What’s going on when we interpret a character played by a POC actor as White?

I know it’s been a while, Ars Marginal. But Neo and Triple J and Javan have been holding it down quite nicely while I’ve been away.

Now that I’m back, I want to open up a few cans of worms by getting us to dig deeper into something I’ve been noticing about Regina Mills (aka the Evil Queen), my future wife favorite character on ABC’s Once Upon A Time. I’ve been asking this on Facebook, Tumblr, and LiveJournal, so it’s time to bring this discussion to Ars Marginal too. It’s been fucking with me for a while, and it’s time to get it out in the open.

You wanna know what’s been gnawing at me, dear reader? It’s something I’m seeing quite a bit when people talk about race and diversity and my show. What happens is that somebody will always bring up the lack of racial diversity on the show by saying that there are no main characters of color. Or, if they acknowledge that Lana Parrilla is Latina, they still say Regina is White because there’s no evidence that she’s Latina and/or a woman of color. Even other people of color do this!

But anybody who’s heard me gush about Lana Parrilla (aka the most beautifullest, wonderfullest, amazingest person ever aka My Other Boo) knows that she’s a proud Latina*. Look at dis gawjus BAMF!

She ain’t Cameron Diaz or Christina Aguilera, OK?

(*Yeah, yeah, I know her mom’s Sicilian and all, so she’s technically biracial. But she’s biracial in the same way Barack Obama is. In other words, if she ever got caught with a bag of weed at the airport, they will not say, “Half Sicilian actress Lana Parrilla was arrested for possession of marijuana.” They’ll say, “Latina actress Lana Parrilla was arrested for possession of marijuana.”)

Now, I can get into all the reasons why saying one (Lana Parrilla doesn’t count as a person of color) or the other (even if she is a POC, her character is still White) is fucked up, but I ain’t doing that right now. What I wanna know is: what the hell is going on when we say shit like this? What kind of fucked up mindjob got done on us that we can look at a woman of color, know she’s a woman of color, but still say, “This character is White”?

What the hell is going on with that shit? What does it say about us and our world when we do that? How can we change shit up to stop erasing POCs even when we’re looking straight at POCs?

I wanna hear from y’all.

27 thoughts on “What’s going on when we interpret a character played by a POC actor as White?

  1. Reposting my answer from our previous discussion on Facebook. Someone else might be thinking along the same lines and can probably better explain my method of thinking better than I can:

    This answer may be more complex than I’m equipped to explain. I think part of it is, many casual fans (and I’m talking people who don’t participate on forums, research the characters, etc.) may not know that Lana is a WOC because she can pass for white. In fact if you hadn’t mentioned it or if we hadn’t discussed it, I wouldn’t have known she was a WOC.

    As far as the character Regina goes, I think there’s a precedent that has been set where media and society tries their damndest to erase someone’s identity and to whitewash. Case in point, Keanu Reeves. He’s a POC but in many of the movies he’s in, he plays a white guy because he passes for white. I’m not blaming Reeves nor am I blaming Ms. Parrilla, as far as the situation goes, it is what it is.

    In short, the rule of thumb is white is the default unless otherwise stated. Just as heterosexual is the default unless otherwise stated.

    The other issue is that there are no cultural cues or markers to acknowledge Ms. Parrilla’s heritage and identity as a WOC. Add on to the fact that this is a WOC who can pass for white. The only cues we are given is that Regina’s father is portrayed by another POC whose fairly fair-skinned and can pass for white.

    So when we’re talking about a heavily eurocentric themed show with a predominantly all-white cast with a media that has a huge precedent to negate minorities (case in point: the fact that I mistook a Beyonce ad and thought it was Britney Spears speaks volumes. I should NEVER mistake Beyonce for Britney Spears).

    I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying I agree with it. I’m not saying Regina isn’t a character of color but merely explaining these are the problems we have to deal with and contend with.

    There’s a precedent because we live in a racist society with a racist media that whitewashes and negates POCs on the regular, how many YA novels have we had to see get whitewashed or comic books? I think those are the things that need to be unpacked and addressed first and I think that will start explaining a lot of people’s attitudes if any of this makes any semblence of sense.

