The 67th Annual Tony Awards - Backstage & Audience

When it was announced that Disney Channel star Zendaya Coleman would take on the role of Aaliyah in an upcoming Lifetime biopic the reaction was mixed. Some praised the choice given Coleman’s ability to sing, dance, and act, while others thought casting a racially ambiguous-looking biracial woman to play a Black woman crossed the line.

Recently Zendaya weighed in on the controversy, telling a reporter that being biracial meant that “half black was just enough” to assume the role of the beloved R&B star. Though Zendaya’s comments did nothing sway those who felt her choice was a slap in the face to African American women, others felt the Disney star should be given a break considering she and Aaliyah have light skin.

Recently the culture blog Muslim Bushido took things a step further when it argued that many prominent brown-skinned Black American actresses wouldn’t be able to get roles if they began their careers today because Black women’s roles are being outsourced to biracial women.

Muslim Bushido writes:

You can’t see that AABW are being replaced in the American entertainment industry. You can’t see that AABW can’t get hired to portray other real-life AABW. The roles portraying AABW are increasingly being reserved for women who don’t have 2 Black parents; and for those women who are not descendants of the Africans who were held in slavery in the U.S. In other words, roles portraying AABW are increasingly reserved for women who are not AABW. This casting pattern is obvious AT FACE VALUE:

There’s nothing random or benign about this pattern. We’ve had several decades of an all-out assault on AABW’s image. This was accomplished through the anti-BW denigration promoted by hip-hop and c/rap; the accompanying worship of the lighter, whiter-looking, half-other and “Cablanasian” women. All at the expense of BW who have 2 Black parents and who look like they have 2 Black parents.

…Instead of seeing the whitewashing that’s been going on for decades, a lot of y’all don’t seem to notice the entrenched pattern that’s been in place. You somehow don’t notice that, in particular, the bulk of the entertainers who’ve been occupying “Black” roles and “slots” in the American entertainment industry are White women’s children.

The writer blames the exaltation of biracial women largely on Black men who, through marriages and/or rap music, have “glorifed” lighter hued women “for decades,” and s/he goes on to conclude brown-skinned Black women like Angela Bassett would never be able to achieve the same level of success if they began their careers today.

When you look at the pattern of what’s going on, it’s obvious that if Angela Bassett, Diahann Carrol and Vanessa Bell Calloway were starting their acting careers now, they would never get hired. Even though she’s dark-skinned, a young Cicely Tyson might be able to slip into today’s industry if she emphasized the fact that she’s of foreign Black (West Indian) heritage. You may be *perpetually surprised* to hear the end result described in this manner; but this is what the casting choices YOU support with your money add up to.

… We’ll probably never know who all of this generation’s Angela Bassett, etc. are because today’s Angela Bassett and others can’t get work.

While I understand the writer’s concerns for Black women actors, it’s not particularly fair to assign blame to just Black men without discussing how White supremacy and racism by those in power in Hollywood (and beyond) have perpetuated discrimination of Black actors and actresses.

But what do you think? If Angela Bassett or Cicely Tyson began their careers today would they still be successful or would they be marginalized in favor of biracial women?

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  • Meme

    Let’s not fall into the trap of dissecting Black America into it’s many facets. None of us are purebred UNLESS, both of your parents are from Africa. The strength of our people lies in our unity. All shades play a part because that’s what makes us as a people. Don’t be fooled into the divide and conquer strategy that some people have mapped out for us.

    • Brendee

      YESSSS!!! Thank you!

  • It’s okay for black men to look black in mainstream media, but that’s not the same for black women. Black men will be represented by mostly non biracial actors of medium and dark skin tones. Black women on the other hand will almost always only be a more common skin tone (medium or dark) if they are portraying a stereotypical caricature such as a overweight trashy woman or a subservient role such as slave or mammy. If a black woman is to be considered beautiful (by mainstream standards thin with a pretty face) she will most often be played by a fair skinned black woman or a biracial woman who is equally fair. And even conventionally beautiful black women are often as portrayed side pieces or understandable in some way. I see biracial women playing black women in TV shows like New Girl all the time. The media says black women are not beautiful, they often show black men with white and Latina women and black women either as single mothers or alone. It’s not just television that doesn’t show black actresses as much, its in advertisements, catalogs, music videos, etc. I try not to support this stuff, I have Netflix but other than that I don’t pay for anything mainstream, I only watch TV shows that are diverse and well rounded like Brooklyn nine nine and Walking Dead. I shop at natural food stores, buy vintage clothes and try to support fair trade and other healthy things. I happen to be a conventionally attractive black woman with medium skin tone and no, I don’t see myself represented by anyone in mainstream media today.

  • Brendee

    So are actress who identify as black going to have to prove that their mom and dad are black? Will they have to prove that both of mom’s parents are black as well as dad’s?

  • Cham

    To respond to the hypothetical question “if Ms. Bassett or Ms. Tyson were starting out today, would they be successful?” The answer is YES, because they are TALENTED. SO MANY lighten-skinned actresses have come and gone –never to be heard from again– because they lacked talent. The Light-skinned actresses that are able to maintain careers are doing so, because they’re good actresses, not just because of their skin. And Viola, Angela, Cicely, and recent Oscar-winner Lupita N’yongo, are around and will stay around, because they are TALENTED.

  • Rodney S

    The reason TV & movies uses biracial black people is that they are more genteel looking and less menacing to white and Asian viewers.