Obscuring Ethnicity: POC, Cut It Out

When I go to the D.R., the press in Santo Domingo always asks, "¿Qué te consideras, dominicana o americana?" (What do you consider yourself, Dominican or American?) I don't understand it, and it's the same people asking the same question. So I say, time and time again, "Yo soy una mujer negra." ("I am a black woman.") [They go,] "Oh, no, tú eres trigueñita." ("Oh no, you are 'dark skinned'") I'm like, "No! Let's get it straight, yo soy una mujer negra." ("I am a black woman.")

Because of films like Avatar and Star Trek (2009), Zoë Saldaña is not one of my underappreciated actresses of color.  Before these films she would've qualified because people - myself included - often forgot about her.  The lil sis informed that when Zoë wasn't doing films, she was traveling the world modeling (hence the vast volumes of pix of her on Google).  When I look at her, I think, "She was making bank.  She's making bank.  She'll be making bank for a long while."

So even though I think she's not a particularly phenomenal actress, is way too thin, and represents the gay white man's ideal black woman, I still have mad respect for Zoë Saldaña.  She's a businesswoman.  She knows how to hustle; she's getting the kind of pay many Hollywhite veterans have only dreamed of for the last 20-30 years of their careers.  And through it all, Zoë's never stopped being a proud black woman.

When she steps onto the stage or in front of the camera, she lets people know upfront who she is and what she's about.  This tells me that her march towards success has been a long difficult one; she probably endured a lot of shit from white people and lighter-skinned Latinos in the industry, and now she simply refuses to let the people who probably dismissed her in the past try to step in and "claim" her now.  Why?  Because people like Zoë remind all black people that it can be done.  Yes, it'll be hard, and yes, it will take a while, but if you stick with it, it can be done.

Furthermore, people like Zoë understand how their fellow black people need to be seen in positively and prominently in media, and thus are proud to represent us and not "possibly" someone else.

Which brings me to a couple of other ladies I'd like to discuss.

I first saw Australian-based actress Nathalie Kelley in Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, portraying "Neela" whom every man in a 20-mile radius seemed oddly possessive of.  At the time the film came out, I noticed that most people had no clue who she was, and knew even less about her ethnic background.  Instead of coming out and stating, "I am Latina in every sense of the word" (Peruvian mom, Argentine dad), Miss Nathalie - at the time - instead chose to ride out her character's wave of ambiguity.

With all the white saturation going on Hollywood, it wouldn't hurt for a Latina on the silver screen say, "Yup, I'm Latina.  I'm on this big-ass screen, making this money, being drooled over by everyone, and reppin' my people with pride.  Fuck you and your 'cockroach' shit, blaming people like me for your country's financial and military fuck-ups - sit in front of your mirrors and wish this was you, bitches."

In Thailand, I'm mistaken as Thai, in New Zealand I've been told I look Polynesian, Indians can see my Indian heritage and in America, I've been told I look African American or Latin American. I like it that way.
Yes...but once again, how many East Indian-descended women are main cast characters on hit show garnering odes of attention in the White, White West?  If you're a young, East Indian-descended woman living in these disunited states, where an Asian of any ethnicity on TV is a rarity in and of itself, it wouldn't hurt for you the know that the most resilient, resourceful, clever, and absolutely beautiful woman on Spartacus is a woman like you.  That out of the sea of whitewashed shows and white-saturated films, there is a woman on TV amassing a cult following, and she is just like you.

Now, I get why some actresses might tone down/gloss over their POC heritage, while using oh-so-anglicized names in the industry (even more kudos to Zoë Saldaña).  They get to play a variety of ethnicities.  If they're like Jennifer Beals, they can even go so far as to pull a full-on passe blanc.  And in this - literally - crazy age of fandom, it helps them dodge the wrath and whining of "some" people.  In short, it's less about appearing ambiguously POC, and more about being white-friendly.  Because we know that on these shows, whenever a woman is cast and she appears to have even the slightest touch of color, and she's kept "ambiguous" or "unspecified", it's often some white writer/director/producer's idea - especially if she engages in a relationship which appears interracial (notice that on Spartacus, everyone's proud to be Roman, Thracian, Gaul, Syrian, or even African in the case of the Doctore, but we're never told what the hell Naevia is).