    • Keanu Reeves is a POC? I did not know that. I also wouldn’t have known Lana Parilla was a POC, without RVCBard having drawn attention to it.

      But why do people persist with the assumption of whiteness after this is pointed out? There’s the confirmation bias. People will come up with reasons to defend their beliefs, whether the reasons are any good or not. Add to that the complications that Latino/a people deal with in racial categorization, going back to Spanish colonization (White non-Hispanic, White Hispanic, of Indigenous descent, etc), and people have a lot of reasons that they can pull out to define Parilla.

      As for myself, this isn’t probably a good answer and isn’t one I’m proud of, but it’s an honest one, based on this new revelation about Reeves. It will be difficult for me to see Keanu Reeves as a POC because I’ve seen him so long as a white dude. Yes, default whiteness plays a role here. Perhaps the fact that I’m white leads me to identify him as white when non-whiteness is not obvious and not specified. And if people talk about him as an actor of color, I could see myself getting defensive, because it doesn’t seem like he presents/is presented as anything other than a white dude on screen.

      What I’d like to know is how Parilla and Reeves think of themselves. They have little to gain from engaging the discussion, and it’s not their job to help us figure this out. But I’d still prefer to hear it from them.

      • Lana Parrilla, for her part, openly identifies as Latina. She even quipped in an interview about being the “only flavor” on Once Upon A Time.

        I do wonder to what extent that, because this is powerful, articulate, and complex character, Could it be that Regina (and Lana) is interpreted as White because we are socialized to believe that only White characters can be these things? Not to mention how stereotypes play into how we are able to “read” a character.

        When it comes to Latin@s, it’s really interesting to have people staunchly assert the Whiteness of someone like Lana Parrilla then somehow “forget” that Gina Torres is also Latina as well. When, in reality, it’s often the case that women who look just like them can very well be biological siblings.

        • Biology isn’t much help, unfortunately. Except for certain commercially motivated junk science, contemporary biology demonstrates that race is bullshit, but this simple fact hasn’t caught on. Instead, the commercially motivated junk science gets conveyed in sound-bite version in major newspapers.

          This probably won’t help much, either, but since race is a social construct, it kinda makes sense that when people don’t see the “evidence” of a social construct, they don’t apply it. That’s not much help, though, when you consider that “White” is a social construct, too, and people apply that one without a shred of evidence.

          I must admit I don’t watch the show. Are there social markers of Whiteness that apply to the Regina character? The few visuals I’ve seen that don’t immediately scream “fantasy” seem kinda suburban or even kinda Martha Stewart Living (which is practically the definition of old-school pre-NASCAR blue-blood Whiteness). Do people see that and apply a White social construct? Again, I haven’t seen the show, so these visuals could be rare or I could be misunderstanding them.

      • “It will be difficult for me to see Keanu Reeves as a POC because I’ve seen him so long as a white dude”

        I agree with you. I’ve always known Keanu was a mix of Chinese-Hawaiian-Caucasian yet I’ve never see him as a POC. He hardly ever talks about his race. Also he’s the guy they cast when they want Asian features but not the Asian. Also I’ve heard that he’s spoken really nasty about his fellow POC. So when I see him in a role I think and look at him as a white guy. If he were to assert his racial background (ex. Wentworth Miller) then I’d count him as a PoC but he obviously doesn’t.

        Re: Lana Parrilla I don’t see Latina when I look at her.

        When an actor can pass as white I recognize the “actor/actress” as PoC BUT I don’t see the character as PoC because, they most likely were casted because they look white. If all their relatives are shown as white then I accept that while the actor is PoC the character they are acting as is a white person.

  2. Taking your boo Ms. Parrilla out of the equation for a moment, let’s look at another WOC who’s been in the same situation.

    I thought about this more after we spoke last night and I pondered on Kristin Kreuk. Now she’s one of my favorite actresses. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her she played Lana Lang on Smallville. And she also starred in Streetfighter: Legend of Chun-Li, which I don’t care what anyone says, that movie was AWESOME and I’m a proud owner of the DVD.

