Playing the Indian Card

Friday, July 01, 2016

Blackwashing History and Non-White Privilege

The obviouosly non-white Rumi

Stop whitewashing history,” the National Post headline says, over a story about a growing online petition. The goal is to protest casting Leonardo Di Caprio as the Persian mystic poet Rumi. It would be “ludicrous and offensive,” the petition objects, “to give a white man credit for a Muslim man's accomplishments.”

I expect that the audience understands that Leonardo Di Caprio did not really write any medieval Persian poems. Most people probably know that the people they are watching are actors, not the characters they protray. So the concern is itself pretty “ludicrous,” to reach for the obvious term.

But at the same time, the petition seems, in a further delicious irony, to be giving a black man credit for a white man's accomplishments.

Rumi is, by any objective measure, just as “white” as Leonardo Di Caprio. Rumi was Iranian. The word “Iran” is a variant of “Aryan.” Hitler's master race. Iranians are Aryans, Germans are Aryans, and Italians are Aryans. Blacks are not Aryan. Di Caprio is Italian-American. He is Aryan. Decent racial match for Rumi, in genetic and scientific terms. As for skin tone, as if that were in any way relevant, the average skin tones in Italy are pretty comparable to the skin tones in Iran. Di Caprio is a good deal paler than the average Italian. But by the same token, as far as we can ever know, Rumi might have been a good deal paler than the average Persian. Why should the exact skin tone matter so much? Have we gotten so racist? And yes, there are blond and blue-eyed Iranians.

If for any racist reason, you want a swarthier Rumi, that is hardly an insurmountable problem. Hardly something that requires recasting. There is this thing called makeup.

DiCaprio, an Italian, has more than once portrayed an Irishman: in Titanic, or Gangs of New York. Why no protests then? Marlon Brando, an Irishman, famously portrayed an Italian in The Godfather. Why no protests then? The racial difference is comparable.

And if any of this is a problem, if you must always appear as yourself, what is this thing they call “acting”?

DiCaprio is up for the role, of course, not because of racism, chauvinism, or Islamophobia. It is not because he is Italian; it is because he is Leonardo Di Caprio. A little common sense: when you make a movie, you do it to earn money, not to lose money. Di Caprio is a big box office draw. People will go to see movies if he is in them. Quickly, now: how many Iranian actors can you name, fluent and performing in English? How many that are as well-known?

The obviously very white DiCaprio

To be fair, of course, the petition does not demand an Iranian actor specifically. Apparently, anyone from the “Middle East” would do.

That would presumably include, besides Iranians, Arab actors, Turks, possibly even Israelis. (But I doubt that last one would be tolerated).

But that would clearly be racist, on their own terms. Arabs, Turks, and Jews are all less closely related, racially or genetically, to Iranians, than are Italians. None are Aryans.

So, what's the real point of the petition? Why would Iranians want to pass as “non-white”?

For the same reason blacks once wanted to pass as white. Because today being black, or being “non-white,” as a piggyback term, comes with significant privileges. In this case, it promises to catapult some obscure Middle Eastern actor into a role and a paycheque their own marketability, skills, reputation, or experience would otherwise not entitle them to.

And why? Did they write the poetry, then?

The world is growing more racist by the day.

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