Hollywood is notorious for its film and television depictions of white-washed historical figures, but sometimes even common knowledge white-washes famous changemakers, artists, and rulers in a societal false consensus. Religious figures like Jesus Christ are constantly depicted as white across the world even though we all know Jerusalem is in the Middle East, and the nationalities of other historical figures like Moorish Benjamin Franklin have been completely lost to common knowledge. Even Alexander Hamilton, who Lin-Manuel Miranda so famously depicted in his ethnically diverse re-casting of American History, has been white-washed in the general consciousness. We've gone from letting white-washing of fictional characters like Major in Ghost In The Shell and Allison Ng in Aloha slide to letting the actual white-washing of world history be taught in our elementary and high schools across the country without even realizing we'd done it. It's time we all educate ourselves: Here are forty historical figures you had no idea weren't white.
Can someone tell me why people keep forgetting that a) Jesus was a Jewish man and B) Jesus was for sure Middle Eastern? Let's not forget that Jerusalem is solidly in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, and that despite there being no confirmation of what ethnicity Jesus was, with his ethnic ambiguity possibly coming from an attempt at creating universality, the least likely possibility here is that Jesus actually looks like the Aryan Nordic Jesus that was created at the height of anti-Semitism in Europe. Another footnote: according to the BBC, there's basically no chance that Jesus actually rocked the long-haired look we all know and love. Paul the Apostle straight-up called men with long hair "disgraceful," and the odds that he would've said that if Jesus had Fabio hair are slim to none.
Beethoven is well-known as a resident of Vienna, a heralding king of the Romantic Era, and a student of Mozart. He's less well-known as a black man. The Moors were dark-skinned Muslims from North Africa who became the dominant group in the Spanish Netherlands in 711 A.D. Beethoven's mother, Maria, was almost certainly Moorish, and basically, every physical description of Beethoven from his time described him as a dark-skinned man with "no trace of the German." This literal fact was probably lost to us because of European colonialists' long history of dehumanizing dark-skinned people and taking credit for their achievements.
The arguments within discussions of Cleopatra's race would need their own 4,000 word article to be done justice (like this one from ThoughtCo). She was for sure at least partly Macedonian Greek and there's a strong argument to be made for the rest of her ethnic background being black. What she for sure wasn't is British like Liz Taylor, Italian like her depiction in Cagnacci's "la morte di Cleopatra," or Kim Kardashian like the March 2011 photo spread in Harper's Bazaar. Also, why if there's a sliver of doubt regarding her blackness do we automatically assume that she's white? Come on, guys. Do better.
The author of The Three Musketeers and The Count Of Monte Cristo was a black man. Why were we not taught this in high school when we read his books? Almost every depiction of him is as a lighter-skinned man. Anyway, Alexandre Dumas was the son of a black man born to a French nobleman and a slave who managed to ascend to the highest ranks of the military during the French Revolution before dying in an Italian dungeon. Dramatic, just like his son's books. People automatically assume that because Alexandre was French and wrote about white Frenchmen that he was also French, which is honestly wack because there are more non-white francophones than white francophones, and France Diplomatie believes 80% of French speakers will be in Africa by 2050.
The ruler of Florence and the last of the senior line of the famed Medici family, whose junior line including his murderer Lorenzaccio and Cosimo I became rulers of the duchy after his passing, was literally called "the Moor" because he was dark-skinned and most likely of African descent. Still, because he's Italian, the media portrays him as a white man and portrays all of his descendants and family members as caucasian Italians as well. We're also not really taught about his ethnicity in school — if they say he was Moorish without explaining what that means and then show us a picture of a white man, people are just going to assume he was white.
Anatole Broyard purposefully used his light complexion to pass as white during his life and career. The New York Times writer, literary critic, and author wasn't revealed as a black man until several years after his death in the 1990s. His deception was outed in 1996 by the prolific black literary critic, historian, and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a piece for The New Yorker, and his daughter Bliss published a memoir regarding her experience learning about her identity as a mixed race woman through her family members in 2007.