Each of these women understands the industry, but I feel Zoë has the best approach: kick ass and take names.  You can imagine how many photographers and casting agents are kicking themselves now where she's concerned.  As it stands, her financial future is golden, and it's no wonder folks are rushing to "claim" her.  I think her unflinching racial openness and consistency are what make her powerful, because the other two are already getting nekkid and doing sex scenes, and unlike with white actresses, when actresses of color do that early in their careers, their days in the spotlight tend to be numbered.

Comments

  1. ronnie brown4/18/11, 10:14 PM

    why do gay white men consider Zoe "the ideal Black woman"...don't hold back! lol

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  2. I agree. A lot of them tend to use the "race doesn't matter" excuse when being ambiguous about their race. Race has always mattered so that doesn't really fly.

    "..is way too thin..." Why? She's naturally like that so I don't see a problem.

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  3. @ K,

    Look up Shirley Q Liquor to find out what many gay white men consider the "ideal black woman."

    I'm not gonna lie, I'm kinda of two minds. On the one hand, I completely feel you on what you're saying about being open and proud.

    On the other hand, I'm not even a celebrity and I get fed up with white folks tripping over themselves trying to figure out what my ethnicity is or inquiring about my breed of mix like I'm a damn dog. And they get so caught up about it, I'm usually seeing red and about ready to flip the bird.

    http://neo-prodigy.livejournal.com/908395.html

    And I don't even hide it. When I tell them Black and Proud, usually two things happen:

    1) They don't believe me and swear I'm lying and/or mixed with something else like they do Zoe.

    2)The second I say black, they give me this revolting look for me duping them.

    In these actresses positions for some of them (where telling the media fuck you is not an option), it might be a case that they're tired of being exoticised and boxed into the media's racial fetish and sick of the media questioning the hell out of them about it. Not saying that actors don't play the racial obscurity (because many do) but this might be another factor too.

    All of that said, they try to pull some Cablasian shit, I'm Drop Squadding some fools.

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  4. "..is way too thin..." Why? She's naturally like that so I don't see a problem.

    My opinion, that's all.

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  5. It's one of the many reasons I have love for Zoe. As you say, she may not be the best actress in the world, but Zoe does not play about who she is.

    No one saying you have to go Mau Mau on people's asses all day long, but take some pride in who you are. Being "white friendly" ain't gonna get you a damn thing in H'Weird in the long run, but a place on the unemployment line.

    It's hard, but when hasn't it been hard. It was hard for Cicely Tyson (who I adore to this day). It was hard for Ruby Dee and it's hard for Kimberly Elise and N'Bushe. That's a given. You might as well love who you are while you're pushing forward.

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  6. @ K. I googled shirley Q Liquor...I don't..I can't...Just what is that thing?

    @ Ankh. Oh okay. I was about to worry that there was something wrong with my bony behind lol.

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  7. In these actresses positions for some of them (where telling the media fuck you is not an option), it might be a case that they're tired of being exoticised and boxed into the media's racial fetish and sick of the media questioning the hell out of them about it.

    Initially, I was going to respond, but I think Lenoxave says it best:

    It was hard for Ruby Dee and it's hard for Kimberly Elise and N'Bushe. That's a given. You might as well love who you are while you're pushing forward.

    This. It's gonna be hard. That is a given. And yes, you're going to get sick of people asking you the same question over and over and over again, but welcome to showbiz. These celebrities don't magically wake up crazy and strung out of meth one day; it's a process. It takes work.

    Furthemore, by asserting herself as a proud black woman, Zoe, originally an actress of little standing, basically told the media "fuck you" and lived to tell the tale while rolling around in a giant pile of money.

    I don't know about y'all, but I consider that a checkmate.

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  8. @ The Girl

    I am both Ankh and "K".

    And no, there's nothing wrong with your bony behind.

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  9. "Being "white friendly" ain't gonna get you a damn thing in H'Weird in the long run, but a place on the unemployment line."

    And ironically, Will Smith, the white friendliest entertainer in Hollywood called white folks out on their bullshit and the crap he's endured in the song Mr. Nice Guy:


    Will's a nice guy
    Why, he's so nice, I'd let him date my daughter
    Like he was a white guy
    He's not like the rest, he's a private flight guy
    Why, if I were gay on Friday night I'd....

