“Racebending” discourse is thinly veiled racism

Skin tone has nothing to do with talent

A dimly lit theatre with black silhouettes of performers against a red curtain.
PHOTO: Kyle Head / Unsplash

By: Yasmin Hassan, Staff Writer

The word “racebending” was originally coined by fans protesting against the whitewashing of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s live action cast. Nowadays, the phrase and its variations are often used in negative and even racist contexts. The phenomenon of production studios casting people with a different skin tone than their original character is often used as an excuse to attack BIPOC and perpetuate racism. 

This year, it was announced that Jamie Lloyd would direct a version of the famous Shakespearan tragedy Romeo and Juliet, starring Tom Holland as Romeo and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as Juliet. After Rivers announced she would be playing the role of Juliet, what followed were multiple attacks on her appearance and the decision to cast her. Rivers’ social media page became flooded with hate-filled, racist comments, highlighting just how difficult the entertainment industry can be for Black women. Of course, this is all completely unjustified. Romeo and Juliet’s story would not be significantly affected as Avatar’s would be when “racebending” the cast. Even when characters are canonically dark skinned, like Rue and Thresh in The Hunger Games, and are casted as such, there has been internet backlash. This shows that these so-called “concerns” are only poor covers for being racist. 

This isn’t the first time the internet has reacted extremely toward “racebending” in modern media, either. Another example was when Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel in the live-action remake of the Disney film. Cultural background isn’t important to Ariel’s story, so excuses and concerns about her whiteness hinge on racism and prejudice. The film went through much criticism online, which was completely undeserved. Bailey herself said, “I want the little girl in me and the little girls just like me who are watching to know that they’re special, and that they should be a princess in every single way.” 

The concept of racebending can be problematic in itself, especially in the context of BIPOC performers. This discourse undermines actors’ talent by focusing on their skin colour. However, we also shouldn’t rely on remakes as a source of genuine representation. Casting a person of colour as the new face of an outdated white character isn’t the same as creating a unique story with actual significance to BIPOC. Hollywood is infamous for being unoriginal and running out of ideas; their quick fix is to just recast a pre-existing story. This rarely adds anything new when it comes to content and representation.

We should uplift marginalized actors instead of perpetuating the twisted narrative of “diversity hiring,” which claims BIPOC are hired more for their skin colour than skill. BIPOC have historically lacked representation in the entertainment industry for ages. Disney princesses, theatre roles, and film casts have been largely white and catered to white audiences. We should put an end to harmful, outdated trends of underrepresentation in film. 

Rivers is a well-seasoned professional who already has Shakespearean roles under her belt; she was the best person for the role. Concerns about “race swapping” are a baseless and irrational excuse for racism. But at the same time, we need to create and celebrate BIPOC stories. Media representation is more important than any attachment to a character’s original appearance.

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