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Meghan Markle may not be Britain's first black royal. Queen Charlotte is said to have descended directly from a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House, the Castro y Sousas, and the Royal Household during Queen Elizabeth II's coronation referred to Queen Charlotte's African and Asian ancestors in a published apologia according to PBS. Her ancestry isn't even really hidden in portraits of her, and there's a reference to her ancestry in a poem written to her for her wedding to King George III. It's just modern history that has forgotten about Queen Charlotte and her place in the history of diversification.
The father of modern Russian literature was black and proud of it. He even wrote a book about his great-grandfather called Peter The Great's Negro, a fact that seems to be left out of the modern zeitgeist. Alexander Pushkin is known as the greatest Russian poet. Not "one of the greatest" but the greatest, full stop. He pioneered the use of vernacular speech in poetry and Leo Tolstoy's character of Anna Karenina was inspired by how awesome Alexander's daughter was. Most agree that he specifically was from Cameroon.
This factoid goes back to the same issues that arise when discussing Cleopatra's ethnicity and whether the Ancient Egyptians should be considered as Caucasian. Frankly, the narrative of Tut being Aryan white has mostly been pushed by far-right Neo-Nazis who are always wrong, so let's all remember that first and foremost, Tut was Egyptian. A Medium essay goes very in-depth on the journey of Tut's discovery and the exploration of his DNA, but TL;DR, King Tut is African. He's not this weird Americanized white dude we keep seeing in the media (but I'm not mad at the dope Avan Jogia depiction of Tut in Spike's 2015 miniseries, let's see more of that).
Buena Vista Pictures
Okay, so maybe this doesn't apply to Santa so much as his inspiration, Saint Nick, but can someone explain to me how a fictional character based on a Turkish saint ended up looking white like snow? John Stewart has joked that if St. Nicholas were still around, he'd be on Homeland Security's no-fly list. A lot of ancient Santa myths actually involve the use of blackface (which is not okay and it's own whole other issue), but this supports the idea that Santa is not a white man, regardless of whether he's fictional. I'm gonna blame Coca-Cola for this one.
Saint Augustine's writings are so important to Christianity that they're considered the church's most important writings after the Bible. The doctrine of Original Sin? Yeah, that was his idea. So was predestination. The patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, and the alleviation of sore eyes is discussed in theology and religion classes across the country, but most of them leave out the undisputed fact that Saint Augustine was a Roman African from Numidia on the North African coast. He's been depicted as caucasian in various television productions and classical paintings, but make no mistake. Saint Augustine was a black man.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was brought into the public consciousness when Hamilton recast the white founding fathers to look more like the demographics of modern America in a much-needed diversification of musical theatre (and media in general). Funnily enough, the actual historical figure that Lin portrayed in the show, Alexander Hamilton, was most likely not actually white to begin with. Hamilton's mother, Rachel Faucette, was a mixed-race woman who would hide her true ethnicity in federal documents. Hamilton also was born on the island of Nevis where the slave population was higher than the rest of the population, so his heritage was likely inextricably mixed with the ethnicity of the slaves on the island. So, basically, all of America's history is really sketchy, which has been known.
Clark Gable was the original tall, dark, and handsome. People just seem to forget the "dark" part of all of that. Clark didn't try to hide that he had black and Native American ancestry. He even desegregated the set of Gone With the Wind. An NPR featurette recalls a story from a young extra named Lennie Bluett who was onset for the burning of Atlanta scene, where production had set up segregated toilets on the lot. Lennie went straight to the movie's star, Clark, in a bold move, and explained to him the situation, at which point Clark called the movie director in a rage and said that if the toilets weren't integrated at once, he would no longer have a Rhett Butler.
Jeff Ma is the subject of Bringing Down the House, a book about the MIT Blackjack Team that would later become the inspiration for the films 21 and The Last Casino. 21 starred Jim Sturgess as the character based on Jeff, leading to accusations of white-washing in the press. The original MIT Blackjack Team was primarily Asian, and the movie was definitely not. Jim is a hottie, but this was a major L for representation in Hollywood and a white-washing of a story of a very real team that existed for over fifteen years.
