“You look like a white black person, if that makes sense. Like not albino, but like a white person with black features. But you also look Hispanic. But with the blonde hair especially, you are very ambiguous. Like, I wouldn’t know where to place you.”
“Is that bad, should I dye my hair darker?”
“No! The ambiguity is great! But it’s going to be hard placing you because if a client asks for Caucasian, I don’t know if I would necessarily send you in, or if they asked for African American I wouldn’t send you in. Depends which type of Latina they are going for too. But I get calls for multi-ethnic or ethnically ambiguous all the time, so that’s most likely when I would send you in.”
This was a conversation I had with one of the top commercial agents in the country. As an actress, I have just started to delve into the film and TV world, and the biggest difference between this and the theatre world, I have learned so far, is that the first thing everyone talks about is your looks, not your talent. Particularly, my ethnic appearance has been the biggest topic of conversation during my meetings with agents and casting directors.
According to a New York based talent agent, the era of the Proctor & Gamble, white picket fence blonde haired blue eyed families is over when it comes to commercials and TV. The industry goes through waves of what ethnicities are “hot.” The generic pretty Caucasians had their time for a long time—it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when TV networks decided to have “diversity showcases” because there was not one series regular of color on any network television show. Since then, networks have been more and more animate about casting Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian actors as series regulars.
While this is providing more opportunities for diverse actors, it is still a problem in that non-caucasian actors are usually cast as stereotypes of their ethnicity (i.e the smart, glasses wearing quirky Asian best friend, or the iconic “sassy black friend” to the Caucasian romantic lead).
Here is a funny parody video of what it is like in the industry to be non-Caucasian:
It wasn’t until I got to my late teens and embraced wearing my hair naturally curly all the time that I was asked constantly “What are you?”. Most people assumed I was part Caucasian, part something else, because of my light skin. Most people didn’t even believe I was Dominican when I told them, because many people think of “Dominican” people to be darker, a-la actress Zoe Saldana. Due to the European mixture that went on in the DR, Dominicans have a wide range of skin and hair colors and textures. However, being a “white Hispanic”, I have the everyday social privileges of Caucasian people, yet am not ostracized within the Hispanic community. (What is a “white Hispanic”, you ask? This article does a good job of discussing that: http://www.latinorebels.com/2014/09/25/who-and-what-the-hell-is-a-white-hispanic/)
As Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain writes in “Race Work and the Efforts of Racial Claims”:
“mixed race people may be seen as ‘kinder, gentler, more privileged’ people of color or assumed to be middle class and privileged in larger white society because they are whiter/lighter”
This is where I have an advantage in the entertainment industry. As actress/model Jessica Clark writes in “Selling Ethnic Ambiguity”,
“That meant that an “ethnic” model shouldn’t be too ethnically identifiable, and also shouldn’t alienate the traditional Caucasian consumer by being too dark-skinned, and therefore not “relatable.” This was when I first remember hearing the term “Ethnic-light” being applied to me.”
The fact that I am “relatable” to both Caucasian and other ethnicities (especially because of my hair), therefore puts me at an advantage over darker skinned ethnically ambiguous people. To me, this isnt necessarily racist, but a psychological advertising and marketing strategy that may stem from a racist undertone. I know that I will never get called in for a classic, “All American” girl, unless maybe I straighten my hair. But then again, what exactly is “All American” ?
I recently went to an audition for a Sprite commercial. Prior to going, I received no details about what the commercial entailed, my agent just told me to go in casual attire. When I got there, and read the breakdown for the commercial, I realized that 1) I was the whitest (by that I mean lightest skin) girl in the waiting room, and 2) they were looking for an “urban” type (which translates as black or Hispanic). This was an instance where I felt out of place because, not only was I lighter, but I wasn’t “playing up” my race. Or as Chiyoko King O’Riain puts it, doing “race work”. I was dressed in my every-day wear, which is definitely more in the hipster category than anything. And usually, hipster=white.
Needless to say, I didn’t book the commercial. Perhaps one of the reasons was when they asked me what type of music I liked listening to, I gave out names like Explosions in the Sky and Dirty Projectors. (The commercial was also about hip-hop music). I wasn’t the stereotype of what an urban black or Latina girl is in the entertainment industry.
So in some ways, I guess I do have some privilege by passing as Caucasian or ambiguous, however when it comes to “playing up” my ethnicity, I indeed do have to do some more “work.” This isn’t always the case, however. I have been cast as my fair share of “sexy latina” parts.
I just got new headshots and one of the looks was my “ethnic” look. Personally, I don’t really see a huge difference between my “ethnic” look and my normal curly hair look, as much as I do between those and my straight hair more “Caucasian” look. But I also know myself so I understand that all three of these are the same person. However, I am very sure of the fact that I am, indeed, “ethnically ambiguous” in all of these.
(please don’t take offense to these last 2 captions; again, I’m showing how stereotypes may come into play)