Whitewashing? KHAAAAN!

JJ Abrams, the director of Star Trek (2009) and the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness is known for being secretive about his upcoming projects. He’s taken it to an extreme with Into Darkness, however: he won’t even confirm the identity of the villain.

Rumors have been flying all over the place for months, of course. The most common is that Benedict Cumberbatch is playing the iconic Original Trek character Khan.

Ricardo Montalban in Fiesta trailer

Ricardo Montalbán as Mario Morales in Fiesta (1947).

I really, really hope it’s not true.

Khan, full name Khan Noonien Singh, was originally played by Ricardo Montalbán. He first appeared in the Original Trek episode Space Seed; in which he’s identified as being “[f]rom the northern India area…. Probably a Sikh.” (Here’s the clip; skip to 9:10 for the line).

Benedict Cumberbatch 2011 (jpg)

Benedict Cumberbatch. By Sam Hughes from UK derivative work: RanZag [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Benedict Cumberbatch is a very talented actor. He is also a very white actor.

Normally, pointing this out invites comments like “Ricardo Montalbán wasn’t Indian either!” That’s true. Hollywood has a long and ugly history of using raceface to portray characters of color. It also has an ugly history of whitewashing characters of color–casting white actors to portray the characters as white.

Which is exactly what they’ve done, yet again, if Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Khan.

The Stop Whitewashing Tumblr has a great primer on why that’s problematic. Here’s another excellent introduction.

Racebending.com also has many smart things to say about whitewashing, including an extensive history of Hollywood’s use of raceface and whitewashing of Asian characters.

The short of it is that there are disproportionately few roles for actors of color as it stands, and those roles that do exist often take a back seat to the many roles already available to white men (especially talented, famous white men like Cumberbatch). Whitewashing characters of color is a form of systematic racism.

Khan is an interesting, complex, and iconic villain, and it’s not 1967 anymore. If the film features a character of Indian descent, there is absolutely no excuse for not hiring an actor of Indian descent to play the part.

Edit to Add–a few links, courtesy Racebending’s fantastically awesome tumblr:

The Whitewashing Khan tumblr. “It’s wrong and you know it.” That about sums it up, yeah.

Racebending breaks down why “it’s just an action movie” and “but Cumberbatch is awesome!” do not excuse whitewashing.

Charlie Jane Anders tackled this on io9 almost a year ago, with insightful commentary on what a white Khan means in terms of Khan’s background with eugenics.

[This post’s featured image is from wikimedia commons, cc-by-sa wikipedian Jesperhansen1972]

Changelog–this post has been updated (see comments for details):
–“That’s true. He was Hispanic. Wikipedia pegs him as the son of Castillian Spaniards. I don’t know whether he self-identified as a person of color. If he did, But while there is certainly plenty to say about Hollywood’s habit of casting people of color to play characters from completely different backgrounds as if all brown people look the same (Montalbán played more than one Asian character during his career),. But that is a separate issue entirely from Hollywood’s ugly history of casting white people to play characters of color.”
++”That’s true. Hollywood has a long and ugly history of using raceface to portray characters of color. It also has an ugly history of whitewashing characters of color–casting white actors to portray the characters as white.”

16 thoughts on “Whitewashing? KHAAAAN!

  1. April

    JJ Abrams was concerned that it wasn’t right of him to cast John Cho as Sulu because of his being Korean rather than Japanese. I seriously doubt that he would white wash such an iconic role in the Trek verse, especially since Khan’s being Indian was such an act of subversion in the original series. Of course, you can get away with a lot with the whole “Alternate Universe” thing, but I seriously, seriously doubt that we’re dealing with Khan here.

    1. Annalee Post author

      I’m really hopeful that it’s just a rumor, but I still think the whitewashing aspect should be part of the discussion around said rumor. When major media outlets and geek blogs run articles on the latest clue to the villain’s identity, they should be mentioning the whitewashing aspect. Because a lot of them are writing about the possibility that Cumberbatch could be Khan without mentioning whitewashing at all, and that just serves to further normalize the practice.

      1. April

        I totally agree that the conversation should still be happening, because there are still people out there who don’t understand why it’s such a big deal if he DOES turn out to be Khan. (And my hope that he’s not is kind of dwindling by the hour today.)

    2. fatshionelle

      Actually, JJ Abrams wasn’t the one concerned. John Cho reached out to George Takei to ask if he was alright with him taking on the role despite being Korean instead of Japanese and got his blessing; Takei endorsed Cho for the role. JJ Abrams just took the credit for it afterwards. It most likely wasn’t an intentional slight against Takei; he’s just a white dude who didn’t think about the implications of “he’s Asian close enough.”

      And now that it’s been released that Benedict Cumberbatch is officially playing Khan, especially after JJ Abrams out and out lying about it to avoid accusations of whitewashing a role that was given to PoC in the 1960’s that he took a step backwards, he’s definitely not getting a dime of my money.What a shame too. I loved the first film and love a lot of the other actors/actresses. I’m so mad at JJ Abrams for whitewashing the role of Khan I could spit.

  2. camasblues

    I agree that in 2013, it’d be better to hire a south Asian actor to play a south Asian character, I am gonna nerd-nitpick a little here. Ricardo Montalbán, although his parents were from Mexico he was not exactly an actor of color either – his heritage was wholly Spanish (unlike the majority of Mexicans, most of whom have at least some Indigenous heritage). Than again, in the 1960s when he first took up the role, no one cared about that. Just witness all the movies from that era with white actors in bad makeup and wigs playing Native Americans. *Shudders*

    1. Annalee Post author

      I’m not sure how Ricardo Montalbán self-identified. Hollywood certainly seemed to ‘other’ him as a person of color, casting him primarily in ‘latin lover’ roles for most of the early part of his career. So whether he considered himself a person of color, I think it’s fair to say that the perception that he was one impacted the roles available to him. He was heavily involved in projects such as Nosotros to increase visibility and opportunities for Latin-American and Spanish-speaking actors.

