Color-blind casting seeks to level the playing field for actors but actually erases BIPOC experiences
Color-blind casting propagates that which it attempts to combat. Rooted in systemic racism and a tool of erasure, color-blind casting has not increased hiring for BIPOC communities, and also tells stories that are misleading and ignorant of our global culture. Color-conscious casting, on the other hand, seeks to tell nuanced stories beyond visual representation.
According to Kristin Bria Hopkins, Editor in Chief of the William & Mary Business Law Review, “color-blind casting” has the intention of providing more onstage and onscreen opportunities for people of color. The idea is to choose actors fit for a role regardless of their race. But, Hopkins explains that there has been little notable change since theaters began employing this concept in the 1980s. In productions that do not specifically call for an actor of a particular race, BIPOC communities are still experiencing very limited hiring. Recently, in the 2015-2016 Broadway season, 68% of roles were given to white actors. While the other 32% went to people of color, only 9.6% of these actors were not asked to play characters that were designated for their specific race. In other words, hiring percentages are still not equal and neither are diversity of roles. Hopkins also cites the 1989 Miss Saigon catastrophe at the West End. Jonathan Pryce infamously donned prosthetics and yellow face, and his choices were defended in the name of color blind casting. Essentially, Pryce had been given the role because he was deemed most fit to play the Engineer, and the best of actors have long been deemed transformers; those who can empathize deeply enough with another in order to tell their human story. But color-blind casting is flawed in its foundation and is also clearly inappropriately used. Many white actors think this doesn’t help them at all and marginalized actors tend to think they are not actually supported by color-blind casting; they just serve a purpose. It seems that the practice has become that which it is against by refusing to acknowledge that the stories we tell do not exist in a vacuum, separate from global systems of oppression. The audience does not suddenly forget social implications or their own prejudices. According to Hopkins, “color-conscious casting [rather than color-blind casting] requires casting directors and producers to accept that the country is growing in diversity, and the stage should reflect the changing demographic make-up of the United States.” Montreal-based actor, playwright, and producer Omari Newton writes of a Broadway production of All My Sons which cast a white woman and black man as siblings. There is no reason these actors should not get the very roles they were placed in, he explains, but the production is traditionally set in 1940s America and did not appropriately deal with what this kind of interracial family would have meant at the time. According to Newton, “colour blind casting is rooted in systemic racism. It is a form of erasure.” It ignores the very real social implications of race and robs the public of stories that need to be told. Newton urges us to understand that people of color are not meant to fill a diversity quota and as storytellers, we must acknowledge and respect bodies that are telling the stories we have asked them to engage with. Visual representation matters, but this production actually asked the audience to forget America’s real history and imagine a “fictional, idyllic [country] where racism never existed.” Color-blind casting ignores reality and attempts to jump to a better future while color-conscious casting seeks to welcome diversity of both identity and story, creating an atmosphere that welcomes difficult conversation enthusiastically.
It seems that color-blind casting has not improved the BIPOC communities’ chances of getting cast in substantial roles and has also worked more often in favor of white actors getting cast in roles traditionally meant for people of color. Yet, placing all blame on the system of color-blind casting ignores the root of the problem: systemic racism. This is not a mistake in policy, but rather a widespread misunderstanding of what equity really means. According to Omari Newton, a Broadway production of All My Sons revealed the insidious byproduct of systemic racism: “white guilt” and the need to appear "not racist." One could argue this impulse is the lesser of two evils, but it directs attention and energy in ways that are not useful and end up harming BIPOC communities even further. Color-blind casting does not seek to level the playing field at all; rather, at its deep core, it seeks to convince the public that racism is a thing of the past. The presence of marginalized communities onstage becomes a symbol that everything is okay when that is far from the truth. The real difference between color-blind casting and color-conscious casting is that the former seeks to end the conversation about racism while the latter makes moves to continue it productively. A recent article in CBR cites Lin Manuel Miranda’s "Hamilton" as a successful example of color-conscious casting that acknowledges the existence of a racial divide, owns its influence on the history of the United States, and expands upon it to tell a nuanced story; that of both the founding of the country and the struggle of immigrants in the 21st century. The story in actually unifying because it recognizes and works through a divide the nation experiences daily. On the other hand, Aquaman starring Jason Momoa who is of Hawaiian descent, makes no move to acknowledge any nuance. Although the intention might have been to diversify representation onscreen, and Momoa’s presence is surely valuable, the production fails to realize it is telling a very different story, full of social and historical implications. Momoa’s role serves as a band-aid for the deeper issue of discrimination in the U.S. and does not go the extra mile to deal with it. This is not to say that a person of color’s identity needs to be the core of every story; that kind of consistent emotional labor in itself becomes debilitating and restrictive to the actor. But casting without acknowledgment of the implications of an actor’s identity can mislead the audience; storytellers must take it upon themselves to deal with the content they present. Otherwise, unthoughtful casting can reinforce stereotypes.