    What I didn’t find out until later was that she too is a woman of color and is of Chinese descent but in Smallville (to my knowledge) never acknowledged Lana’s heritage or identity as a woman of color. The only times we’ve seen her relatives, they were white. And then you have an actress who can pass for white playing a character who is white in the comics, it’s little wonder that the audience would interpret her as white. To go back to my previous point of the media’s precedent of whitewashing and erasing POCs.

    I guess the other question we should be asking is why don’t the media make more of a concerted effort to acknowledge the POC’s identity. It’s not unlike writers who allude that a character is an LGBTQ but then hides all evidence of it.

    • Right. But what happens if we flip the script (at least in or own minds)? What if, instead of assuming “White until proven Other,” why not assume “POC until proven White”? I know all the reasons why people do it. I want to talk about what it means that we do.

      What does it mean that we require proof or evidence for POCness above and beyond the fact that an actor of color is playing them? How does racism impact our ability to recognize a POC as a POC?

      • “Right. But what happens if we flip the script (at least in or own minds)? What if, instead of assuming “White until proven Other,” why not assume “POC until proven White”? I know all the reasons why people do it. I want to talk about what it means that we do.”

        Because for me (and I speak only for me here), I know I’m kidding myself and I’m setting myself up for heartache by doing so. These shows don’t have me or people who look like us in mind. For me to assume or in my mind interpret a character as a POC when the writers and creators have made no efforts to do it themselves, it’s kind of insulting for me to do so. That’s like me trying to project my vision on the art and do the artist’s job for them.

        For me it’s much simpler and a lot less heart wrenching to simply watch shows and support media where we aren’t the dirty little secret where women of color are cast as the main characters and handled with respect.

        It’s similar to me assuming that a character is queer until it’s proven that they’re straight. Yeah I can project and assume Merlin and Arthur are lovers all I want but I know I’m setting myself up for disappointment when they both get in heterosexual relationships.

        I’m not sure racism has impacted my ability to recognize characters of color so much as I recognize its ability and precedent to erase us.

        So rather than go through the aggravation and the mental stress, I’d rather support marginalized media that celebrates us openly. And for the actors who are cast in “white roles,” I cheer them on because I know they’re doing the best they can with the situation they have to work with.

        But that’s just me.

  3. This reminds me of The Esteves, Martin, Carlos (Charlies), and Emilo Ever since I can remember they all been playing white characters. It wasn’t till I looked up Charlie Sheen and recognized that he’s Carlos Esteves. Same with a bunch of other actors and actress. People assume that they are white because they look like it, Same with some anime and manga which mostly have Japanese or white characters (rarely black or spanish) Case in point Jorgormound and Bleach. Now if they was a shade darker, that would be a different story.

    • Right, and I get that they “look White” (whatever that means), but I’m asking what does it mean when even POCs default to “White until proven Other”?

      • Do’h
        To me it;’s bittersweet, like yeah the actor is POC, but why play as a white character? It’s never a clear answer. I feel the same way with Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel, both are half black, but sometimes play a white role. It’s too much grey to tell.

        • why play as a white character?

          What does that mean? How does a POC actor, with their POC body, play a White person? What does it mean when we assume White even when there’s nothing outright stating that the character is White?

          • sorry, about the typo, I mean that It’s nice to have a POC actor (mixed, or can pass for white) in the show. The character that they are playing as is white it becomes bittersweet.

            • The character that they are playing as is white it becomes bittersweet.

              What makes these characters White, though? What does it mean when even people of color like you and me default to, “White until proven Other”? And how much proof do you need?

              For instance, there is absolutely NOTHING about the character of Regina Mills that requires us to interpret her as White. Yet so many people say, “Yeah, this actress is Latina, but I’m going to talk about the character she plays as though she is White.” What does it mean when we look right at a person of color, know that they are a person of color, and go, “Yeah, but that character is still White”?

              What does this mean about how we construct POC identity? Are our notions about what makes a person of color a person of color also tainted by White supremacy such that we can’t even recognize a person of color as a person of color when we’re looking dead at them?