      But it’s also not really relevant what his race was*, because the character is canonically Indian. So whatever they did in 1967, casting a white man to play him in 2013 is still whitewashing.

      *ETA: I should say: not relevant to whether Khan is a character of color. There are obviously other circumstances in which his identity matters a lot, and I don’t want to erase that.

  3. Makabit

    I’m fairly sure, from an interview I spotted a few weeks ago, that he’s not playing Khan. Now, I may have misunderstood, but I think he’s doing another role.

    1. Annalee Post author

      There are a lot of rumors flying around about who he is/may be playing. I’ve seen ‘absolute proof’ spoilers both for and against (and in the interest of protecting people who don’t want to see spoilers, I’d like to keep away from speculating here–there are already plenty of spaces online where people can go to pore over and debate the evidence).

      The point for me isn’t whether or not he’s actually playing Khan. It’s that 1. if he’s playing Khan, they’ve whitewashed the role and that’s racist, and 2. All the news sites and blogs talking about the Khan thing without mentioning whitewashing are missing a major part of the story.

      1. April

        Something I started thinking about today, basically preparing what I would write about if it does turn out to be true. First, I thought that if he is indeed playing Khan, then JJ missed out on a golden opportunity to use Naveen Andrews again. It just seems like it would have been a no brainer, right?
        But then I started thinking about what we do know about the plot (only spoilery if you haven’t read any interviews from the cast and don’t want to know anything about the plot at all.) And that’s that John Harrison is a terrorist. John Harrison blows some shit up and wreaks some havoc in London. So, since obviously this plotline would have been developed before casting, could it be that JJ, between the rock of whitewashing and the hard place of having a brown guy be a terrorist, chose the rock? I don’t know, it’s all speculation, but it does at least allow for some benefit of the doubt. I’m sure that if it does turn out to be true there wouldn’t be any info coming from his camp until after it releases wide.
        I also hate that in at least one article about the possible spoiler, someone put whitewashing in quotation marks, as if it’s not really something that happens.

        1. Annalee Post author

          ugh, yeah, gotta love scare quotes.

          Without getting too far into the plot of the next movie and what I think is or should be in it, I will say that I agree that it’s generally good to subvert the inaccurate stereotype about what terrorists look like (I mean, London has been blown up by white people far more than by anyone else, just saying). But taking a character of color, whitewashing them, and completely changing their characterization, motivation, and behavior seems like a lot of work to go through to do that when they could just follow the character’s original story, or give the rewritten character a different name.

          Also, I would love to see Naveen Andrews playing the sort of sophisticated, multi-layered villain that the original Khan was.

          Actually I’d just love to see him in Star Trek at all, because he’s awesome.

  4. Robs

    Montalban also played Japanese (Sayonara) and numerous Native American characters. My favorite role of his was as a Mexican American soldier in Battleground.

  5. Annalee Post author

    Hey folks, I’m not approving any more comments that are just about the plot of the next movie and whether or not you think Khan’s in it.

    Unless they’re from JJ Abrams (and he starts the comment off with “I’ve summoned you all here to reveal the identity of the villain!”).*

    If he’s not playing Khan, great! I acknowledge that it’s a possibility! None of us* know for sure who the villain is, and I’m not saying I do. But in a just and equal world, the fact that Cumberbatch playing Khan would be whitewashing and that whitewashing is racist would be woven through all the buzz surounding this rumor.

    I don’t live in that world, but I’d like to. Which is why I wrote this post–not to start Conversation The Millionth about the rumor itself and whether or not it’s true, but to start a conversation about that conversation, what’s missing from it, and why it’s important.

    *(I was kidding about the Abrams thing, so please don’t bother. I’m not falling for that).

  6. Crys T

    As other commenters have noted: Just because Montalban was a Spanish-speaking Mexican, that does not automatically make a POC. “Hispanic” is a linguistic term, and using it to denote race makes about as much sense as using “English-speaker” as a synonym for “white.”

    And, also for the record, “Spanish” as in “from Spain” doesn’t automatically make one NOT a POC, either.

    Can we please stop assuming that all other countries besides the US are homogenous monoliths?

    1. Annalee Post author

      I apologize; I was incorrectly using ‘Hispanic’ to try to avoid racially identifying him because I have no idea how he self-identified, except that I’m pretty positive he’s not of Indian descent.

      I’ve updated the post.

      1. Annalee Post author

        Actually I’ve just updated the post a second time, because on the subject of whether Khan is of Indian descent, the question of Montalban’s race is a complete red herring to begin with.

  7. Mary

    Movie spoilers

    Racebending responds to Cumberbatch indeed playing Khan:

    Add to this the secrecy prior to release around Cumberbatch’s role in the film, and what seems like a casting move that would typically be defended by cries of “best actor for the job, not racism” becomes something more cunning, more malicious. Yes, the obfuscation creates intrigue around and interest in the role, but it also prevents advocacy groups like Racebending.com from building campaigns to protest the whitewashing…

    But all of [my pleasure in the film] will be marred by having my own skin edited out, rendered worthless and silent and invisible when a South Asian man is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch up on that screen. In the original Trek, Khan, with his brown skin, was an Übermensch, intellectually and physically perfect, possessed of such charisma and drive that despite his efforts to gain control of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk (and many of the other officers) felt admiration for him.

    And that’s why the role has been taken away from actors of colour and given to a white man.

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