Was it naïve of me to think that being performative for performative’s sake died with the black square? I expect it from big brands and companies looking for quick solutions to a big problem, but from celebrities, with big enough platforms to incite genuine change, it’s tired.
Until a few days ago, Thandiwe Newton was, in my eyes, a respectfully talented actor. Her reclaiming her African name ‘Thandiwe’, instead of the more palatable ‘Thandie’, was a bold move that I commended her for. Then she made an apology video that no one actually asked for, and my view of her changed completely.
In this video, Thandiwe Newton apologises to dark-skinned Black women for essentially being light-skinned. She apologises for getting roles that dark-skinned Black women don’t get and then apologises for taking “our men.”
Thandiwe, you’re married to a white man, whose men are you taking?! The whole video was bizarre and uncomfortable to watch. Not only did it feel performative, but social media commentators have described the way she cries to the camera as “hard to watch” and “unnecessary”, and I could not agree more.
Thandie Newton: as a dark-skinned Black woman, I can tell you your apology was not what I needed.
The idea of being a palatable Black actress in Hollywood is not something that can be easy to deal with. I can imagine it’s hard for someone to be “too dark” in one country (UK) and then “too light” in another (USA). It’s a well-known fact that white directors often cast light-skinned women because of that fact, and when you know there are just as many deserving dark-skinned Black actresses out there, you’re bound to feel guilty.
That being said, I don’t know one Black woman who will sit there and blame the likes of Thandiwe or Zendaya or Hailie Berry for being light-skinned and an actress. The gripe is with Hollywood itself, no? The fact that Thandiwe Newton even felt the need to apologise, performative or not, speaks to a much bigger issue about how some Black women see themselves under the white gaze.
Thandiwe comes with a platform big enough to genuinely promote and support her Black “brethren”, as she puts it, without this disingenuous display that only enraged a lot of us.
We all know that Black women are the most disrespected women in the world, dark-skinned Black women to be precise, but our representation on TV and in the media has come a long way. Even though we have a long way to go, people like Michaela Coel, Viola Davis and Issa Rae are portraying us in all our glory, one film or TV show at a time. And as much as it’s not the fault of light-skinned Black women that they got to rise through the ranks first, unsolicited apologies like Thandiwe’s play no part in making the situation any better.
Part of Thandiwe’s teary display touched on how she feels like she does not represent dark-skinned Black women… it’s not her job to represent all Black women. Part of the problem in Hollywood is that they think casting someone that looks like Thandiwe means they have done their part in representing Black women as a whole when that is not the case. One size does not fit all, which is something Hollywood and Thandiwe need to remember.
Thandiwe, your husband, is a director, and you yourself have years of industry experience, no? Between the two of you, you could create something that represents people that look like your mum or me. You could create something that champions and celebrates dark-skinned Black talent? The point is you could have done anything other than sit in your house and record this video that ruined part of my weekend.
Let’s say for a second that Thandiwe’s apology was well-received. The words she used are so problematic. “The chosen one”, “taking our men”, did not have the impact I think she hoped for. Instead, it eluded to the fact that she feels distant from the Black community because of her experience with African-American women, as she describes in the video. It’s well known that mixed raced people, women, in particular, have a hard time being constantly “othered” from all sides, and for that, they have my sympathy. However, how Thandiwe has chosen to express this was counterproductive.
Because of how often dark-skinned Black women have to fight their own battles, it would have been a great display of allyship if this had been a genuine desire to right some of those wrongs dark-skinned Black women have had to endure. Instead, all the commotion surrounding her video detracts from the core root of her “apology”, which is that the representation of dark-skinned Black women must continue, as years of leaving us out of the narrative has left us with scars that have not yet healed.