RRI’m not black enough. Crap.

This is my prevailing thought as I sit in the waiting room of a prominent casting director’s office. I’m waiting my turn to read for a role that was specifically described as a “black woman” in the Holy Grail of Paycheck Jobs, the National Commercial.

This is a particularly nice office, and it’s no “cattle-call” scenario. Despite the funsy visual clichés of your favorite movie about showbiz, when union jobs on network television are on the line, auditions are actually quite a civilized affair with a small number of individual appointment times and kind casting personnel.

I am doubting my own blackness not because of pre-audition jitters or an overall lack of confidence — I enjoy auditions and although nerves do sometimes pop up, I can usually handle it. What I find I cannot handle is another futile session of trying to approximate the grotesquerie of what mainstream television advertising seems to think a black woman is.

Especially not when she is sitting right across from me.

There she is, seated in this very waiting room: an actress whom I’ll refer to as Recognizable National TV Commercial Queen, visible-wig-line and all. I had never encountered her in the flesh before, but I’d seen her ads. I generally try not to count other people’s money, but her many TV spots flashed across my mind in rapid succession and culminated in an image of her swimming Scrooge McDuck-style through her residuals, which I’m guessing SAG pays her in gold doubloons just for dramatic flair.

She’s black. Not me. Crap.

Oh, I am, of course, black. I was born black and I am proud of my heritage to the extent that I don’t feel the need to cite “proof” of it in this forum. (Though I will say that I am listening to my Otis Redding Pandora station as I write this, so there.)

But in the TV commercial world, I have been told flat-out by some casting directors that I am not black enough. Now, before you take up pitchforks against the casting directors, please understand that I do not blame them. And no, that’s not some strain of Stockholm syndrome talking.

First of all, some really blunt shit gets said in any casting office worth its salt. We can go out for drinks and talk about our feelings afterward, but if I have two minutes to knock this 30-second spot out of the park, I’d much rather someone say to me, “They’re skewing younger and you look younger with your hair up — can you put it up?” than not. You don’t need me to tell you that the industry is not for the thin-skinned.

 

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Besides, I have never been an actor who sees casting directors as the enemy. They cull talent for the client, and it is in their best interest to advise and direct an actor in the hopes of making them as strong a contender for the job as possible. They want me to give the read that will give me the best chance of booking the job when the client watches the tape back at their office in Mordor.

TV commercials are the nittiest of the gritty when it comes to the need to translate creativity to dollars. At their best, they tell a story in a very short amount of time that sells their product in an innovative fashion. But innovation is risky. Unfamiliarity is risky. Familiarity rules, and the woman who is presently smiling blithely at me from across the room is hella familiar.

She’s not a celebrity, mind you. That’s a different scenario. She’s just a non-famous working actress who has been in many, many ads. Her overall look is instantly recognizable, and “instant” is crucial in commercials. If you spend even 5 seconds thinking about anything other than the product, they lose. So when she comes across your screen, most people don’t question it because why wouldn’t she? No need for a comeback; she’s been there for years.

But some of us do question it, because it is actually incredibly offensive. It is a reductive parody of a specific type of woman and the tragedy is that those of us who are most offended by it are not in positions of power to send her packing once and for all. Well, not yet. Winky-face emoticon.

This particular audition is actually a callback, so the stakes are high. And even though I’m of questionable blackness, I can do funny. Or at least I’ve been in some funny stuff with some funny people. So today my ability to ad-lib has carried me to the end of the road and now, as my name is called and I enter the audition room, I may have to call upon my blackest blackitude to carry me home.

I give the first read with a demeanor that I would call my own but with higher, TV-level energy. No need to sabotage my audition with a disingenuous parody based on who I’d seen in the waiting room, just in case this was not going to be another visit to the Blackolympics.

“That’s great, let’s do another one and this time I want you to really, you know…”

I stand there waiting for the CD to finish her sentence, lamenting the familiarity of this scene and wondering if it’s still cynicism if you’re right. We are the only two people in the room, the tape is no longer running, and if this kindly Caucasian could just spit it out I’d do my best to oblige and we could all be on our way. Instead, I keep a smile on my face and try not to picture Rosa Parks crying.

“I want you to really sass it up. You know.”

Sigh. I do know.

