The Ambiguity Advantage

 

Growing up, my younger sister and I shared something with each other that no one else in our family did–we were both half-black and half-white, the only mixed-race individuals in the family. She loves theater, and is very talented (shameless brag). At age 12, she was being cast for lead roles ahead of high school seniors and currently she is training with a voice coach that works for Northwestern University. After several voice and theater coaches recommended she get signed with an agency, she began the process of preparing to record a few songs and get headshots. One day I was on the phone with her as she talked about nearly photographers she was interested in. During this conversation, she mentioned her desire to maintain her racial ambiguity. Considering that she is 14, I questioned her on this. She simply stated that one of her “strengths” is that as a mixed-race person, she doesn’t look like any one race and that could be a large an advantage an the entertainment industry looking to diversify.

My sister hasn’t been following our course readings, but a lot of the ideas she brought up were echoed in the Ferla reading. Ferla states, “Among art directors, magazine editors and casting agents, there is a growing sense that the demand is weakening for P&G (Procter & Gamble), industry code for blond-haired, blue-eyed models.” This obviously is something that even young future entertainers can sense, though this is not surprising looking at current social media trends. However, the article, as well as other readings, question the genuineness of these desires for a more diverse entertainment force. Many of the people in Ferla’s article stated that they felt like a “trophy.”

This is not a new idea. Nittle’s 2017 article features a series of historic photographs from the early 1900s of white-passing minority celebrities. Though the value of signing diverse entertainers was not the same then as it is now, it brings up a history of the entertainment industry using white passing minority members to be able to say they are advancing racial progress without featuring entertainers that are actually physically diverse.

Right: John Gavin, half-Mexican and half-Irish, most famous for “Psycho” in 1960. Left: Fredi Washington, half-white and half-black, most famous for “Imitation of Life” in 1934. 

This makes me wonder that does this mean for my little sister, and other future minority entertainers? Should they hop on the trend and potentially be used against true racial progress? Or is it best that they take what they can get, in the hope of a more genuinely inclusive entertainment industry in the future?

 

Bibliography

Ferla, Ruth La. “Generation E.A.: Ethnically Ambiguous.” The New York Times. December 27, 2003. Accessed June 05, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/28/style/generation-ea-ethnically-ambiguous.html.

Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “5 Classic Hollywood Stars Who Passed for White.” ThoughtCo. Accessed June 05, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/hollywood-celebrities-who-passed-for-white-2834730.

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