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I need for you to draw the picture for me
This is a post that I've been trying to write for over a year. I've never been able to figure out what I wanted to say until I started watching Prison Break. This post is about how Latino and/or multi-racial actors are being 'white washed'. and 'passed'. I use the term passing as a short hand for 'textual and/or sub textual effort to make a Latino and/or multiracial character "Whiter"'. I DO NOT use 'passing' in the strict historical definition of the term. This post deals explicitly with issues of race and racial identity. Please pass by if that is not your cup of tea.
Thanks to Sheila for the initial idea and for all her help and patience as I bitched and to Amy for reading and finding Zak and to LaT for letting me force her into reading a draft.
I've fallen in love with 'Prison Break' recently. I love a good heist flick but the main reason for my show love is Wentworth Miller. Wentworth Miller is hot like burning. Most people seem to know and appreciate this fact but what many people (including the show’s writers) don't seem to know is that Wentworth Miller is biracial. Let's say that word again, "biracial". See, not that scary?
Prison Break explicitly codes Wentworth Miller's character as White with the nickname 'Snowflake', the casting of his father, brother and younger self and the brief storyline about Michael Scofield taking up with the white supremacists. The show's continued labeling and emphasizing Michael Scofield's race is occasionally obsessive in it's focus. Besides the obvious blacks vs. whites race riot/posse storyline that floated around during the first five episodes, there is also the repeated and season long use of the nickname 'Snowflake'. Now let me be clear about something: I hate this nickname. Hate it like burning. I'm not sure why the writers so love this nickname. It is such an invocation of 'passing' and a blessing of that practice that I'm a little shocked that they pull it out so often.
There is also the sense that the nickname acts as a blinder. If the writers mention the nickname and Scofield's whiteness often enough, we will overlook Wentworth Miller's skin color (seriously, European people do not have skin that color) and hair. But the nickname conveys an obsession about Scofield's race that is out of proportion to the interest that the show conveys in the race of any other character. This is a show that deals with race in a vary obvious way (Sucre's Puerto Rican heritage, for example) but no other character has a nickname that so consistently invokes race.
Another example of an actor being 'passed' is Martin Sheen's role as Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing. I must say that the 'first Latino president' storyline with Jimmy Smits that TWW ran drove me insane. Martin Sheen is Latino and the West Wing cast him as the Whitest man in America, a former New Hampshire(!) governor descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence/Mayflower immigrant. That is an awful lot of effort to make him seem very, very White. Could they have made him any whiter?
Yes, they could. They brought Jimmy Smits on as the next Democratic presidential candidate and spent 1.5 seasons emphasizing his Latino-nesss (first Latino president, Latino issues, Spanish speaking on the part of Santos), the better to contrast it with Bartlet's 'Whiteness' and the better to show us all how well Martin Sheen 'passed'. Because only darker skinned people can be Latino!
Another of my issues is with the casting of Jamie Bamber as Edward James Olmos' son on 'Battlestar Galactica'. The show very rarely touches on the issues of race in any way. This makes sense on a lot of levels. The world of the show is not our world. so it makes sense that this world would not have the issues of our world. But the writers and creative people of this show are part of this world and have some awareness of this world that, obviously, influences how they create the world of BSG.
The casting of Bamber officially labels the Adama family as 'White'. Now, I like Jamie Bamber almost as much as the next fangirl but Bamber is very White. He isn't even one of the categories of White that our country loves to call 'ethnic' (like Italian and Greek).
The core of the acting talent is obviously Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos. There was no way that they weren't going to cast these actors but the fact is that after those two none of the other actors really have resumes to write home about. I like Jamie Bamber in this role but I can't figure out why a Latino actor wasn't cast as Olmos' son. It would have meant so much and been so fantastic to see a Latino family on TV, especially a Latino family that wasn't very consciously Latino. Many people (such as Pam Noles) who are wiser than me have talked about the lack of people of color in fantasy/sci-fi. Jamie Bamber's casting takes an actor of color (Edward James Olmos) and makes him White. It takes an opportunity to bring something important and racially conscious to a genre that, for a long time, hasn't been the most racial conscious environment and runs in the other direction. It is such a reactionary decision and it shadows what could have been a progressive event.
The casting of Jamie Bamber makes Adama a white character and I don't understand why. Is it necessary for the storyline in any way? I don't believe in colorblind casting so please don't comment to tell me that Jamie Bamber was the best choice for the role. There is many an actor of color who has missed out on a role because of his/her race. Appearance (which is what casting is partially about) is not colorblind. I don't understand why it was necessary to 'pass' EJO's character as white. I'm not looking for a 'very special episode' or even an explicit acknowledgement of race in the BSG-verse but the 'Whiteness' of Jamie Bamber is such a contrast to the ethnic identity that so many EJO roles have embraced.
It is puzzling to me because it would be so easy to implicitly make the Adamas Latino. It would have provided a nice racial balance from the 'crazy, religious, Black people of Geminon' who follow the White Goddess figure. Given Edward James Olmos history as an explicitly Latino actor and Latino activist, this casting decision is especially disappointing.
But, anna, how do you know that Bamber isn't being coded Latino? Didn't you just argue that Latinos come in many colors? Well, I'd like you to meet Zak Adama. He's Canadian, has hazel eyes and wants to learn Spanish. If you still don't believe that he is white, I encourage you to take a look at the last names of his characters. Feel free to contrast those names with the names of EJO's characters. Do you see a difference? I think it is safe to say that Tobias Mehler (Zak Adama) is white. EJO is Latino but the two actors who play his sons are White. Majority rules in more ways than one.
There are so many ways in which TV has become more progressive and more racially aware but, as I said, there seems to be a reactionary trend in which Latino and biracial actors are 'recast' as White. White privilege and the White standard has expanded to include more people but it remains White privilege and a White standard that is not about expanding the ethnic definition of the standard character but is instead assimilating People of Color into the standard by robbing them of their ethnic and racial identities.