This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2024

Hollywood’s mixed-race problem

Movies and TV try to get it right, but they’re missing the mark

Asha Swann

Two heads make copies of themselves, shifting in and out of shape

My mom told me that once, when I was a toddler, a stranger advised her to sign me up for modelling. My green eyes, medium-light skin, and curly dark brown hair gave me a certain look, they said, which was super in. My mom said no, despite the fact that mixed-race girls like myself were in demand.

Kimora Lee Simmons, who is Black and Asian, began modelling for Chanel when she was just 14 years old. It was the late 1980s, and soon, she was being mentored by Karl Lagerfeld, reportedly the first designer to put a mixed-race model on the Paris runway. Ten years later, she launched her own clothing brand, Baby Phat. It was an instant hit: people weren’t just obsessed with the clothes, but with Simmons herself wearing them down the runway.

By the early 2000s, when my toddler modelling career was put indefinitely on hold, being mixed-race in the industry was applauded: assuming, of course, that you were the right type of mix. Which is to say that your skin could be modified to suit whatever was most marketable at the moment. At the epicentre of this movement was America’s Next Top Model (ANTM), which Simmons would later be featured on as a judge. By the show’s second cycle, contestant April Wilkner’s half-Japanese, half-white race was regularly discussed. It wasn’t the only time race became a point of fashion on the show. The appearance of changing race through makeup and outfits was a challenge in cycle four.

Naima Mora, a mixed model whose background includes Black, Mexican, Native American and Irish, had her skin lightened with makeup and was posed alongside a blonde, blue-eyed toddler. Mora ultimately won the season. Her look echoed the sentiment across the modelling industry and Hollywood in general: it was the latest trend to be able to look at someone and not be able to tell where they were from.

In 2004, the Guardian dubbed this phenomenon Generation EA— ethnically ambiguous. “The fact that you can’t be sure who they are is part of their seductiveness,” casting agent Melanie Ross said in the article. What was attractive or “exotic” about my mom, a white woman from Ontario, or my dad, a Black man from New York, wasn’t something that I would fully grasp until I was a teenager. I didn’t want to be considered exotic or alluring or sexy as a mixed-race child. I wanted to see a family like mine on TV.

In elementary school, I was the only mixed kid. It was isolating: some kids made fun of my curly hair, others accused me of being adopted. Complete strangers would ask “What are you?” without even asking my name. Later, though, it seemed super common. In high school, there were at least three of us in just the school band. By the time I moved to Toronto for university, I had met tons of people who came from mixed backgrounds like mine.

Despite this, and despite growing up seeing that my identity was trendy in modelling, Hollywood tells a different story. The only time I saw a mixed family on TV actually exploring their identity was in a cartoon called American Dragon: Jake Long, and as much as I loved seeing the misadventures of a boy who was half dragon on his mom’s Chinese side, it wasn’t the same. It’s not that there aren’t mixed people on TV or in movies: Mariah Carey, Rashida Jones, Zendaya, Halle Berry, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Keanu Reeves are all examples. They also all have one thing in common: they have lighter complexions, allowing them to weave through roles easier than darker- skinned Black actors.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Viola Davis spoke candidly about not only missing out on jobs because of her darker skin tone, but also how easy it is to get cast in stereotypical roles. “If I wanted to play a mother whose family lives in a low-income neighbourhood and my son was a gang member who died in a drive-by shooting, I could get that made,” she said in the interview. “Let’s be honest. If I had my same features and I were five shades lighter, it would just be a little bit different.”

Colourism—the specific way that skin tone plays into prejudice and discrimination—is perpetuated by the global beauty industry. It acts within the realm of systemic racism: it’s not just that Black people are more likely to experience discrimination and racism, it is that within race, people with darker skin tones are more likely to struggle when compared to other people of colour. As a light-skinned mixed person, I benefit from this system whether I like it or not.

Season five, episode 10 of Black-ish discussed colourism in a way that TV hadn’t seen before. Protagonist Dre Johnson (played by Anthony Anderson), said: “Because we look different, we get discriminated against differently. Like in the case of O.J. [Simpson]. A magazine made his skin look darker to make him seem more villainous.” (That magazine was TIME magazine.)

Black-ish (and its spin-offs), which aired countless episodes focused on racial discrimination, has also been accused of perpetuating colourism itself, partly because of the show’s choice in casting biracial actors in the roles of Dre’s children, while also casting mixed women as the stereotypical exotic love interests.

The casting of mixed actors has sometimes been controversial. In 2016, actress Zoe Saldaña came under fire for her portrayal of Nina Simone in a biopic. Saldaña, mixed with Black and Latina ancestry, was accused of blackface after it was revealed that she was made to darken her skin and wear a prosthetic nose for the role. But at the same time, Saldaña has openly rejected the idea that just because she’s Latina, she can’t also be Black. “There’s no one way to be Black,” she said in an interview with Allure magazine. “I’m Black the way I know how to be.” (She has since apologized for playing the role.)

Saldaña’s words address the complexity of race, something that Hollywood has struggled to grasp. Though it’s common for celebrities to be mixed, they’re almost never cast as such. I would never deny Saldaña’s identity as Black; the issue is that actors aren’t given the opportunity to showcase their complexities in their roles. This contributes to toxic beauty standards of colourism and sends a horrific message, declaring that you’re only as beautiful as your skin’s ability to be marketable to the latest trend. More often than not, the trends involve lighter skin mimicking Eurocentric beauty standards.

In Hollywood, it’s easier to push mixed people into a single box. In Black-ish, the box is Black. For some actors, like Dwayne Johnson, the box depends on the project. His mix of Black and Samoan has allowed him to play roles from ancient Egyptian king (The Scorpion King, 2002) to Greek legend (Hercules, 2014) to Middle Eastern antihero (Black Adam, 2022). But usually, Johnson’s characters don’t have a background where their cultures are discussed, leaving it up to the audience to interpret.

Henry Golding, the British Malaysian star of Crazy Rich Asians, has said people told him that he wasn’t “Asian enough” to play the lead in the movie. “Just because by blood I’m not full Asian doesn’t mean I can’t own my Asianness,” he said in an interview with Bustle. He also said when he played a romantic lead in A Simple Favour alongside Blake Lively—his ideal role— the character’s race wasn’t specified: it was just a character written as a person. “It was never written as an Asian role— it’s never really highlighted that I am an Asian person married to Blake Lively. But that’s what it should be like,” he said.

But what about the mixed-race people who can’t fit comfortably into the ethnically ambiguous box? While actors like Dwayne Johnson and Golding can blend in, there’s more backlash for mixed people who aren’t Hollywood heartthrobs. Names play into casting just as much as skin tone does. Chloe Bennet, who is half white, half Chinese, struggled for years to book acting roles under her birth surname, Wang. The first audition she took after changing her name resulted in a job, she said back in 2016.

To be mixed-race is to be prepared to constantly contradict yourself. It’s always having to repeat yourself when someone accuses you of being too much of one thing or not enough of the other. It’s about never really seeing yourself accurately represented in media because there is no one way to look or be mixed. It’s unfair to say all mixed people in Hollywood should be forced to prioritize one half of their culture while simultaneously trying to prove that the other half exists. Pretending that mixed people aren’t mixed can perpetuate colourism. Dark-skinned Black girls deserve to feel beautiful and see themselves too.

You can’t choose your genetics, but you can choose to call out injustice. Whether we see ourselves reflected in media or not, there are infinite ways to celebrate culture while rejecting the idea that lighter skin is better.

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