Cassandra Clare, the fan fiction writer turned real-life young adult novelist, has a terrific post up in response to readers (apparently very attentive ones) who were confused why the casting call for the movie adaptation of The Mortal Instruments indicated that the producers were looking for an Asian character to play one of the main characters:
They want an Asian actor to play Magnus because Magnus is Asian. (Technically, Magnus is biracial. I would be perfectly happy with a biracial actor playing him — but otherwise the option is an Asian actor, not a white actor. It doesn’t matter if any of Magnus’ background is white. Casting him white would erase that part of his background that is Asian. And important. There are plenty of roles out there for white actors. Most roles are for white actors. This is not one of them. There is very little I have control over as regards casting. I cannot pick an actor for Magnus. I don’t have that ability. But I can say, and say strongly, that I want them to cast an Asian or half-Asian actor, and I did. It is pretty much the one ironclad demand as regards casting that I have made, i.e. : if you don’t cast an Asian actor, I’ll never talk about this movie again, nor will I see it.)…
I have gotten many letters over the years from readers who are happy that Magnus is not white, that Jem is not white, that Maia is not white, that Aline is not white. The fact is that most parts in books are for straight white folks and even more so in films. There are not that many parts for actors who are not white — even less substantive ones. Taking those things away by casting Magnus as white and talking about him as white does cause actual pain to actual people — and to what end? Why? Why send the message you only want to read about white people and only want to see white people on your screens?
There’s something fascinating about the point when investment in or identification with a character causes some readers to willfully fail to see or absorb the race of characters who are clearly non-white. And it says something worrisome that such identification, in those cases, seems to require that characters be white. That Clare’s willing to raise these kinds of questions with her fans, and to stake her political capital with the people adapting her work on keeping her franchise multicultural because she believes that’s the key to making her characters distinct and interesting, is admirable and important.