  4. Hey, happy to help out!

    What makes her character white? I would have to say that it’s partly due to the default in general being white in society, combined with, well, in this case, Lana Parilla, appearing white and my own not pursuing it past that. As stupid as this sounds in my own head, since I’m not given any cues that Lana is playing a person of colour, I just assume she’s playing a white character. It’s like it has to be spelled out for me despite my own home-schooling in matters of privilege and whatnot.

    It’s privilege, to be sure, so when I’m presented with someone who can pass for white, I don’t really look further into it unless it’s a role that really should have gone to a PoC, such as the Avatar: The Last Airbender live aciton movie, or the Prince of Persia movie starring Jake Gyllenhal.

    I’m sorry, I don’t feel like I’m adding much since I haven’t seen this show yet.

  5. “What kind of fucked up mindjob got done on us that we can look at a woman of color, know she’s a woman of color, but still say, “This character is White”?”

    How many other shows have a POC actress playing a complex character in a position of power? Admittedly I don’t watch much television, but I wouldn’t count on being able to count the number on more than one hand.

  6. The way I feel about it, all a light skinned, multiracial person of color is… We are put in a position that whites, blacks, yellows and reds don’t experience and have very little support for it. Of course these actors and actresses are going to be given white roles, because there are very little roles written for biracial and especially multiracial people. I think the only time I saw a movie that had a lot of multiracial people was when I watched Matrix 2 and 3. But in the Matrix, they no longer had countries and cultures but became a culture unto themselves, the culture of people trying to survive. This actress might be given more of an advantage, being given both white and Hispanic roles in the future, but it would be good if they just created more roles for PoC, and opportunities.

    I am white, black, yellow and red. I am more white but no white person is going to assume I’m white. For as long as someone asks me “What are you?,” I will never be white. And it is lonely when Hispanics and Arabs confuse me for their own, and I have to tell them no, I am just mixed. They walk away, no longer interested in talking to me, just because I’m not like them, or they think I’m lying. At least men who are attracted to me will usually not care what I am or where I’m from, and just be attracted to my differences.

    Would be nice for our culture to lighten up about race, from all sides. Don’t know how we’re going to get there though.

  7. This is the most ridiculous thread ever. Stop lumping “white” and “POC” into two large groups as if those two categories represent all the people that you lump into them. Portraying Regina as generically white is denying her Italian heritage just as much as her Puerto Rican heritage. Regina MILLS is definitely not Sicilian (which should be obvious to those with even the most base level knowledge of Italian last names). It’s not even close. Italians (who you all lump in as white) are discriminated against as well. I’ve seen Lana play Italian before – oh and what a shock, she was from Brooklyn, tied up with a mob family and had a thick NY accent.

    Anyway, this is all nonsense ANYWAY, because, and here’s a shock to most of you…..it’s called ACTING. Does it matter if Regina and Lana are the same ethnicity? Does it matter if they are from the same socio-economic class? Does it matter if they are the same age? Let’s look at all the differences between Regina and Lana. For starters…Regina is older than Lana. Oh my gosh, let’s go on and on about how Lana is hiding her youth to play an older character…ohhh SCANDALOUS! Oh wait…let’s talk about financial elitism. Regina is a Queen and far more wealthy than Lana. Is Lana hiding her middle/upper middle class status in order to play a queen? Oh my..let’s call out all middle class actors every time they play a rich person. How dare they deny their class.

    The race question is ignorant. Go take a class on acting. I am so fed up with people trying to play themselves on tv. If Lana or anyone wants to basically play themselves on tv than it’s not acting. Playing across racial, cultural, economic and even gender lines are what make great actors.

    • “Stop lumping “white” and “POC” into two large groups as if those two categories represent all the people that you lump into them.”

      Right because the only race is the human race, amirite?

      This whole thread is nonsense yet you found the time to write a long ignorant ass screed ignoring everything that was discussed on a post months old. Rather than clicking the x on the webpage and keep it moving.

      “The race question is ignorant.”

