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When Swinton And Cho Talk Race, The Point's Lost In Translation

It was a bizarre Hollywood kerfuffle.

Over the weekend, the publicist for actress Tilda Swinton released an email exchange between Swinton and comedian Margaret Cho about race and casting in Hollywood. Swinton was one of the stars of Dr. Strange and played a character, The Ancient One, who had always been Asian in the comic books on which the movie was based. Swinton had reached out to Cho, an outspoken critic of "whitewashing" in the film industry.

After the email exchange, Cho went on a podcast and characterized the brief conversation as a "fight" in which she said Swinton essentially asked her to make the criticism go away.

"[She] was like, 'Could you please tell them ...'" Cho said to Bobby Lee on his TigerBelly podcast. "I'm like, 'Bitch, I can't tell them. ... I don't have a yellow phone under a cake dome.'"

She went on: "It was weird because I felt like a house Asian; like I'm her servant."

And then Swinton's people released the emails.

Now, the conversation is about Swinton's intent and Cho's tone. And the argument about how history and structures matter and shape our lives has been swept aside in favor of a more depressingly familiar and far less consequential one.

In Swinton's first email to Cho, she explains, with exceeding politeness, why she's writing:

"The diversity debate — ALL STRENGTH to it — has come knocking at the door of Marvel's new movie DR STRANGE," she writes. She says she hasn't read much about the hullabaloo around the casting but had heard that Cho was more familiar with it, and she asked to talk about it. Swinton writes that Cho could "tell me to f*** off if you feel like it," which seemed to invite real candor.

Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it.

In response, Cho points out — rather politely herself — that the backlash to Swinton's casting was part of the long history of Asian-American characters transmogrifying into white people between source material and Hollywood movie. (It was only the most recent controversy about whitewashing in a geek-culture movie this year. Lots of people were pissed at the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming Ghost In the Shell.)

"Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it," Cho wrote back.

Swinton replied with particulars: the particular reasons the studio turned this character into a white person — it was done to avoid the Fu Manchu stereotype of the comic book character, she said — and how her particular role advanced diversity in its own way, because now the character was played by a woman. (Swinton then pointed to her particular track record of bucking and complicating Hollywood's beauty standards, and, with complete seriousness, told Cho how she was in a similar predicament as Asians, as there was little in any cineplex to offer "a Scottish woman of 55 who lives in the Highlands.")

But, of course, the history Cho was referring to is a galaxy of particulars. Cho responded — politely — that the casting details of this movie do not exist in some kind of historical vacuum. She even validated Swinton's feelings.

"I believe very much that you as an artist are about diversity and your body of work shows that — but this particular case of the Ancient One is just another in a long list of 'whitewashed' Asian characters and so you're likely to feel the heat of history.

"I am not sure what to say other than I am glad you want to meet the issue head on — it's a tough one I know."

You could see why Swinton might have left that exchange thinking that the two had had a pleasant, civil conversation. But Cho's description on the podcast about how it went down — that it was "so weird" and that she felt like some kind of maid — struck some people as a flat-out lie. And the unimpeachable points that Cho made in those emails were lost.

But it's clear to me that Cho walked away from the same encounter having had a completely different, far more frustrating experience. That's because Swinton and Cho weren't having the same conversation. What I think Swinton wanted from Cho was some kind of exculpation. What Cho wanted was for Swinton to "get it."

It's true that the email exchange shouldn't be characterized as a "fight." It's also true that their courtesies — I'm such a fan! each wrote to the other — didn't completely camouflage the unpleasantness of what Swinton was asking. These are dynamics I recognize in emails from some Code Switch readers and listeners who self-identify as white, and who seem to be requesting some kind of reassurance that they're not racist or wrong.

I recognized Swinton's defensiveness in her justifications:

Swinton: By the way, the project I have been developing as a producer over the past two years is with Bong Joon Ho... a film called OKJA ... to my knowledge the first ever half Korean/half English speaking film ... in which the lead is a 14 year old girl from Korea and which stars Steven Yeun, amongst others.. fingers crossed it will be a big deal and help the landscape somewhat. I hope and believe it will.

Cho: Hey that's great about OKJA!

I recognized Cho's earlier sign-off to Swinton -- Hope this helps -- as an attempt to soften the exchange and signal good faith, because I've used that same signoff. And I recognized the way Cho hid her feelings about the exchange until she talked about it on a podcast to another person of color. She was venting to someone who got it.

Cho certainly could have refrained from engaging Swinton, but since she did, she had to do so while understanding some implicit terms: engaging less politely invited the possibility that she would be seen as combative. And her anger would sound to those who make these queries like a rebuff of someone who was just trying to learn and engage, though they hadn't so much as Googled the issue.

Instead, Cho took the tack of being more polite, which meant that she had to forgo any real honesty regarding her feelings about Swinton's assumptions or the irrelevance of Swinton's particulars in replacing an Asian character with a white one.

It's a familiar bind. I was part of a conversation at Slate recently with several black writers in which we discussed what it's like to be conscripted into these conversations and how asymmetrical — experientially and emotionally — the subsequent exchanges often are.

"White readers want absolution," the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom said. "They also want to manage all the risk of interracial contact in a way that minority groups can never do."

These exchanges are rarely contentious — Cho shouldn't have characterized hers as a "fight" — but neither are they benign or without frustrations, if only on this side of it. This is so often how our testy conversations about race play out, in which we are unhelpfully pulled to litigating the motives of a particular police officer or a particular politician or, in this case, a particular actor's decision to accept a role.

And it means that too many conversations about inequality are never about the broader ramifications of the decisions people make, institutionally or personally. In the end, these bigger, systemic consequences — in this case, whitewashing in Hollywood — are once again rendered unfortunate phenomena with no actual human culprits.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.

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