Argo legit white-washed an American hero. Antonio "Tony" Mendez is a Mexican-American who was awarded the Intelligence Star for Valor and the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit for the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Iran before retiring with the rank of SIS-2 which is equal to being a two-star military general. He also is one of fifty people who has been awarded the Trailblazer Medallion in the history of the CIA. And Ben Affleck, a white man, decided that he was going to cast himself in his own movie as Tony Mendez and didn't really see any problem with it.
Journalist Mariane Pearl is African, Chinese, and Cuban on her mother's side and Jewish on her father's. Angelina Jolie is a white woman. To be fair, Mariane hand-picked Angelina to portray her in A Mighty Heart, the film adaptation of Mariane's memoir of the same name which followed her life with Daniel Pearl, an American journalist who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in the early days of the War on Terror. Mariane felt a kinship to Angelina and felt that she put her whole heart into the role, but it's unfortunate that her casting meant the story of a mixed-race woman was told by a white woman.
The possible "real founder" of Facebook Divya Narendra wasn't exactly whitewashed in the film The Social Network, where the Indian-American tech genius was played by Max Minghella, who is part Chinese. The film also cast British actor Andrew Garfield in the role of Jewish-Brazillian student Eduardo Saverin. These racial miscastings show that the film white-washed Eduardo while misidentifying Divya, lumping all non-white people together like it's okay to just put anyone who isn't white in a role based on a real person and patting themselves on the back for being diverse.
RKO Radio Pictures
In the 1956 film The Conqueror, John Wayne portrayed Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and it was about as upsetting as you would assume. The Westerns star lobbied for the role at the height of his career after reading the script, but the gross miscasting has led The Conqueror to being considered one of the worst films of all time by the novel The Fifty Worst Films of All Time and winning a Golden Turkey award and a Golden Raspberry for being horrible. There's also a theory that the film's set being on a nuclear weapon testing zone lead to a cancer epidemic that killed 46 cast and crew members and affected 91 others.
20th Century Fox
Theatre icon and comedic genius Carol Channing's father was a mixed race African American man and her mother was Jewish. Carol herself didn't know she was mixed until she left home for college at age sixteen. Carol was white passing but wrote that she was proud of her black ancestry and credited her black heritage with giving her the ability to sing and dance. Carol's best-known roles are as the title roll in Hello, Dolly! on stage and screen, and as Muzzy van Hossmere in the film version of Thoroughly Modern Millie alongside Julie Andrews.
Betty Boop is an animated character from Fleischer Studios, but the white-passing cartoon character was based on a real-life jazz singer called "Baby Esther." Esther Jones was a black Harlem singer who performed regularly at the Cotton Club who originated Betty's "boop-oop-a-doop" scatting and was cited by Max Fleischer as an inspiration for the character in a lawsuit from actress Helen Kane, who incorrectly thought that *she* was the basis of Betty. Max even used an early test sound film of Baby Esther performing as evidence in the case.
Hannibal of Carthage is considered one of the greatest military leaders in history and because there are few to no confirmed depictions of Hannibal from his lifetime in the late 100s BCE people have assumed the general was a white man. In fact, Hannibal Barca was a Carthaginian from Africa, and historian Patrick Hunt has confirmed that there was possibly African DNA in Hannibal's family line. He was also confirmed to be Lebanese, so any strictly-European portrayals of Hannibal in the media are incorrect, even this joking characterization from a BBC comedy.
The British-American guitarist of Gun N' Roses has never hidden that he's half-black. He's even commented in his autobiography that his background as British and black amused him because at the time, American musicians were always aspiring to be British and British musicians were trying to seem black. Maybe it's the hair, the hat, and the sunglasses that basically cover Slash's face that made it so a lot of people didn't realize he's black, but he is. He even appeared in an HBO film series called The Black List (not to be confused with The Blacklist) about notable African-Americans and their experiences living as black people in the United States.
Derek Jeter is another biracial entrant on this list, with a black father and a white mother. The former shortstop and current part owner of the Miami Marlins is so white-passing that most people don't realize that he's actually biracial. Derek hasn't talked much about his identity as a biracial man, as is his decision, but the five-time World Series champion did appear on PBS's Finding Your Roots where the topic was discussed and he searched through different aspects of his ancestry. Derek is also the first black CEO of Major League Baseball.