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  10. @ Neo-Prodigy

    Granted, there are always going to be "exceptions" to the rule, namely Will Smith and Halle Berry.

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  11. @K,

    Agreed. Most definitely. I just was saying is that I thought it was amusing that even some of those "exceptions" who have benefited recognize the bullshit of having to be "white friendly" in the first place and the crap that comes with it.

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  12. Will Smith did state in interview about it's actually really hard to be nice, "because of things we [black people] go through" and how they make you just want to pop-off. And after finally being freed from Aubry, that miserable piece of shit, Halle no doubt has all new stories to go with her old ones.

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  13. That quote by Zoe has been out there for a long damn time, and people are still of the opinion that 'she doesn't consider herself black/acts like she isn't black/she think she cute'. *big ol' eyeroll* If 'Yo soy una mujer negra' isn't plain enough for them, then they're beyond help.

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  14. That quote by Zoe has been out there for a long damn time, and people are still of the opinion that 'she doesn't consider herself black/acts like she isn't black

    Disgusting, isn't it?

    If 'Yo soy una mujer negra' isn't plain enough for them, then they're beyond help.

    My sentiments exactly.

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  15. Your right about Zoe. Why am I not surprised about the F
    Dominican reporters "correcting" her about her ethnicity? I have lost count of how many Dominicans I have heard say "I'm not black! I'm Dominican/Spanish!". As if being black and Dominican are mutually exclusive.

    BTW, how are you liking Houston, Ank? Good to be back, right?!

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  16. BTW, how are you liking Houston, Ank? Good to be back, right?!

    Girl, it is SO good to be back.

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  17. Look up Shirley Q Liquor to find out what many gay white men consider the "ideal black woman."

    I'm going to need a lot of brain bleach to scrub that image out of my memory. *Shudders* There really should have been a disclaimer posted along with that name drop; something along the lines of "Remember Interwebs Rule 30".

    @The Post Itself:

    No offense...but what else is new? In a country where such groups as the "Blue Vein Society" came into being, is it surprising that actors and actresses of colour would try to play the ambiguity card? Not only does it allow them to distance themselves from those "other blacks" or distance themselves from blackness altogether, but they get treated all special like/exoticized by those who really matter (i.e.- white people).

    Also, I'm not giving kudos to Zoe for using her real last name, and here's why. With a name like Saldana she gives herself some of that patented "Latin Flair" that white people seem to love so much, and which, in fact, makes her stick out much more, and in a better way, than if her last name was, say, Washington or Watkins. Seriously, Zoe Macintosh? Zoe Addams? Zoe Walker? Far too "common" and "black" sounding to appeal to the drooling, mindless masses.

    Her being Dominican, even though we all know that basically means she's a person of African descent with possible Spanish ancestry born in the D.R., only works to her benefit in Hollywood, where everyone is looking for the next, hot, exotic 'it' factor as it concerns women of colour.

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  18. @LeoPrincess
    If 'Yo soy una mujer negra' isn't plain enough for them, then they're beyond help.

    Oh, they're just confused. They've read so many fan fictions about Nyota Uhura's ultra "white" grandparents, they can't possibly believe the words that come out of Zoe's mouth, bilingually. These people kill me. Not only do they feel the need to change a fictional character's ethnicity to identify with her and they also turn around and deny the actress the right to define herself. The last time I checked, Zoe was a real fucking person.

    I don't even mind her boniness because she's clearly HEALTHY. With that skin and muscle tone, she definitely eats and works out.

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  19. Also, I'm not giving kudos to Zoe for using her real last name, and here's why. With a name like Saldana she gives herself some of that patented "Latin Flair" that white people seem to love so much

    Martin Sheen would beg to differ, and he didn't even have dark skin to hold him back:

    In a 2003 Inside the Actors Studio interview, Sheen explained, "Whenever I would call for an appointment, whether it was a job or an apartment, and I would give my name, there was always that hesitation and when I'd get there, it was always gone. So I thought, I got enough problems trying to get an acting job, so I invented Martin Sheen. It's still Estevez officially. I never changed it officially. I never will. It's on my driver's license and passport and everything. I started using Sheen, I thought I'd give it a try, and before I knew it, I started making a living with it and then it was too late. In fact, one of my great regrets is that I didn't keep my name as it was given to me. I knew it bothered my dad."

