17 year old Zendaya Coleman, famous from Disney’s “Shake It Up” and ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars”, was recently cast as Aaliyah in the upcoming Lifetime dramatization of her life.
Aailyah was 22 when she died in a plane crash in 2001, and was famous for her music, acting career, and controversial marriage to R. Kelly. However, the controversy today deals with Zendaya’s skin tone, rather than Aaliyah’s marriage.
According to several reports, many people appear to be uncomfortable with Zendaya playing the part of Aaliyah, considering Zendaya is biracial, not fully black. In response to her critics, Zendaya stated:
“Half black is just enough…It doesn’t matter what color you are, it’s about how you portray the character…For those of you that don’t know, Angela Bassett and Tina Turner, they look nothing alike but she was that character so I think that’s what it’s all about.”
This controversy has a deeper history though. Most of the world [especially the U.S.] struggles from colorism, which is a word that alludes to the favorable treatment lighter-skinned people receive to the detriment of darker-skinned people who are regularly discriminated against. Lighter-skinned celebrities dominate the media circuit. Think of Beyonce, Rihanna, Halle Berry, etc. Mixed race women, like Halle Berry often become the face for all black women which can be problematic considering the massive amounts of discrimination and exclusion darker-skinned women experience.
Recently, actress Zoe Saldana was chosen to play Nina Simone, and they applied darker makeup to her face and she even had to wear facial prosthetics and an afro wig. This phenomenon is quite ridiculous since there are many qualified black actresses who rarely get chosen because of racism in the entertainment industry. To transform a light-skinned woman into a darker-skinned woman is a type of awkward minstrelsy that sends a dehumanizing message to darker-skinned women: Hollywood would RATHER choose a lighter woman and MAKE her darker, instead of choosing you.
If darker-skinned black women were actually cast in roles as regularly as white and light-skinned folks, then I don’t think this whole Zendaya experience would be such a big deal. But I can understand the discomfort because of the context.
This controversy also highlights the confusing space that mixed race black women occupy. While we experience the privileges of being light-skinned in a white supremacy, we also understand the discrimination and disadvantages of being labeled a minority. We too struggle with identity and belonging. Oftentimes when we speak of our confusing experiences, we’re immediately silenced because people assume we’re too privileged to complain.
My experience as a biracial woman has been wrought with confusing politics and identity issues galore. I identify as a black woman because that is the way that people perceive me, and I too face massive amounts of discrimination; however, I understand why some darker-skinned black women might be offended by me taking up the space of racism-as-oppression discussions to talk about my confusing/privileged/awkward existence.
However, mixed race women are black too, and our narratives matter. We are regularly excluded from many spaces or sexualized/fetishized because people don’t know how to engage with us. I can’t imagine someone telling me that I’m not “black enough” to be black. I feel like that would be an assault to my identity; however, I would be understanding if that conversation took place within the white supremacist Hollywood industry.
In regards to the particular role though, I don’t see too much of an issue with Zendaya playing Aaliyah, considering they resemble each other a bit. It’s not as drastic as the difference between Saldana and Simone. That’s just ridiculous. Aaliyah herself is quite light-skinned and looks mixed race as well. Blackness is something that’s hard to define considering there are so many shades. So, the real issue is: what is black? what does black look like? Is it a particular skin tone? A political identity? A designation given to you by someone else?
The only positive thing to come out of this controversy is the hope that we can continue the dialogue about colorism. The pain darker-skinned women experience when lighter-skinned women are granted visibility all the time is real, and the pain mixed race women experience when we’re consistently told that we’re not “black enough” or we all think that we’re “better” is painful as well. We definitely need more conversations to occur.