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not black enough?

31 January 2012

I read two different stories this weekend, both questioning whether a woman was “black enough” to represent some population. The first was of a rising star in the Democratic Alliance, a political party in South Africa. The second was of Thandie Newton, an actress cast in the film adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s book, Half of a Yellow Sun.

From the New York Times article on Lindiwe Mazibuko:

She has unmistakably African roots, from her birthplace (the kingdom of Swaziland) to one of her native tongues (isiZulu) to her mocha skin.

But for many people, Lindiwe Mazibuko is just not black enough.

During a parliamentary session this year, a government minister here called her a coconut (white on the inside, brown on the outside). One political opponent described Ms. Mazibuko as the tea girl, or servant, for the leader of the country’s chief opposition party. Twitter users have flung racial slurs at her, called her a token and said she was naïve.

On Thandie Newton’s casting in Half of a Yellow Sun, this from Sean Jacobs at Africa is a Country:

Not everyone is happy with the choice of Newton as a female lead. There’s already a strange online petition to have Newton replaced with a Nigerian actress. The petition notes, among others, that “… Igbo people do not look like the bi-racial Thandie Newton.” You can read similar comments on posts about Newton’s casting at the popular film blog Shadow and Act here and here.

Though different — Mazibuko is a politician and Newton an actress — the two stories are about representation. To what extent will Mazibuko politically represent the preferences of Black South Africans? How convincingly can Newton represent to an international audience the story of an Igbo woman navigating the Biafran war?

I don’t want to belittle the discussion about the importance of media images. In fact, I don’t disagree with this statement from the online petition against Thandie Newton’s casting in Half of a Yellow Sun:

This petition is important, because we live in a world where mass media sells us the belief that white, and anything close to white is right, and black is not only wrong, it is unattractive, and undesirable. We are indoctrinated into these beliefs consciously and sub-consciously through media images.

Still, I wonder about those of us with mixed heritage. Who can we represent? Only the few others like us?

Now, the “black enough” trope isn’t new. A few years ago now, there was some debate about whether Barack Obama was black enough.

The questioning of credentials is not just about skin color (though there is plenty there), but also about personal backgrounds and upbringing. As interracial relationships increase, and more and more people in the world become a mixture of the separate groups we have been, will our understanding of racial representation become even more narrow?

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