In early September, Huffington Post broke the story that the main character of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Charlie Bucket – was originally imagined by the author as a ‘little black boy’, but was persuaded by publishers to scrap the idea. Donald Sturrock, Dahl’s biographer, informed readers that Dahl’s agents at the time persuaded him Charlie being black did not serve to the purpose of the plot. Huffington Post went on to explain this reason further:
‘Publishers have long considered whiteness to be the default and expect that a character will only be non-white if their race serves a specific purpose in the story. Until recently, diverse representation in books was not deemed inherently valuable by the literary establishment’ – Huffington Post
‘Until recently’? Does that mean attitudes toward ‘default whiteness’ are changing?
Since this story broke, I couldn’t help but notice default whiteness at large in today’s culture, one of the most famous examples being the race debate over one of J.K. Rowling’s leading characters, Hermione Granger. In the West End’s Cursed Child production, a black actress, Noma Dumezweni, was cast to play the character, sparking widespread discussion as to what Hermione Granger’s racial background is. Like The Rowling Library, many turned to disseminating the books in search of evidence, only to conclude Hermione’s race was open to interpretation, confirmed by Rowling who did not see an issue in the casting decision, denouncing the racists who did, adding ‘Hermione can be a black woman with my absolute blessing and enthusiasm.’ (Shoutout Rowling)
Despite Rowling’s humbling reaction, isn’t the fact that Hermione’s race is never mentioned in the books, yet sparked controversy when Dumezweni was cast, conclusive of default whiteness in action? The idea that most readers and even the book’s filmmakers assumed Hermione was white, because a physical description did not explicitly tell us otherwise?
How do we go about rectifying this assumption?
As always, before the ‘how’, let’s talk about the ‘why’. In the publishing world, organisations like ‘We need diverse books’ are proving powerful sources for mobilising change to default whiteness by campaigning for greater representation. They cite a host of reasons for increasing diverse representation, two of the standout ones to me being:
- allowing young black and ethnic minorities to be given a sense of identity and belonging in reading characters like them
- stories from diverse perspectives facilitate the narratives of complex racial and cultural issues, which allows a better understanding of such issues to an otherwise uneducated audience
Indeed, this call for greater representation is reflected in publishers enlisting writers who pen characters and even personal experiences from a perspective other than white – one of my favourites being Roxane Gay with her Haitian family in ‘An Untamed State’ and her work with the ‘World of Wakanda’ comics.
But what about default whiteness on other platforms?
Whilst I can’t argue with the fact that we are beginning to see more black and ethnic characters, it’s clear that just seeing them isn’t enough. From children’s shows to adult sitcoms, it is clear the non-white characters are remaining true to the idea of being present to serve a specific purpose – and it’s becoming even clearer, this purpose is to serve as a source of comedy. Growing up with characters like Cory in the House’s Meena Paroom and Disney’s more recent take on ethnic minority Ravi Ross in it’s hit show Jessie, it’s clear Disney’s purpose with these narratives is humour, at the expense of ‘funny’ accents derivative of cultural identities. In short, I can’t help but wonder when Disney is going to wake TF up.
Meena is hardly representative of a minority, purely because Bhavaria – the country she is from – is fictional, with her portrayer Maiara Walsh admitting her accent is a take on a ‘mixed Arabic and Brazilian’. Not to mention, the character culturally appropriates Asian and Eastern European countries to build Bhavarian customs. How hard is it to pick a real country, and represent it accurately?
For Disney, their character Ravi Ross proves it is almost impossible. Despite being adopted into an American family from a young age, Ravi’s accent says otherwise, and there is limited mention of his origin other than when it is made fun of, even by himself, as he jokingly calls himself a ‘human samosa’ in one episode and is made fun of for playing an indian instrument in another. If Disney can’t get it right, what hope is there for other television networks?
How do we combat default whiteness, whilst giving diverse characters fair representation?
While getting networks to provide accurate representations of ethnic minorities – particularly considering second generation characters – by doing some research before constructing a stereotype may seem like a mighty ask, in reality, this goal is achievable through small steps, and one which has been done before. Though Meena, Ravi and Rajesh are examples of distasteful comedy at the expense of ethnic backgrounds, Mindy Kaling has successfully facilitated the narrative of second generation Indian women in her book ‘Is everyone hanging out without me’ and perhaps more famously in her TV show ‘The Mindy Project’.
Dev Patel has also showcased success in bringing stories to the big screen that facilitate an entirely different narrative to that of second generation ethnic minorities, with his portrayal of Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire and more recently, the true story of the little lost boy, Saroo Brierly in Lion. In an interview with the Guardian he recently revealed his experience with the perception he plays the token ethnic minority and how this translates in the face of default whiteness:
‘You used to worry that the roles on offer for you were limited – do you still?
Yes and no. There should not be any limitation to playing my culture. I’m a British Asian, it is part of the fabric of who I am. My grandparents are from India and Nairobi. So what I’m trying to say is that Lion and Marigold and The Man Who Knew Infinity are completely different. Journalists sometimes label them as “Indian guys” as if this were an umbrella term.’
Furthermore, the growth in shows with predominantly black casts successfully facilitating black narratives, include ‘Being Mary Jane’ starring Gabrielle Union and Netflix’s infamous ‘Dear White People’. Along with others, these shows illustrate it is possible to get it right; when black and ethnic minorities are put in the drivers seat. The driver’s seat isn’t necessarily getting these individuals to lead on creation, writing or starring in these shows, but is simply just the principle of listening to what they have to say.
- By pressing script writers and authors to accurately research the backgrounds they intend to portray
- By pressuring publishers or networks who choose to give these stories an audience to do their own research; testing pilots or chapters with the groups they are representing to ensure these are both accurate portrayals, and not solely used for the purpose of throwing in a face that isn’t white
- Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, pressuring black and ethnic actors to ask the right questions before taking a role: has this character been well researched? does an accent serve a purpose other than humour? are aspects of this characters heritage going to be represented throughout the show? the list goes on. Actors need to understand the power they are being given; they are using their gift to represent an entire people, and getting it wrong for the sake of 15 seconds of success, will surely mean their success will only last 15 seconds.
If we make these principles the norm, this eliminates the powerlessness in one actor walking away from a script, only to have it picked up by an all-too-eager 15 second success searcher later. For the very reasons ‘We need more diverse books’ point out, we need greater representation across every platform. Allowing another generation to grow up seeing characters that look and sound like them being nothing other than a token face, or the butt of the joke – and willingly accepting to play these roles – is inaccurate, demeaning, and most of all, insensitive. In a world full of Meenas and Ravis, be a Mindy, Dev or Rowling.