I recently came across "whitewash" used to refer to a (racist) practice of erasing visible minorities in film and advertising by making them appear more white (or even replacing them with white actors).

Here are some examples of this use of the word:

My questions:

  • Can anyone provide some references as to when this meaning of the word a appeared?
  • How widely accepted is this meaning? How [in]formal is this? The Daily Mail put quotes around it in their headline. Why?

It strikes me as a very playful modification of the older meaning (cf. Wikipedia definition), transforming the meaning of "white" in "whitewashing". (In the older meaning, one is covering over a filthy barn with a thin layer of chalk, to hide cow dung. Everyone agrees that a white barn looks better than a dung-splattered one, but the accusation is that the filth is still there underneath... by extension, the superficial appearances look good while hiding evil underneath. In the meaning I an describing, what is being hidden is actually of value and it is the act of hiding what is underneath that is the evil.)

  • 6
    In my experience, barns were almost never whitewashed. Fences, yes, houses, yes, but not barns. Not that it's terribly relevant, mind you, but Pedants-R-Us and all that.
    – Marthaª
    May 16, 2013 at 21:01
  • 1
    I can't address the specific questions, but the act of whitewashing is never undertaken by someone who believes that it is not required. Accusations of whitewashing are leveled against people who appear to be making a (negative) qualitative assessment about the color or nationality of a group of people. I think it is obvious that someone who levels such an accusation does not share that negative assessment.
    – horatio
    May 16, 2013 at 21:25
  • @Marthaª: I was going to remove my incorrect discussion of barns, but the wikipedia article on whitewash (the paint) has a discussion of a traditional use on barns. In support of what you say, the two literary references that come immediately to mind are Matthew 23:27 and Tom Sawyer's fence.
    – Sam Lisi
    May 17, 2013 at 15:06
  • @SamLisi: I recalled only the Tom Sawyer story. Thanks for reminding me of the Matthew passage! What a scathing indictment it contains! Given the scribes' and Pharisees' notions of ceremonial uncleanness, I can only imagine that when Jesus addressed them in Matthew and Luke (11:39-44), the mere mention of the word "tomb" likely made them shudder--and then offended and hostile. In Luke, Jesus likened them to concealed tombs which pilgrims to Jerusalem would walk over unintentionally, thus becoming ceremonially unclean. May 27, 2013 at 0:04
  • @horatio some play the middle way ("well, we'd like more people of cover in the films and on the book covers, but they won't sell - it's not us that's racist, it's the audience, not our fault"). While there's some truth to that (despite being very whitewashed in terms of making its heroine suddenly white, "The Hunger Games" did get complaints from racist "fans" of the book complaining that some black characters where still black), it's still unhelpful along with lacking artistic integrity.
    – Jon Hanna
    May 30, 2013 at 17:52

3 Answers 3


I'm afraid I can only offer a partial answer, the first part is problematic:

Can anyone provide some references as to when this meaning of the word a appeared?

Personally, I can definitely recall the term being used during the controversy around the cover of the US edition of Justine Larbalestier's Liar, which was around May or so of 2009. (Bloomsbury decided the best way to represent the story of an Africa-American girl whose hair is referred to as "nappy" more than once in the book, was to put a picture of a white girl with long straight hair on the cover).

Thinking of political uses of the term in relation to race, I can think of a few just a few years before that using it in the sense of "covering up how bad something looks".

Not a full answer by any means. The Liar case got quite a bit of publicity in some quarters, not least because its author was one of the people protesting which made for a good story as far as reportage went, so it would have been more likely to get above my personal radar than other complaints about the same thing (I do pay attention to issues of representation in art and popular culture, but not as much as many other people do).

It is quite possible that someone out there knows exactly when it came into being, or at least can think of a good example earlier than 2009, but it's also difficult because of the existing meanings of "whitewashing" with political implications makes it harder to trace a given single use.

How widely accepted is this meaning?

It's pretty common in groups who are likely to be talking about the issue. That would mean that people who talk about racial issues would likely be familiar with it, and people with a strong interest in the mechanics of popular culture and entertainment would be familiar with it, and those in the overlap of those two groups would of be very familiar with it.

How [in]formal is this?

I'd say reasonably reasonably informal. I'd suggest putting it in quotes if writing something very formal unless aimed at an audience that would be well-familiar with it. I'd suggest not putting it in quotes if writing something at all informal.

The Daily Mail put quotes around it in their headline. Why?

For one thing, they are mentioning rather than using, in stating what someone else has accused L'Óreal of. You'll notice that quotes are often used after the word "accuse" in headlines, even with established words like "stealing" or "killing".

For another, while the Daily Mail is not quite the same newspaper as it was when it was officially alligned with the British Union of Fascists (it was owned by the leader of the BUF and actively supported Fascism up until Britain went to war with Nazi Germany), it still markets itself primarily at people who hate immigrants, are at least suspicious of gay people, people of religions other than the larger Christian denominations, and convinced that everyone is in a massive conspiracy to live a life of ease and debauchery all while living solely off benefits paid for by white lower-middle-class male tax-payers. For the most part these are people who would only even use the word "racist" as part of the clause "I'm not a racist but...", rather than be familiar with even the more common terms used in terms of analysis of race-relations issues.


It's very tempting to say that the first appearance in a racial context was around 1834. OED has (among other citations under this sense):

2. fig  a. trans.
To give a fair appearance to; to free, or attempt to free, from blame or taint; to cover up, conceal, or gloss over the faults or blemishes of.
[With various shades of meaning; now usually somewhat contemptuous, and implying a false appearance of good.]

1834   F. Marryat Peter Simple II. xii. 196   A quadroon and white make the mustee or one eighth black, and the mustee and white the mustafina, or one-sixteenth black. After that, they are white-washed, and considered as Europeans.

To list that under the sense “give a fair appearance to; free from taint” might give offence. However that particular head word has not been updated since 1924. It's not at all clear whether Marryat meant the word to be taken with that meaning, or whether he was using it literally as “washed through with white and containing no black” (even if that’s still a bit dubious).

  • That's a different meaning though. I remains in current use today, but isn't the meaning used here.
    – Jon Hanna
    May 31, 2013 at 8:46

The term 'Whitewash' as to cover something up comes from the invasion of Washington DC by the British in the 1812 war. After the British burned down government buildings (including the Presidents mansion) the American soldier were ordered to paint the damaged buildings so to cover-up the damage done. They used whitewash to do this and this is where the term comes from. It is also why the Whitehouse is so called and why government buildings in the American capital are also white.

  • This is very interesting, but do you have any sources to back up this early use of whitewash with this meaning?
    – oerkelens
    Aug 6, 2016 at 10:52
  • 1
    I don't really see the connection between a coverup and the willful ethnical, um, rebranding of media icons.
    – Phil Sweet
    Aug 6, 2016 at 14:19

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