Generally, a Race Lift works in one of these ways:
- Supporting characters will be changed into a Token Minority to make a cast more diverse. Happens especially in western franchises invented before the 1960s, where non-Europeans in European and American fiction, for all intents and purposes, either did not exist in fictional form at all, or only existed as racial stereotypes.
- Main characters may be changed from a minority in the area the production is being made to the majority (for example, characters become White in the United States and most of Europe, Japanese in Japan, Indian in India, etc.), because otherwise people won't watch. This is especially common in older shows and media, and is still shows up today surprisingly often.
- Less often, a work may be adapted by casting a minority actor that the execs consider "popular with non-minority viewers" when the character wasn't initially a part of any minority group. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are aiming for a Race Lift but when the actor proves to have a Box Office draw, producers may ignore past race depictions.
- Secondary characters may be changed from one minority to another, usually because the adapters consider the fact that they are minorities to be their only distinguishing characteristic (or, less cynically, because the character's original race no longer fits the plot function it was intended to: an explorer's "local guide" may need to change race if the area being explored does, for example).
- The adapters may have been unclear on what race the original character was supposed to be, either because they didn't read the original work carefully or because the original work was vague on that point. This is especially common when moving from one medium to another - a novel may not describe a character's race, but you can be sure the author will mention it if the casting doesn't match what they pictured in their head. Similarly, live-action western adaptations of anime suffer from the fact that western audiences unfamiliar with anime art styles often find it hard to believe that a blonde-haired, blue eyed character was, in fact, intended to be Japanese by the original artist.
- A character who was a majority in the original may become a minority in an update because the producers think they should have been that race all along and were only cast otherwise due to racism. For example, a White ninja may become Japanese if there's no good reason for them to be White other than reluctance to cast non-white actors in the original.
- It might be "safer" to turn an unsympathetic character into a majority to avoid presenting a negative image of minorities.
- And very, very rarely, it's because the best man or woman to make the audition just happened to be of a different ethnicity. This is one variety of Ability over Appearance.
The most common justification for a Race Lift is that a part should go to the best actor for the role, regardless of the character's original race or appearance. This raises several questions.
- Why should appearance be disregarded from our definition of "best" actor? Morgan Freeman might be a great actor, but does that necessarily make him the best actor for the role of Abraham Lincoln?
- Is Ability over Appearance being applied equally to all characters, regardless of race? When casting is supposedly "color-blind", how often do those roles go to white actors vs. non-white actors? Do white actors and non-white actors get an equal chance at lead roles?
Another common justification for changing a non-white character to a white one is the supposed importance of having a "bankable" actor. A big-name actor is needed to bring in crowds and most big-name actors happen to be white. However, that raises the question of why most big-name actors are white and whether actors of different races are being given the same opportunities to become big-name actors. In the words of George Takei, "How would you get someone who has a track record, if they dont give anybody the opportunity to run on that track?"
One could also question the importance bankability itself. For example, Daniel Radcliffe and Robert Pattinson were not particularly well known when they were first given their lead roles in Harry Potter and Twilight, respectively. While bankable actors can cause hit movies, it seems that the reverse is true as well. So the question is whether studios are more willing to take the "risk" of an unknown lead actor if the actor is white.
Many of those who oppose changing a non-white character to a white one are less opposed, or even supportive, towards a white character being changed into a non-white character. While this is a Double Standard, the most common response is that changing a white character into a non-white one is more acceptable due to the lack of roles, especially lead roles, being given to non-white actors.
For example, even after changing the race of Nick Fury in The Avengers, literally every other superhero and almost every single speaking character in the film was still white. Whereas not only are there few counter-examples in any type of media with majority casts of non-white characters out there, but race-lifting these characters in adaptations is a lot more damaging, taking away even more of what little representation these characters' racial or ethnic groups have, as in The Last Airbender.
This is more complicated than it might seem at first glance. A person's race can be determined a number of ways, including ancestry, appearance, and self-identification. For example, The Lone Ranger was criticized for casting Johnny Depp as Tonto, a Native American. However, Depp does claim to be one-sixteenth Cherokee and the Cherokee tribe has no minimum "blood quantum" requirement to be a member so long as one can claim matrilinear descent from a Cherokee woman.
Another example is Tony Mendez, the real-life CIA agent who was fictionalized in Argo. The film was criticized for having the white Ben Affleck play Mendez, who is half-Hispanic and appears Ambiguously Brown. However, Mendez is half-white and self-identifies as white.
Before about 1970, it was common for TV stations in the American South to edit shows featuring non-stereotypical black characters to remove their scenes. In cases where the character couldn't be edited out, the episode or the entire show wouldn't be aired. Producers therefore had an incentive to choose an all-white cast even if the original characters were intended to be minorities. (One of the first shows to attempt to break this barrier was Hogan's Heroes, which made Kinchloe the second-in-command and the camp genius so he couldn't be edited out.)
Simply because of the need for visual diversity, some actors and actresses get the short end of the deal. People of mixed race are especially prone to this because they don't look enough like one ethnicity or the other. See Half-Breed Discrimination. And sometimes people are entirely one ethnicity but have the "appearance" of another. There are White Hispanics with visibly-fair features (Cameron Diaz, for one; Spaniards as a whole), but that is not what the general American viewer sees as a stereotypical Hispanic (at least according to Hollywood and other mainstream media). There are some black people who appear to be white. There are even some Filipinos and Samoans that appear to be black.
Occasionally this process will only be carried out halfway, with a previously ostensibly white character being retooled as someone with a secretly mixed background. In the United States, it has often been common for an especially daring or renegade character to turn out to have American Indian ancestry, if only to emphasize their "wildness". This is plausible because racial mixing with Indians, while not uncommon, was never as widespread or ubiquitous in the U.S. as it was in Mexico or even Canada, partly because there were far fewer Indian people for breeding material; the result is that many white and black Americans have bloodlines that are so diluted that they can claim to have Indian ancestry without actually looking the part.
There's also a (much less common) version specifically for scifi adaptations of historical works, where Africans/Asians/Arabs who were intended to be exotic in the original are changed to something that actually would be exotic for humans in the far future. The usual choice is some odd kind of alien while the humans usually end up being represented by white people.
In Fantasy stories based on Literature, Comic Books or Manga, many times the name of the ethnicity never comes up because it wouldn't exist in that world. When that happens there can be serious arguments and flame wars over what ethnicity a certain character is, based off of the Fantasy Counterpart Culture that might have been used. Their physical appearance might not have any particularly telling markers and clothing can just be added flavor. So if there is an adaption of that work and fans have their own expectations of a particular ethnicity you can guarantee a flame war.