By TaRessa Stovall @taressatalks
Dear Rashida Jones:
We’ve never met, but we have a lot in common. We’re both #BLEWISH, light-skinned and racially ambiguous-looking. And we know what that means: many people feel compelled to discuss, debate, and dissect our identities in relation to our appearances based on their own prejudices, presumptions, and preconceived notions. I get it daily on a small, anonymous scale. As a successful actor / producer and the daughter of two superstars—Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton–you get it publicly, often trending and making headlines.
This time, it’s due to your role in the new Kenya Barris series for Netflix, “blackAF,” which seems to be a dramatized take on Barris’ real family Hollywood come-up to the echelons of the rich and bourgie. Social media and Black Twitter are pontificating about you, the way you look, and trying to challenge your identity. Again.
While I never see ANY such chatter about the equally #BLEWISH actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who has long portrayed the TV wife of Barris’ alter ego on “black-ish,” you being cast as Joya, his latest onscreen spouse, has activated the Identity Police
The Identity Police are folks who are so thrown by our ambiguous appearances combined with our Mixed backgrounds that they decide they know more about us than we know about ourselves. They can’t wait to question, challenge, and / or criticize us based on their know-it-all worldviews. Like this Huffington Post article, which analyzes the roles you’ve held in the context of Hollywood’s legendary racism and colorism:
“Jones is what some white casting directors might describe as ‘ethnically ambiguous.’ Her hair doesn’t really curl, her skin is light, her eyes are hazel. The 44-year-old actor has often played characters who were explicitly white or whose ethnicity was sort of left up to the audience to figure out. On “The Office,” she played Karen Filippelli, an Italian American woman. On “Parks and Recreation,” she played Ann Perkins, a character described only as “ambiguously brown.”
Jones has played explicitly Black or mixed characters in the past — she guest-starred on ‘black-ish’ as Rainbow’s younger sister, Santamonica — but the majority of her best-known roles have either glossed over or actively avoided her blackness altogether. Racial ambiguity is seemingly so much a part of her narrative as an actor that when certain netizens took to social media to discuss “#blackAF” the day it premiered, many declared that they were genuinely unaware that she was mixed, let alone the child of legendary producer Quincy Jones.”
That context–within and way beyond Hollywood–impacts every aspect of life for ALL People of Color. It’s not specific to Mixed folks. Not specific to light-skinned folks. Not specific to racially ambiguous-looking folks. But for those like us who hit this genetic trifecta, it shows up in these, um, interesting ways.
Never mind that, as you’ve stated in interviews, you have never passed for White. You speak for all of us ambiguous types when you issue the reality check: “I had no control over how I looked. This is my natural hair. These are my natural eyes! I’ve never tried to be anything that I’m not.” The thing about acting is you take the roles you’re offered. (I love that, like your father, you’re also a producer with the power to create images and narratives, especially those beyond the status quo.)
Why are folks upset at YOU when Barris’ real-life spouse is another member of the trifecta: Mixed, very light-skinned and racially ambiguous-looking? And WHY are people pretending that they thought you were White when your name and face make it abundantly clear that you’re not? Never mind the ones who swear they had no idea of your lineage…yet feel entitled to judge-and-jury your identity by their standards.
We are born into this Black vs. White binary. We don’t choose our appearances, or the environments in which we come of age. Having Light-Skinned Privilege (LSP) wasn’t a choice—though we do have the option of deciding how to utilize this form of racialized currency, and the opportunity to weaponize it against racism. As for being racially ambiguous-looking, that is completely in the eye of the beholder.
Like most of us in this category, different people see different things when they view and assess me. Their assumptions run the gamut on a near-global scale. (My experiences are detailed in my new memoir). Thing is, these Identity Police are ultimately playing themselves. They don’t realize that their assumptions, presumptions, challenges, debates, and projections reveal everything about them, but nothing about us.
While they often have plenty to say, the fact is that these folks don’t want to actually see or hear our experiences or perspectives. While they’re comfortable talking about and even at us, we’re rarely invited or even welcomed into these conversations, even though we’re the point of discussion. They talk all the trash, but rarely ASK us about ourselves. And they almost never listen to find out where we fall on the identity spectrum. How we navigate a world that regards us with such consistent unpredictability. And where we find and maintain our footing on the shifting sands of definitions, categories, and cultural tropes.
The biggest irony, Rashida, is that these folks will swear on their lives that we’re confused. And the more confident we are, the less comfortable they seem to be when we do speak up. Which is part of the reason I insist on being in their faces all loud and proud. I bring that old-school dynamic: if you’re gonna say it behind my back, you’d best be ready to say it to my face. The work I do is designed to open up these conversations, to make them inclusive and reciprocal in pursuit of the greater good. And while you represent this overall dynamic, I do not presume to speak for you or for anyone other than myself.
What I appreciate about you is that, while I’ve grown up seeing lots of light-skinned actresses and a few that are actually Mixed (in real life and their roles), I haven’t been able to relate to 99% of them. I’ve never been quite as satisfied as I am seeing YOU, a rep of my specific trifecta, doing your thing. Because it’s not your characters that I relate to as much as the specificity of what you represent. It’s you being you and remaining unbothered about what the Identity Police have to say. Because truth rules, and representation always matters. Everyone deserves to look at a screen and be able to relate to what they see. You do that for many of us. And we thank you!
TaRessa Stovall is an author / blogger / identity activist. Her hot new memoir, SWIRL GIRL: Coming of Race in the USA is garnering praise for its bold, insightful take on how a Mixed-race girl grows to be a Black woman while honoring all of her Ancestry — living “AND” in a world of “EITHER / OR.” Check reader reviews here. Enjoy a FREE sneak peek of SWIRL GIRL here.
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