      Wow you must be white. Which is probably what pisses you off the most. There are POCs in OUAT. And one of them is Regina.

      You mad?

      I got more bad news. Obama will be black for the next 4 years. Now stay mad!!!!!

        • “Italians are discriminated as well!”

          Oh hey, look, it’s the “Irish were discriminated against too, just like black people!” argument. >_<

          Pretty interesting how this person does come on this rather old article to try and scream out a point against discussiing race and the portrayal of characters. Did they think we wouldn't have noticed?

      • I’m half Mexican a quarter Jewish and a quarter Italian. So whoever assumed I was white is ignorant for trying to guess my ethnicity based on my previous comment. I am also a professional actress (stage, not screen) I’ll play whatever race I can. I’ve played across gender, race and socioeconomic class lines and it is SO pedestrian to be accused of denying my Latina-ness just for playing a white character. Lana is half Latina. So should she be constrained to only playing roles that call for half latinas? It’s called ACTING and maybe you should educate yourselves on what acting is. Go get your PhD in theatre then come back and post when you understand that ACTING requires you to ACT like someone you’re not. I’ve played Latina roles from countries other than Mexico. Does that mean I denied my Mexicanness when I took a role as a Cuban? I was in a show where the lead role was a Mexican (Bocon). And a white girl got the part. And you know what? She ACTED circles around me. She was Italian and could pass for Hispanic and thank God they gave the role to the more talented actor and didn’t just spoon feed it to me because of my race. That would be shameful for me to accept knowing she was better.
        Oh, and one definition of ‘racist’ is: obsessed with race. So half of you on this post fit so nicely into that definition.
        And this is coming from a POC – not that it should matter. A white person has every right to share this opinion.

        • “I’m half Mexican a quarter Jewish and a quarter Italian. So whoever assumed I was white is ignorant for trying to guess my ethnicity based on my previous comment. ”

          You’re half Latina and part Italian and your name is Lana too. OH EM GEE, WHAT ARE THE ODDS. Of course you are boo boo. Because if you say it on the internet, then it must be true.

          ” I am also a professional actress (stage, not screen) I’ll play whatever race I can. I’ve played across gender, race and socioeconomic class lines”

          Kinda like you’re doing right now.

          “Go get your PhD in theatre”

          Riiiiiiiiight because you’ve got 3 amirite. How about you brush up on your reading skills cuz you keep coming back talking all this shit and not only ignoring the discussion but the rules of this website.

          “I was in a show where the lead role was a Mexican (Bocon). And a white girl got the part. And you know what? She ACTED circles around me. ”

          That and she was probably less of an asshole too.

          ” She was Italian and could pass for Hispanic and thank God they gave the role to the more talented actor and didn’t just spoon feed it to me because of my race.”

          And you just gave yourself away because only an ignorant ass racist white person would say some stupid shit like that.

          Let’s cut the bullshit. You’re a talentless white girl who believes you have the God given right to steal roles, jobs and anything else from people of color and this discussion of POCs doing for ourselves bringing out your inner Klanswoman.

          “Oh, and one definition of ‘racist’ is: obsessed with race. ”

          Ahhh did they miseducate you in libral white school. Another definition of racist: STUPID ASS WHITE GIRLS WHO COME ON TO A POC FORUM AND POSING AS A POC AND SPEWING RACIST TRIPE AND TRYING TO DERAIL A POST THAT IS NEARLY SIX MONTHS OLD.

          “So half of you on this post fit so nicely into that definition. And this is coming from a POC”

          Riiiiiiight because something can’t be racist if a POC is signing off on.

          ” A white person has every right to share this opinion.”

          You must certainly do. And we have every right to share our opinions about you in kind. You’re worthless piece of shit and God awful actress because if you can’t even convince us that you’re a POC on the internet, your sorry ass sure as hell won’t be getting any roles on Broadway or community theater.

          Here’s two pennies. Now go buy yourself a clue.

          Now get the fuck out.

        • In case “goodbye” was not clear enough, you’re blocked, and all your posts are flagged as spam. This means I delete them without even bothering to read. Sort of like the penis enlargement sites that try to spam here.

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