Rashida Jones identifies as black in real life, should it matter what she plays on TV?
By: Stacia L. Brown | theLoop21.com
Thu, 03/31/2011 - 5:41am
Rashida Jones (pictured above with her father Quincy) doesn't have to let race limit her range as an actress.
I love Rashida Jones but, I'll admit that my familiarity with her acting career is relatively new. I started checking for her circa her guest arc on The Office and now I'm loving her on Parks and Recreation. Plus, her appearance in a movie trailer exponentially increases my interest in a film. The same is true of Maya Rudolph. We'll get to her in a minute.
Recently, after exposing myself as a Rashida fan on Twitter, I wound up engaged in a spirited, constructive discussion about her. It began with my reference to a quote from Jones I'd found via Racialicious:I always wanted to pursue theater and my black cultural identity. In my second year at college, I did the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, and it was so healing. […] I’m lucky because I have so many clashing cultural, racial things going on: black, Jewish, Irish, Portuguese, Cherokee. I can float and be part of any community I want. The thing is, I do identify with being black, and if people don’t identify me that way that’s their issue.
A friend then tweeted: "I've never read that quote before, but I find it interesting she wants to identify with black culture, yet often plays white women." She then pointed out how Jones' The Office role, Karen Filippelli, was written as Italian. Steve Carell's character even mentioned her "exotic looks." Apparently, she was white or race-less in the film, I Love You, Man, as well. All of her Parks and Recreation love interests have also been white, and that's yet another role where her race has never been identified.
My question, though, is: should that matter? If Rashida Jones identifies as black in her personal life, is she obligated to pursue roles that identify her as black, too?
By her own admission, Jones enjoys a kind of "recreational passing." Like Angela Murray's mother in Jessie Fauset's 1929 novel, Plum Bun, Rashida Jones identifies with and embraces her blackness in her personal life; but in order to gain access to a larger pool of opportunities, she allows herself to be considered white.
Roles for women of color are scarce. Roles for multiracial women—or women whose appearance doesn't it lend itself to a very obvious racial identity—are even rarer. But roles that could be played by pretty much any white actress between the ages of 25 and 35 are a dime a dozen.
Jones wants to work and with her pedigree, she doesn’t even have to. She's the daughter of actress Peggy Lipton and music legend Quincy Jones. She's also a Harvard grad, a clothing line co-owner, and a comic book writer.
In Hollywood, though, none of those things have as much currency as the ability to look white.
Seeing as how it's not 1911, her father's name is practically synonymous with the word "Grammy," and her first name could be considered a racial marker, Rashida Jones doesn't have to deny her blackness. But because of her skin color, she doesn't have to be limited or defined by it, either. She has the luxury of selection and she uses it.
She isn't alone, multiracial actresses Maya Rudolph and Jennifer Beals do it too. Of the three, Rudolph is the most apt to African American roles. Especially during her time on Saturday Night Live, where she was inexplicably tasked with doing impressions of Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Whitney Houston. In her wonderful, underrated film, Away We Go, we knew she was a woman of color because her sister was played by Carmen Ejogo. Beals has far fewer black roles on her resume, though, ironically, she did play a black woman passing for white in the big screen adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress.
If Rashida wanted to dig a bit deeper as an actress, she'd do something similar. Like play someone biracial who "floats" between racial identities and meets dire consequences and/or criticism for it. A film adaptation of the aforementioned novel, Plum Bun, would be ideal.
In the end, multiracial actresses face a great deal of pressure not to allow themselves to only be regarded as white. It's awkward; our knowledge of their blackness is an elephant in the room (or in the movie theatre, as it were). But it isn't their responsibility to deny themselves offers of respectable employment in order to prove their allegiance to black culture. They aren't obligated to pursue roles written for women of color. It would just be nice if they made the choice to do so more often.Stacia L. Brown is a writer, mother, adjunct professor, and pop culture enthusiast residing in Grand Rapids, MI. Her work has appeared on The Huffington Post, PostBourgie.com and in Mosaic, Union Station, and It's All Love: Black Writers on Soul Mates, Family, and Friends. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slb79