Many kids with famous parents often go on to seek their own careers in music or acting. A famous last name along with the connections made by the parent eases one into a career in Hollywood. They’ll tell you that they had to overcome their famous last name or that they didn’t receive any special treatment. Call me a cynic, but I don’t buy that for one moment, when it comes to the majority. Oscar winner Denzel Washington recently appeared on The Actors and he spoke about the advice he gave to his dark-skinned daughter Olivia.
I tell my daughter — she’s at NYU — I say: “You’re black, you’re a woman, and you’re dark-skinned at that. So you have to be a triple/quadruple threat.” I said: “You gotta learn how to act. You gotta learn how to dance, sing, move onstage.” That’s the only place, in my humble opinion, you really learn how to act. I said: “Look at Viola Davis. That’s who you want to be. Forget about the little pretty girls; if you’re relying on that, when you hit 40, you’re out the door. You better have some chops.”
Even with the Washington last name, Denzel is aware that Olivia’s race and gender are going to work against her. Consider for a moment that Nina Simone, a woman who was abused because of her dark skin and decided Afrocentric features, is being portrayed by Zoe Saldana. Even when the role specifically calls for a dark-skinned Black woman, we are not given the consideration we deserve. There are precious few roles out there for women period, beyond the floozy, the love interest, heroine in need of saving and the sexpot. As a woman ages, even these roles disappear, leaving her if she is lucky, to play the mother to a person ten years her junior.
To be a dark-skinned Black woman is to struggle to get roles and to get one’s talent recognized. Even with the ability to rely on her famous father, Denzel still gave the same advice that Black parents having been giving out since the end of slavery, “you have to be a triple/quadruple threat.” Denzel knows what all parents of dark-skinned children know – the worst stereotypes attached to Blackness, will be ascribed to your dark-skinned child, no matter how talented, hard-working or intelligent they are. This is the cost of living in a white supremacist state.
The success of actresses like the bi-racial Halle Berry is not a success for Blackness. Though Berry has gone out of her way to identify as Black, and promote the work of Black artists, the truth of the matter is that her light skin makes her less threatening to the White power structure. I doubt that even with the same talent, that a dark-skinned Halle Berry would have the social cache that she does today. There are some who would argue that this kind of argument is divisive because despite hue, all Black people must to some degree negotiate racism; however, it is an undeniable fact that some are simply given more opportunities than others.
Even within Black families’ hueism continues to be an issue. One child may be treated better than a sibling, simply because one is light-skinned. There are families who encourage their children to marry as light-skinned as possible to continue the light skin in the family. Surely, this is a legacy of slavery and the fact that the majority of images in the media choose to uplift those who are light-skinned versus those who are dark-skinned. Knowing this to be truth, we accept and even laud the successes of light-skinned people, though we know it does not translate into uplift for all Black people.
Denzel Washington is right when he warns his daughter that she is going to have to work very hard to have a career in Hollywood. The very fact that she cannot rely on her famous last name, unlike so many Hollywood children like, Michael Douglas, Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore or Jamie Lee Curtis to at least open the door to opportunity, speaks loudly about the degree that race continues to impact Black people and particularly dark-skinned Black women. We can continue to deny that there is a problem to our own detriment or we can fight to ensure that all of the ways that Blackness manifests gets the representation that it deserves.