Merle Oberon is likely best known for her roles in the films Wuthering Heights and The Dark Angel, but the Academy Award nominee had a very interesting life. Aside from her 1937 traffic accident that caused facial injuries that could have been career-ending, it was revealed later in her life that she was not born in Tasmania as she had claimed but was actually the daughter of a twelve-year-old who she was raised to believe was her sister. Merle concealed her mixed race heritage and used makeup to mask her darker complexion, but, as of 2019, is the only Indian woman to ever be nominated for an Oscar.
John Gavin is best remembered for his roles in Imitation of Life, Spartacus, Psycho, and Throughly Modern Millie, but many film fanatics don't realize that the white-passing actor was Mexican and Chilean. John was fluent in Spanish and became a U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in the 1980s. He was almost the first non-white James Bond, but the role ultimately stayed with Scottish actor Sean Connery because United Artists wanted the box-office insurance of a proven Bond star. He also served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1960s.
J. Edgar Hoover was the first Director of the FBI, which he was instrumental in founding in 1935, and held the position for thirty-seven years until his death. He also participated in gross abuses of power, exceeded the jurisdiction of the FBI, and attempted to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide. Yeah, J. Edgar really sucked as a person. Ironically, according to Essence, there's also evidence that J. Edgar was a white-passing African-American. J. Edgar was also likely a gay man in a long-term partnership with his assistant.
The 2014 Darren Aronofsky film Noah was all-white, and people took notice. A co-writer of the screenplay, Ari Handel, defended the casting because Noah's Ark is a mythical story, saying that "the race of the individuals doesn't matter" to UPROXX. While the default for racially ambiguous stories shouldn't be white in the first place, the Biblical story was written by prophets in the Middle East and most searches for the mythical ark have been conducted in Turkey, so these characters, if they had any race at all in pre-historic times, would be Middle Eastern as well.
According to the New York Genealogical and Historical Society, Jackie O was related to the van Salee family, who had African ancestry, and her father's nickname "Black Jack" referred to his darker complexion. Jackie never acknowledged this chapter in her family's genealogical history, describing the van Salees as Jewish, and made some questionable comments about Martin Luther King Jr. despite her husband John F. Kennedy tepidly supporting the Civil Rights movement. Still, it looks like Jackie O. is still a white-washed figure in American history, even if she preferred it that way.
Even after Noah was controversial and banned in many countries (but weirdly high grossing), Exodus: Gods and Kings still cast a bunch of white dudes as biblical figures. And even though it's literally about the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, they weren't even Jewish white dudes. Like, Moses was definitely Israeli and Jewish, and he was raised by an Egyptian princess. How does that equate to Christian Bale? Another white dude (Joel Edgerton) played Ramesses II, which is a whole other issue, with Sigourney Weaver as Ramesses II's mother.
Twentieth Century Fox
We shouldn't be surprised that a 1946 drama got representation really, really wrong, but the literally whole point of this movie was about a British governess thrown into an ~exotic~ Asian court in Siam. Then, they go and cast the historical king of Siam, Mongkut, as a white man in yellowface. Oh and that white protagonist of this story was, in reality, an Indian woman who had never even visited England. These characters were both white-washed again in the stage musical adaptation of the story, The King and I.
White-washing basically all of Christianity gets explained away in a variety of ways, like the mythical aspects of the figures and the lack of knowledge about pre-historical peoples. It's not okay, but it's almost funny to compare those justifications to the actors and director of Gods of Egypt tried to give for casting a nearly all-white cast of "Egyptians." Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau who played the Egyptian god of air, Horus, said he wasn't playing an Egyptian but "an 8-foot tall god who turns into a falcon," clearly ignoring the title of the film and also the entire point of the white-washing argument. Classy.
Prince Faisel or Faisal I bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi of Iraq was the King of the Arab Kingdom of Syrian in 1920 and King of Iraq from 1921 until 1933. In the 1962 historical drama that was filmed less than thirty years after his death, Lawernce of Arabia, Prince Faisal was portrayed by Alec Guinness doing an impersonation of an Arab man. The role was never going to go to an actual Arab man; the role originally cast Laurence Olivier who dropped out. Lawrence of Arabia also caught a lot of flack for grossly misrepresenting its title character not ethnically but in his behavior and motivations.