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  20. Martin Sheen would beg to differ, and he didn't even have dark skin to hold him back:

    Point taken. But I have to wonder, given that both his brother and father are famous and have not changed their last names, how much of that might be attributed to something about Sheen personally/professionally rather than his last name and perceived race based on his name. I mean, given his history, maybe they studio heads were weary of him because they'd heard certain things about him. I don't know.

    However, my comment was not meant to convey some kind of notion that suggested it was significantly easier for Latino/as to get roles in Hollywood. Rather it was that, perhaps, Saldana might be viewed as a more "acceptable" minority to cast as her perceived "exoticness" as a "Latina" can surely be capitalized on more than if she was a "regular" black person, at least in the eyes of some producers.

    However, I could be off the mark with this assumption, and I'm more than willing to admit that.

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  21. @ Dr. Vagrant X

    You're referring to Charlie Sheen; I'm talking about Martin Sheen, his father who started the family trend of Anglicizing their name. Emilio Estevez, Charlie's brother, refused to change his name, and is ironically the least successful of the three.

    Saldana might be viewed as a more "acceptable" minority to cast as her perceived "exoticness" as a "Latina" can surely be capitalized on more than if she was a "regular" black person, at least in the eyes of some producers.

    You're off the mark, but not for the reason you think. White folks aren't into her Latin side; because it's no secret that they don't like Spanish-speaking brown people (just ask the Spanish-speaking brown people themselves), especially not right now.

    As I've pointed out repeatedly before, white fans try to claim Zoe for themselves. Ever since she portrayed Uhura, they've rewritten fanfiction to give the character white ancestors, which they never did before. In these new versions, Uhura's "exotic" appearance is always attributed to white ancestry, never Latin. It's as though they're saying, "She's not an 'exotic-looking' black woman; she's an exotic-looking white woman who just happens to be very dark."

    So I maintain she deserves kudos for sticking proudly to her Black and Latino roots, especially now when white people are trying ignoring those roots more than ever. Because before these two films, they didn't care about her that much. But now that she's filthy rich, famous, and locking lips with white men in addition to already being an undeniably attractive woman, there's a renewed strike to derail the age-old threat of black women.

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  22. You're referring to Charlie Sheen; I'm talking about Martin Sheen, his father who started the family trend of Anglicizing their name. Emilio Estevez, Charlie's brother, refused to change his name, and is ironically the least successful of the three.

    Wait...Martin's last name is Sheen too? *Googles Martin Sheen* - Wow, and here I thought you might have gotten them confused, as I thought Charlie was the only one to change his name. My bad.

    It's as though they're saying, "She's not an 'exotic-looking' black woman; she's an exotic-looking white woman who just happens to be very dark."

    Wow...apparently I was off the mark, and haven't been keeping up with the fandom (or some of your posts it seems). Do they really write that kind of tripe? That's beyond pathetic...

    Additionally, in light of the new evidence presented to me, I guess I should give Miss. Saldana some props after all. You learn something new everyday it seems...

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  23. "Deciding" someone's race (sorry,I don't use word "ethnicity" in this meaning) is disrespectful. What, you know my race better than I know my race? You want to lecture me on how I should define MY OWN race? You know better than I am who my parents and my ancestors were?

    Also, I honestly don't understand why whites want to claim Zoe as "one of their own". She doesn't look white (granted, I might not be an expert here; I sure don't know what is considered black, white etc. in your culture). But Zoe doesn't look white at all.

    That being said, though, people viewed as black can call themselves mixed if they like (especially if they are, well, children of an interracial couple). Different cultures have different ways of looking at race; someone who is seen as POC in America might not be seen as such in another culture. And there's nothing wrong about it. Also, there's nothing wrong if people see their ethnicity more important than their race; it's also a cultural thing.

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  24. I give kudos to Zoe. She makes me proud being a black woman.

    I've been exoticized sometimes for my eyes, sometimes for my lips, sometimes for my skin color, etc. It's not as fun as you think. There's a point when you figure people fixate on those features b/c they don't want to imagine that they're in the presence of a black person. It makes them more comfortable to dissect you and then provide a narrative regarding the parts of you that are acceptable and conventionally valued in our Eurocentric western society.