Take two is a little further over on the spectrum, if you will. I throw in a neckroll and a mouthpop and figure we’re done here. She stops the tape, smiling, and says, “I love it. Yes. Okay, Let’s do one more, just for fun, and this time I want you to give me even more, really let go — just be yourself.”

Hmmm. The thought that this woman, who does not know me personally or socially, might genuinely want me to be myself (“myself” being “not a minstrel”) crosses my mind. But it’s hardly likely. She had responded positively to the minstrelsy and her use of the words “even more” told me it was time to go full-tilt coon. Just like putting my hair up, I put my black on.

I’ll spare you the gory details here, as I’ve re-enacted them in my video below.

When I was finished, the CD stopped the tape and said, “Perfect! That was the best one.”

So, yay for me that I can deliver what I’m asked for but — record scratch — hang on, that final directive was “be yourself.” This particular CD must have drunk the Kool-Aid. If she doesn’t know me, how could the buffoonery with which I responded to “be yourself” be deemed accurate or not?

Oh, right. Because we are all the same and the only reason I’m not constantly rapping or pop-locking is because I trudge through life in a “well-spoken” prison of grammatically correct speech, suppressing an unrelenting urge to breakdance at the car wash or ease on down the road until some benevolent white person grants me permission to “be myself.”

It seems as though the powers that be are not looking closely at us. We are a brown blur, a haze of hair and attitude and verbal affectations and attitudinal glares. A coded caricature painted in broad strokes where we are all “sassy” and “urban” and cannot simply shop for groceries or clean the kitchen floor without finger-snappin’ and mouthpoppin’ at our appliances.

And yes, stereotypes exist for a reason, and, yes, I do know women who really can’t enjoy a banana smoothie without busting a move like they’re in an R. Kelly video (a music one, not a sex one). But I also know an incredible rainbow of women of color, from many backgrounds, who are sorely underrepresented by the lady whose head seems ready to fall from her rolling neck at any moment as she describes her laundry detergent.

By the way, I didn’t book the commercial. Oh, well. Blacker luck next time.

You can follow @PiaGlenn on Twitter!

XOJane

This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more  on XOJane! 

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88 Comments

  1. This may be bad of me to say….but, she is a little odd-looking and her facial structure doesn’t equate black to me for some reason so I can kinda see where casting directors are coming from. I’m Nigerian and I’m gonna be honest….most people in my country would NOT consider her or the Beyonces, Vanessa Williams, and Halle Berrys of this world to be black.

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    • Pia Glenn

      Hey, listen. If you find me to be “a little odd-looking”, that’s your opinion :-) Besides, you’ve called yourself “keepinitreal”, so I expect nothing less. Sincerely. I happen to believe that we women of color cover a wide range of colors on a welcoming spectrum and can have bone structure that reflects the centuries of ethnic diversity that contribute to our culture. But that’s just me. Pia Glenn. Real name & real face, odd-looking though it may be.

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    • OMG!! you made that video about trying to go to mcdonalds without dancing or beatboxing!! LMAO!!

      you are AMAZING! they need to put you in a commercial asap! wish you the best of luck!

      i’m hoping to also be in commercials soon but i also get the ” you’re not black enough” mess. smh

      S/N do you have an agent or do you self submit for roles?

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    • Jassidracmom

      You are beautiful Pia, beautifully Black!

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    • She doesn’t look odd, but she does look very mixed, despite her brown skin. She looks as if she has a considerable degree of Indigenous American admixture.

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    • That’s what im tryin to say, but everyone wants to jump down my throat! In certain parts of Africa NO…she wouldn’t be considered FULL black…maybe mixed though. Why everyone so offended? I’m tellin you why she didn’t get casted. No one’s trying to hurt her feelings. Everyone always complains about the Beyonces and Halle Berrys of the world…complain and complain about light skin and biracial beauties representing….the reason why black women complain (lets be honest), because MOST black women don’t look like that….most black women are not mixed! Ready for the attacks…let me sit back.

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    • MISS_EMCEE

      I wish some of you damn negros would go out and see the world or google that shit lol. Better yet read some books. Omg if you look at different tribes in afrika you will see “black” people are diverse in looks. There are “blacks” in New Guinea with blonde hair. Mongolians and Chinese get their features from the San people in Afrika. Also, add on the people from the HImba, Purros, and Namibia. Go and read about everything I just type you ignorant fool. I swear this the age of information and people are getting more stupid. Yes @ anon your name fits your mind. You are anonymous to any damn sense and intelligence.

