home Arts & Literature, Commentary, Movies, Theater, TV Casting an Asian-American in a Native American Role Does Not Help Diversity in Hollywood

Casting an Asian-American in a Native American Role Does Not Help Diversity in Hollywood


Diversity in film, television, and theater is both incredibly simple and incredibly complicated.

On the one hand, it seems like a no-brainer. Cast an actor that corresponds to the race of the character in the script (if the race of the character is specified). Example: If the character is described as a Japanese-American, cast a Japanese-American actor. If the character’s race is not described, or is irrelevant, cast whoever best suits the character.

Note: No mention of a character’s race does not default to “white”. Example: A mermaid. (More on this later.)

On the other hand, the casting of non-white actors in mainstream entertainment appears to be too difficult, too risky, and too treacherous for most executives or studios to handle. Put diversity or – gasp! – race appropriate casting on the table, and I can only imagine the maelstrom of panicked questions that get shot back and forth in secret emails one day to be “leaked”.

Are there even any [fill in the non-white race/color] stars? Can American audiences even relate to a [race/color] star?  Will a POC star tank this project at the box office? Do we have to pay them as much as a white actor? Does having a POC star make a statement? Do we want to make that statement? Is an Asian actor sexy enough? Is a Latino actor too sexy? Is a Black actor scary? Can we cast a mixed-race person that looks more white? Can we get away with casting Emma Stone? She’s Asian right?

While more and more Americans are demanding diverse, racially appropriate casting, the entertainment world just can’t – or won’t – catch up. The best leading roles remain the domain of white actors, with actors of color being relegated to “interesting” supporting roles. For so many actors of color, your choices are: get typecast as a stereotype of your race, get real used to being the hilarious/wise/sexy/sassy/angry/gangsta friend, or create your own work and hope it gets noticed.

If a person of color does manage to get cast in a mainstream, leading role, buckle up for the backlash! Remember the mermaid I mentioned?

When Diana Huey, a Japanese-American actor was cast in the lead role of Ariel in the US touring production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, (white) people were outraged.

How can the Little Mermaid be Asian?! Ariel is obviously white!


Once again, despite Ariel being a MYTHICAL MERMAID of no specific race, fans were irate that an Asian-American woman was cast. Director Glenn Casale, when asked by a reporter from a southern publication what it was like to be “saddled” with a non-white Ariel, Casale shot back, “I cast her!” He has also gone on to say, “Ursula’s blue. Should we talk about that?”

Perhaps the best response came from Japanese-Canadian Maiko Tanaka, Executive Director of Squeaky Wheel Film. When asked for her comment on the “controversy” she said, “1. Can she sing? 2. Can she dance? 3. It’s a friggin’ mermaid.”

Emily Brigid’s response on Twitter also nailed the ridiculousness of people getting angry over Huey’s casting:

But the racism displayed toward and about Huey just goes to show how the American mainstream entertainment industry has conditioned audiences to regard race and heroes, or “traditional casting”. (It’s white.)

It gets even more complicated when the entertainment industry is asked to cast a role where the character isn’t Black, Asian, Latino, or Hispanic. Somehow anything outside of those races is confusing and open to “interpretation”.

The industry’s answer to casting a non-white character who isn’t one of the “common” races is to either cast a white person and hope audiences are so brainwashed that they won’t notice, or cast a person of color, doesn’t matter what color, as long as they’re not (noticeably) white.

Brown is beige is tan, right?

Over the summer, actor Adam Beach (Suicide Squad) called upon his fellow “Native actors” to boycott the upcoming Paramount series, Yellowstone.

In an Instagram post, Beach called the casting of Kelsey Asbille (also Kelsey Chow) a “Failure in Diversity”. Asbille, an Asian-American – her father is Taiwanese and her mother is of British descent – has been cast as a Native American woman.

#hollywooddiversity #diversityinfilm #integrity #yellowstone

A post shared by adam beach (@adamrbeach) on

Though Asbille claims to have some Cherokee on her mother’s side, she showed no public interest in her Native American background prior to being cast as a Native woman in another project, Wind River, also by Yellowstone executive producer Taylor Sheridan. Before Wind River Asbille identified with Asian culture, expressing a wish to improve her Mandarin and see more Asian people cast in film and television.

This is not to say that Asbille does not have Cherokee ancestry. She may very well. But, to put it bluntly, it appears as if Asbille strongly identified as a mixed race Asian-American woman until it was convenient or necessary to call upon her Native American blood.

Many from the Native American community commented on Beach’s post saying that being Native American is more than just having “blood”, like so many white Americans claim (see Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger movie). It’s about a commitment to the culture, its beliefs, being invested; knowing the history of one’s people. A connection to being Native American.

Again, perhaps privately Asbille knew a lot about her Native American roots, but in the public eye she identified as a half Taiwanese-half European American. It’s this identification that makes her casting problematic on multiple levels.

Why couldn’t a Native American woman be cast in Yellowstone? Is American filmmaking so entrenched in the belief that to be a lead a Native American character must be played someone who is “pleasingly” white-looking?

As long as Native American characters have appeared in film, white, or later Asian or Latino actors, have been playing them. From Burt Lancaster in Apache to Lou Diamond Phillips as all the Native Americans, Hollywood can’t seem to cast actual Native actors in leading roles. (Phillips is Filipino/Scottish-Irish with some Native American blood, but has said, “I never claimed to be a Native actor.”)

Sadly, the presence of Native Americans in film has largely served to erase them.

Asbille’s and Phillips’ casting speaks to the industry’s history of seeing brown or “brownish” people as interchangeable.

When Cameron Crowe cast Emma Stone as Allison Ng, a half white, quarter Chinese, quarter Native Hawaiian character, in his disastrous movie, Aloha, people were understandably angry. The vitriol centered around why Crowe hadn’t cast an actual hapa woman or Asian woman in the role.

So much was said about Crowe’s not casting an Asian woman, that the role should have gone to an Asian woman, but very little was said about the Hawaiian part of Allison Ng. Somehow “Asian” was good enough to encompass all the non-white parts of the character.

But Native Hawaiian and Chinese or Asian are not the same thing. By putting Native Hawaiians under the “Asian” umbrella, it effectively erases them from the conversation. So often when there is a Native Hawaiian role to be filled, Asian actors are seen as “the same thing” or “passable”.

Asian is good enough to cover our “brown to beige” bases, right? They all look the same.

And that is what Hollywood still can’t quite grasp: representation isn’t just about plugging a non-white color into a role and dubbing it, “Diversity!”

Diversity and representation is about depicting the truth that America is not only populated by white cisgender (men) people; it’s about showing a character whose race helps define them but does not limit them. It’s about portraying what all of America looks like, what the world looks like, not just the same old narrow swath of white. As an industry that is perpetually criticized for telling the same stories over and over again, diversity makes for more stories that have yet to be told.

However right now, when it comes to diversity in casting, the entertainment industry still sees only limits.

Featured Image via Creative Commons by MingleMediaTVNetwork


Louise Hung

An American writer living in Japan, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.