Marsha P. Johnson hasn't just been white-washed but was effectively written out of her own story in the 2015 film Stonewall which depicts a fictional gay white male as the person who threw the first stone in the Stonewall riots. In reality, a black drag queen and founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, Marsha P. Johnson threw the first stone. Marsha also modeled for Andy Warhol and was an AIDS activist, and people were rightfully upset to see her written out of her own story only to have a white cis-gender male portrayed in her rightful place in history.
The 1975 MGM film The Wind And The Lion was based on the real-life Perdicaris incident of 1904 where a Greek-American playboy was kidnapped along with his sun by bandits under the employ of Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni. The film starred Sean Connery as the Arabic Sharif in yet another incidence of Hollywood whitewashing a historical figure. Raisuni is an interesting figure because, despite his actions, he's seen as a folk hero by many Moroccans, respected by President Theodore Roosevelt who dealt with Raisuni during the kidnapping, and was well-liked by his kidnapping victims.
Paramount made a Nicholas Cage survival disaster drama about 9/11 in 2006 in a move that could be described as "too soon." In the film, real-life hero Marine Sergeant Jason Thomas was played by William Mapother from Lost. This would be fine, except Sgt. Jason Thomas was a black man. Producers claimed they didn't know that Thomas was black until after filming had begun like no one had ever been recast during filming before or anything. Sgt. Thomas is one of the rescuers who saved two of the twenty people who were pulled out alive from the debris of the World Trade Center, and he went to help in the emergency response despite being retired from active duty.
Saint George is the patron saint of England and is one of the most famous martyrs in Christianity. Funnily enough, Saint George is Turkish and probably a little Persian. It's funny because people seem to not know this, and his emblem of a red cross on a white background was co-opted first by the Crusaders, then the British far-right, both of whom likely didn't realize they were using a Turkish Arab to further their racist agendas. He may have fought in the Roman army, but he was not a white man as he's commonly portrayed in artwork.
Nicole Kubelka/Future Image/WENN.com
Okay, maybe starring in Prison Break and Legends of Tomorrow doesn't make Wentworth Miller a "historical figure" but being in Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together" video absolutely does. Wentworth is Canadian-American and extremely white-passing, but Wentworth's father is a biracial African-American and Jamaican man and his mother is a biracial Lebanese and Syrian woman. Wentworth is also a gay man who came out in 2013 after denying the rumors for years. Wentworth is an ambassador for the mental health charity Active Minds and is currently in negotiations to write a screenplay produced by Oprah and Tom Hanks.
Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is depicted as the biracial African man he was in most paintings from his life and is remembered as the "Black Mozart" (which is honestly kind of rude considering Joseph preceded Mozart by about a decade) and the first classical composer of African ancestry, but many classical music fans don't realize that the accomplished violinist was black. He was also known during his time as a master fencer, he performed with Marie Antoinette and taught her music, and led the first all-black European military regiment during the French Revolution, all during a time of increasing racism in France.
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Cameron Diaz retired from acting in 2018 after historical performances in There's Something About Mary, The Holiday, Charlie's Angels, and Shrek. Even though her last name kind of gives it away, a lot of audience are surprised to learn that the blonde beauty is Cuban. Cameron was at one point the fifth highest-grossing U.S. domestic box office actress and has written a New York Times best-selling health book. Cameron also promoted Al Gore's Live Earth campaign and is an advocate for miliatry families
Halsey shot to fame in 2015 after her platinum-certified debut Badlands was released in 2015. "Bad At Love" off her second album became her first Billboard Hot 100 top five entry and "Without Me" reached number one in 2019. Halsey is white-passing and has spoken about the difficulties of navigating life as a white-passing biracial woman to Playboy and on her Twitter account. Halsey's father is African-American and her mother is white, and Halsey has stated that she's proud of black culture and her heritage in many interviews since her rise to superstardom.