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    • Yes, genius, and a lot of that ‘diversity’ stems from admixture from non-sub Saharan African peoples.

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    • As a fellow Nigerianay let me say that you speak for noone but YOURSELF and that you are an idiot.

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    • Pia Glenn

      haha! I love you.

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    • What does being Nigerian have anything to do with anything? You all have diversity stemming from colonial admixture as well.

      Oh, you’re Nigerian opinion is the deciding factor on who is really black, or who is fully indigenous sub-Saharan African in lineage, and who isn’t.

      …don’t think so.

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    • You seem to be smart, you’ll probably figure out correctly why I said that later. Not in the mood to explain the obvious.

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    • first let me say i would love to see keepinitreal’s face.

      sister P looks just fine to me.

      putting on my photographer’s hat i don’t think those head shots do her justice. if you ever pass by central philly i would be happy to do some portraits that would make those cheek bones pop.

      i’d start with her hair pulled up in a ballet dancers bun. then i’d shoot down on her face while having her roll those eyes upward into the camera…and that’s all you get for free

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    • Pia Glenn

      James! You are clearly a pro and I shall come calling if I am in the Philly area! Thank you so much for having my back and for taking the time to say so :-)

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    • Keepitreal

      What exactly about Beyonce makes her appear non black? GTFO There is nothing “odd looking” about this beautiful black woman, this wasn’t bad of you to say just stupid as hell.

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    • Pia Glenn

      Thank you for having my back! (And also Beyonce’s, I guess.) Please let me know if I can ever return the favor :-)

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    • wow you are horrible.

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    • she actually looks like my friend who is Nigerian, lol.

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    • Pia Glenn

      Hi again. re: your most recent comment…no attack, just wanted to simply and clearly state that I am not “mixed”. If you have logged on multiple times today to say that I fall short of your idea of blackness, then perhaps you should go into commercial casting? I am biologically born of two black parents. Fact. And my goal is more unity within the WHOLE spectrum of color, not less, as I am also tired of Beyonce & Halle Berry being the poster children for blackness. You did not even remotely hurt my feelings, but it would also seem that you did not really get the point. I don’t really know what else to tell you, except to suggest that perhaps you should have a seat, preferably in something that reclines.

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    • You don’t fall short of blackness. Blackness is so arbitrarily defined that it includes the likes of you.

      However, being born to two black parents, or multiple generations of black parentage, does not rule out mixed ancestry/admixture (claimed or not claimed).

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    • KeepinItReal did you happen to notice that we aren’t in Africa?

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    • Of course, I have noticed that we are NOT in Africa. I also notice that in video #1 Ms. Glenn preferred to be as distantly associated with anything relative with Africa as much as possible.

      Subsequently, she insists on being included in the ‘blackness’ kaleidoscope while pushing anything remotely associated with being Africa away from her.

      And some Nigerian person (above) applauds her.

      That’s so very interesting to me.

      Carry on…

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    • southernDarling

      No offense, but this isnt in Africa. This is America. And it really doesnt matter what the people in Nigeria (or any other country, for that matter) would consider Black. Black is Black. She’s Black.

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    • RealNubian

      See, the attitude displayed in comments like this is part of the reason that white people are happy to look at all of us as stereotypes. Black comes in a huge variety of shades, and facial features and hair textures and it does no one any good to act like there’s some standard look.

      You and others would do well to remember that not all black people look like West Africans. I’m East African and I am no less black than you are, even though I have lighter skin. You don’t see white people claiming only people with blonde hair and blue eyes count as white, do you? No you don’t, because they realize that there are lots of different kinds of white people. The same is true of black people, even though some want to pretend we’re all supposed to fit a particular mold or else we don’t “count”.

      Seriously. You play right into racists’ hands when you accept this bs. Divide and conquer.

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    • Pia Glenn

      Thank you for posting such an articulate response. I agree! Some of our brothers and sisters who want to claim 1st generation African blood as being superior don’t want to claim incontrovertible geography. What we think of as European and Middle Eastern features are prevalent in much of Africa; and a byproduct of slavery and it’s associated injustices visited upon our female ancestors is all manner of race-mixing that we will never know the true depths of. So instead of measuring the immeasurable, I seek to embrace and include. All of which might sound crazy to some, but I’ll take that. What’s crazy to me is having the audacity to attempt to quantify someone’s race based on your personal grudges and heartaches.