    It's happened with friends, acquaintances, boyfriends, guidance counselor, stranger on the bus. It is not fun. I mean, do I like that my lips are being compared to Kim Kardashian's? A non-black woman of all things. Might as well have said I had Angelina Jolie's lips and just gotten me into a conniption. You see what's happening, all these "ethnic" features becoming property of white people so that now we get compared to them instead of these features just being appreciated b/c we have them.

    And people keep asking me "are your eyes green?" And no, they're hazel. Maybe they used to be green but they're hazel now. And hazel is a hot and interesting color. There are different types of hazel, too. I get tired of these types of discussions. I've only felt somewhat normal with one of my ex-boyfriends, probably b/c we had similar features. But I don't recall him going on and on about my eyes and my lips. We just spent time together and did couple stuff. He just said I was sexy, holistic statements like that. It wasn't just one part of me. It was the whole package. And that's how I want to be treated. As a full package.

    Anyway, I know I'm deviating from the greatest that is Zoe. But I appreciate what she's doing. It gives me the strength to go on campaigning my blackness. Cause if people don't get it they missed it.

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  25. There's a point when you figure people fixate on those features b/c they don't want to imagine that they're in the presence of a black person. It makes them more comfortable to dissect you and then provide a narrative regarding the parts of you that are acceptable and conventionally valued in our Eurocentric western society.

    ...You see what's happening, all these "ethnic" features becoming property of white people so that now we get compared to them instead of these features just being appreciated b/c we have them.


    Excellent observation.

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  26. Ankhesen Mié said...
    So I maintain she deserves kudos for sticking proudly to her Black and Latino roots, especially now when white people are trying ignoring those roots more than ever. Because before these two films, they didn't care about her that much. But now that she's filthy rich, famous, and locking lips with white men in addition to already being an undeniably attractive woman, there's a renewed strike to derail the age-old threat of black women.

    Case in Point:
    If her love interest was a black man whites wouldn’t go see it. The first thing the director does in this film is blur her ethnicity. Her exotic appeal to young white boys was definitely a consideration. In this country, being cast opposite a white male lead seems the aspect of success for black women. No formula-driven Tyler Perry movie can do this for Zoë.

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  27. ok sorry because im hella late to this post. But I had to give you a major high five for this. I love zoe and one of the major reasons for that is because she doesn't down play her black african heritage or her latina heritage. Alos because she has a history of being blunt about her struggles in hollywood as a woc. I took media studies courses in college as part of my major and my one professor worked in hollywood and talked about racial ambiguity and how it might work for 15 minutes of fame but not in the long run. She said that the poers that be will just replace you with the next attractive ambiguous up and coming actor and that when you finally want to be taken seriously you usually want. Zoe's approach may have been the tougher road but its the most rewarding one and just look at her now. Also has a huge star trek fan I had no idea people have been whitening uhura. I don't get it at all. But not surprised considering some of the crazy over the characterization of uhura in the new film and her romance with spock. I've seen some ugly comments on the web and it seems to me that the characters more prominent role in the film and her relationship have caused alot of white fans to have nervous breakdowns. I expected better from trek fans but like my dad said to me when I told him about this" alot of white fans love the idea of the trekkie verse,but just as long as the main focus stays on the white male characters hence giving the allusion to post racial society =white people still dominating and in charge and poc just stop bitching about it" anyway I hope zoe has continued sucess as a proud black latina and I pray the next star trek film doesn't screw up uhura or her relationship because if it does it wont get my money,even if that seems extreme.

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  28. I took media studies courses in college as part of my major and my one professor worked in hollywood and talked about racial ambiguity and how it might work for 15 minutes of fame but not in the long run.

    Bingo!!!!

    I've seen some ugly comments on the web and it seems to me that the characters more prominent role in the film and her relationship have caused alot of white fans to have nervous breakdowns. I expected better from trek fans but like my dad said to me when I told him about this" alot of white fans love the idea of the trekkie verse,but just as long as the main focus stays on the white male characters hence giving the allusion to post racial society =white people still dominating and in charge and poc just stop bitching about it"

    Your dad is the man.

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