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ARTICLES AND BOOKS BY WRITER BEN AROGUNDADE
She's Got Light Skin, Straight Hair, Blue Eyes - And She's
Black: Vanessa Williams And America's Race Question
Film and music celebrity Vanessa L. Williams, star of Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, defines herself as African American, inline with America's old ruling governing all citizens of African ancestry. Many of the TV and music star's fans globally are curious about her ethnicity, nationality and ancestry. Thousands per month Google queries about her blue eyes, and whether or not she is of black, white or mixed heritage.
IS IT CRAZY TO CALL VANESSA WILLIAMS BLACK, with her light skin, straight hair and blue eyes? Not in a world where the definition of blackness is defined both by society and by oneself. By Ben Arogundade.
SHE WAS BORN WITH LIGHT skin, straight hair and blue eyes, leading many to wonder how film and music celebrity Vanessa Lynn Williams could be referred to as “black”. The answer says much about the complexities of race in modern America.
The star of TV shows Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives was born in Millwood, New York, on March 18, 1963. She is the daughter of high school music teachers Helen and Milton Williams, who are of African and European ancestry.
ONE DROP OF BLACK
Despite the film and music star's diverse heritage and ethnicity, Williams (like fellow celebrity celebrity Mariah Carey, whose father is black) self-identifies as an African American. Many fans of the Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives star who are unfamiliar with American racial politics, wonder how this can be, when she appears to look white. The answer lies within America’s slave past, and more recently, its so-called “one-drop rule” — a series of laws dating back to the early twentieth century, which classified as legally “black”, any individual with as little as “one drop” of “black blood” — regardless of their white ancestry. The legislation was designed as a means of constraining all children of biracial unions to a lower socio-economic status within post-slavery society.
Although the last of these laws were repealed in the late 1960s, their original classifications remain in use. People of mixed or biracial heritage are still considered “black” both in terms of the way they are perceived and often discriminated against in society, and also in terms of being identified as such by other people of colour.
BLACK BEAUTY, BLUE EYES
Vanessa Williams’ ethnicity and race heritage became an issue on September 17, 1983 when, as a 20-year-old college student, she made history in becoming the first African American to win the prestigious Miss America pageant. But her reign was cut short after a set of nude pictures of her were published in Penthouse magazine, forcing her to resign. But this was not the only controversy that surrounded the young student. Her light skin and blue eyes incurred the disdain of sections of the African American community, who argued that, aesthetically, she was not “black” enough. “Until you get a Miss America with Negro features, I don’t think you can say color was irrelevant to her selection,” said Dr Alvin Poussaint, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, shortly after Williams’s victory.
“A lot of people thought I wasn’t representative of a true African American since I didn’t have dark eyes and dark hair, and wasn’t brown-skinned,” Williams recalled. “So there was a division. It was hurtful to me initially, because this is the way I was born. These are the eyes I was given and this is the hair colour I was given. I don’t enhance it.”
But at the same time, especially in her earlier life, and despite her blue eyes and light skin, there were times when Williams experienced the same racism endured by many darker-skinned, brown-eyed black women. During an interview with CNN she recalled being called a “nigger” as a child growing up in Westchester, New York. Paradoxically, while sections of the African American community questioned her blackness, society it seemed, was in no doubt.
WILLIAMS' ETHNICITY? ASK GOOGLE
Today, questions about Vanessa Williams's ethnicity are still prevalent amongst the celebrity's new generation of fans. Internet search statistics now provide useful insights into the questions people ask about the nationality, heritage and ethnicity of today's superstars. In Williams's case, over 1,000 curious Internet users from around the world type the phrase “Vanessa Williams ethnicity” into their browsers every month. Another 137 per month ask, “Is Vanessa Williams black?” Such questions reveal the complexity and ambiguity that still resonates within the aesthetics of race in America.
But today there is a new autonomy, as people of African heritage across Europe and America are self-determining, as opposed to conforming to societies ethnic and racial labels. They visualise a world in which a person of African heritage with European features can call themselves black, white, mixed race, or indeed not have a label at all, and that they will not be ostracised for their bespoke choices.
TRIUMPH TO TRAGEDY: Blue-eyed African American film and music celebrity Vanessa Williams appears on the cover of the August 6, 1984 edition of People, after becoming the first black Miss America. She was subsequently stripped of her title.
FAMILY PORTRAIT: Actress and recording artist Vanessa Williams’ parents, Helen and Milton, are of mixed ethnicity and nationality - a combination of African and European, plus nine nationalities. Young Vanessa, above left, is pictured with her brother Chris, centre.
*VANESSA WILLIAMS'S ETHNICITY ACCORDING TO GOOGLE SEARCH
The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase “Vanessa Williams blue eyes” each month.
The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “Is Vanessa Williams black?” each month.
The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase “Vanessa Williams ethnicity” each month.
*All figures for “Vanessa Williams's Ethnicity According to Google Search”, supplied by Google. Stats include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.
NEXT: DISCOVER MORE ABOUT VANESSA WILLIAMS