The New Blackface
Or The De Facto Proxy Of Non-Black Americans In Black American/DACS Roles
By Seren Sensei
There’s been a quiet hostility simmering within the Black diaspora.
It is most apparent when discussing media representation. It tensed when veteran American actor Samuel L. Jackson wondered what a Black American — what I call the descendants of American chattel slavery (DACS) — might have brought to the American-charged racism of ‘Get Out,’ and when fellow Brits John Boyega and Iris Elba came to star Daniel Kaluuya’s defense. It arose again with the casting of British actor Daniel Ezra as the lead in the CW’S newest teen drama: a football show titled, ironically, ‘All American,’ and based on the life of real life DACS football player Spencer Paysinger.
It bubbled when a Nigerian pop culture critic attempted to skewer DACS singer Tevin Campbell; burned hotter still when a dispute over an unofficial remix between American-born R&B artist Jacquees and British-Born singer Ella Mai resulted in the formers music being pulled; and boiled full tilt when Cynthia Erivo, a Nigerian Brit, was cast to play Harriet Tubman in an upcoming biopic on the legendary former slave that led thousands to freedom utilizing the Underground Railroad. An online petition requesting the role to be recast with a DACS has garnered over a thousand signatures. Black American/DACS stories of history, especially those of personal achievement or racial angst and woe, have become instant vehicles for success and oftentimes Oscar bait . . . and all the better if the leads are non-American Black people, as a way of sanitizing and fictionalizing American historical atrocities while allowing foreign Blacks to share in DACS accolades.
There are questions on the appropriateness of the regularity with which non-American Blacks are considered the “go-to” in American media for DACS’ roles, as well as in other American infrastructure such as jobs and education. Studies have shown that non-American Blacks are disproportionately overrepresented in almost every aspect of American infrastructure and institutions (such as schooling, jobs/income, and the like), because American white supremacist infrastructure — born out of the cognitive dissonance of freedom-valuing yet slave-owning founding fathers — favors non-American blacks to native-borns (Malcolm Gladwell’s landmark 1996 essay, “Black Like Them,” also explores this phenomenon in depth.) Foreign Blacks are privileged with a ‘clean slate’ not granted to DACS, which is doubly offensive considering the common notion that any Black person IN America is considered automatically ‘African American;’ as if the descendants of American chattel slavery have no history, heritage, ethnicity, or culture of our own that we can lay claim to. They get the privilege of being us when they want, and also not being us when they want.
In a Guardian interview, for example, British actor David Harewood insisted foreign Black actors could be better suited for Black American roles, especially those that deal with touchy and/or historical subject matter around racism, specifically because they are ‘unshackled’ from the racial baggage of DACS. But is it appropriate that American history be racially unshackled? Especially when the subject matter specifically deals with race and race relations, as in ‘Harriet?’ Or with a crack epidemic whose effects are still reverberating through the Black American community today, as in the FX show ‘Snowfall’ (which hired an unknown British actor for their lead and then enlisted a vocal coach to teach him an American dialect, rather than hire a DACS actor)? The use of culture as well as cultural opportunities without being ‘shackled’ to the history/historical issues, stereotypes, and oppression that comes along with said culture is textbook cultural appropriation.
In another Guardian piece, many up-and-coming DACS actors have also lamented being typecast in bit part roles, if hired at all, while the awards-garnering, big-budget pieces boast majority foreign leads. As in ‘Snowfall,’ even lesser and no-name stars garner sought-after roles if they are non-DACS. Rare outliers like ‘Hidden Figures’ boast a majority Black American cast, but when Academy Award-winning DACS actor Mahershala Ali has joked about Idris Elba kindly leaving him roles, it’s obviously a noticeable discussion.
Stereotypes that link back to American chattel slavery, such as ‘laziness,’ ‘fatherlessness,’ ‘poor work ethic,’ and ideas about drug use and violent tendencies dog DACS from both white people as well as non-whites, while no such ideals follow the children of Black immigrants. They offer all of the joys of ‘Black diversity’ without any of the troubling American history that comes along with DACS; nor do they grapple with the personal consequences of centuries of trauma, systemic racism and oppression enacted specifically against the native born Black American population. They even provide an opportunity to witness said DACS stereotypes play out from a safe distance: for example, arguments hound comment sections and online posts about the troubling, stereotypical dialogue and ‘caricatures’ of Black American women on HBO show ‘Insecure,’ where three of the four main female leads all boast at least one non-American parent, despite the fact that they are all playing Black American descendants of slavery.
In an era of increased globalization, Black diversity in terms of higher education and especially at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has also become a priority, with many HBCUs reaching out to and establishing programs specifically for non-American Black students. While ties throughout the Black diaspora are important, some question why this same effort isn’t put into recruiting and mentoring underserved DACS students, despite the fact that non-American Black students outnumber DACS at colleges and universities. Affirmative action programs, enacted to ensure that DACS who were historically kept out of the education system for centuries received education opportunities have often now been twisted in order to give non-American Blacks a leg up. A 2017 protest at Cornell University — which has a mere 6% Black enrollment rate — revolved around the over-enrollment of the children of recent Black immigrants as a way to inflate ‘Black’ numbers . . .
To read the rest of Sensei’s essay, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/the-new-blackface/
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