      Remember what the slave owners learned: there are more of us and yet we do not rise up. Maybe because we are too busy fighting amongst ourselves?

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    • “You don’t see white people claiming only people with blonde hair and blue eyes count as white, do you?”

      um, you have heard about WWII, haven’t you?

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  2. btw, go to popeye’s website and click “our story”, scroll down to wear it says “2009” and you’ll see the popeyes lady’s picture and this description

    “Popeyes introduces feisty spokesperson “Annie” to tell it like it is on national television.”

    SMDH!

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  3. Mainstream America is very comfortable with the mammy character….putting the various forms of black beauty on television would challenge the status quo.

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    • Pia Glenn

      Very simply and eloquently stated. Wonderful. I’m not ready to give up on the challenge just yet; the status quo needs it.

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  4. Part of me wonders if part of the reason some real educated, articulate, actresses are picked over is because they are too arrogant, snobbish and/or elitist for general, average, people to deal with.

    This is not the first time I’ve come across black Hollywood actresses griping about discrimination faced in Hollywood casting, but they always harp on how educated, upper echelon, they are. Don’t you know, that’s not even a requirement of white actors when it comes to making it in Hollywood, for being well-spoken, even.

    I can see how that is a turn off, and why casting agents would choose seemingly less educated (in reality or image) black actresses a go. Mind you, many white people calling the shots don’t have high levels of education. And while they may come from money, long money or old money, many aren’t raised with the level of materialism and snobbery many ‘new money’ or supposedly upper-crust/bougie black people are.

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    • Pia Glenn

      Did I harp on how “upper echelon” I am? hmmmm…..must’ve missed when I did that… *re-reading article*

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    • Keepitreal

      Interesting, why are you equating being articulate and educated with snobbery? So in order to be a down to earth black person one must be ill spoken and dumb. I see whites on Madison Avenue aren’t the only ones threatened by non stereotypical black people. SMH

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    • Absolutely not. I’ve just observed, over my lifetime, that many black people who project being articulate, of high socio-economic standing and of high educational attainment are very condescending and rude when it’s not even necessary.

      I work at a research firm under PhD holders with medical degrees, and ivy league graduates. They don’t put on those types of aires the way many bougie-type, new money (even old money ), blacks do – trying to make you feel less than human, or incompetent, for not having attained what they have.

      And I see this portrayed in new-age black film, this elitism. It makes my cringe, because it doesn’t have to be about that.

      As if acting a complete snobbish fool is a requirement for getting into high places. I noticed this matriculating through a white college, among black students, and as I entered the working world. I know that anyone can be arrogant, but as a black female, I have found other blacks to display the harshest arrogance towards me for not having attained as much success a they have.

      And I can just imagine how annoyed any casting director might be if someone came into their office placing heavy emphasis on those things, when they aren’t even a requirement for being there in the first place.

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    • Lanee

      Anon, you clearly have a complex. You generalizing all black people based on the dealings you have had with certain black people in the past is sad. I’m sorry that certain black people have treated you poorly in the past and I want to apologize on their behalf. Please please please let it go and let God.

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    • Mademoiselle

      @Anon There is a ten-lane highway between arrogant/snobbish/elitist and what this actress reenacted in the video. I would be so incredibly offended if anyone were to tell me the opposite of arrogance and elitism looked anything like that video.

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    • Pia Glenn

      “Ten-lane highway”. Perfection. Thank you.

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    • “Opinions are like what?”

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  5. I notice, too, that many within elite black Hollywood interpret the concept of creating quality black entertainment as focusing on the portrayal of wealth, high education, affluence and success…it don’t even take all that. Instead of providing quality entertainment that inspires, it portrays and perpetuates elitism which annoys.

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    • Pia Glenn

      I agree. Elitism is disgusting and we don’t need to be portrayed as some kind of super-rich superpowers either. I’ve seen that happen many times and it’s clearly a feeble attempt at overcompensating for years of denigration and neglect. I just want to see compelling stories with characters that ring true.

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    • Lanee

      I’m sorry but I don’t understand how wealth, education, affluence and success are elite. Unless, as I’m understanding what you mean, all of those “elite” things equate with whiteness.

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