concept of non-white people in fictional, magical worlds can’t be accepted as realistic, there is more than a perception issue at play, there is a fundamental block in the way that people see (or refuse to see) how race plays out in mass media storytelling.

Historical characters

One of the largest arguments raised for default whiteness, specifically the casting of white (or white seeming) actors is that this casting is historically accurate. But it isn’t really accurate in any sense of the word, otherwise white actors of any background wouldn’t be seemingly randomly cast as both evil oppressors and victims in any European World War II story. Cast a Jewish person of color? To play a Jewish person, perhaps even their ancestor? That can’t occur because it would be historically inaccurate.

But there have always been people of color in places that default whiteness says are impossible (and sometimes will level down to improbable). The recent movie, Belle, about a Black woman in Great Britain who was the grand-niece of Lord Mansfield (who started Great Britain down the road to abolition) was based on a true story.

Just because the stories that are mostly told are based on default whiteness, doesn’t mean they are the only stories to be told.

Two of the most important European writers that serve as representatives of culture from those countries are of African-descent; their stories demonstrate how default whiteness is wrong.

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a Russian writer who is considered the founder of modern Russian literature. Oh, and he was of African descent. But if there would be someone who would be cast to play a historical Russian poet, the default will be to cast a white actor every time. Even though there is historical proof that perhaps … casting Jesse Williams would also make sense.

Alexandre Dumas

And for an example that is more likely to be familiar to American audiences — what about The Three Musketeers and its ilk? There wouldn’t be any Black people in the historically accurate story of it’s writing, would there? But there would! Alexandre Dumas was a French writer of historical novels, including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask. And Black. So how about casting him outside of the bounds of default whiteness.

Final Note: We Haven’t Gotten As Far As We Thought

Some day a movie will be made about the extraordinary story of the Renaissance man, Alexandre Lippmann, who was a French artist and fencer, winning metals at three different Olympics. Maybe by that point, default whiteness won’t be a factor in casting him, considering he was both Jewish and a descendant of Alexander Dumas. But it is much more likely that to be historically accurate, he will not be cast with anyone with similar heritage, but instead with someone who fulfills a spot that is less problematic for white audiences.

And casting for roles hasn’t moved that far from the days where white actors had all the roles — white, Black, Asian, Native peoples, etc. As long as the role was “noble” and there would be some romance, only white people were allowed to be cast. We only need to look at the true story of Anna Mae Wong, a Chinese-American actor, who was not allowed to play the main character in The Good Earth, a Chinese farmer, because she wasn’t white. Or Pearlie, the movie with the tagline “The love story of a girl who passed for white!” where a white actress plays the role of a light-skinned Black woman.

If you are a white reader, you may think — “well, that happened a long time ago.” So I will remind you that Star Trek, a series beloved to geeks and nerds, had the first interracial kiss on television. And it was censored by Southern stations. And even to have the kiss — it needed to be coerced by alien forces — neither Kirk or Uhura were allowed to choose to kiss.

Not as much has changed with default whiteness in media as many would like to assume. And that is why we will continue to write posts like this!

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Comments (2)

Brava! Very smart analysis.

[…] Hermione is white, she was played by a white actress in the movies. There is an assumption of default whiteness in media, which needs to be reconsidered. JK Rowling is on board with black Hermione, as am I. Some of my […]

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