WATCH: 'TED' Conference: Thandie Newton On Race, Ethnicity And Parents
“My Skin Colour Wasn't Right”: Actress Thandie Newton's Childhood Battle With Race And Ethnicity
STATE OF RACE: Thandie Newton, star of films such as Mission Impossible II, Crash and Beloved, is one of Britain's foremost mixed race actresses. The film celebrity's parents, Nick and Nyasha, are of British and Zimbabwean nationality respectively. Newton's ethnicity and ancestry caused problems while growing up in a racially isolated part of the British south coast in the 1970s.
ACTRESS THANDIE NEWTON GREW UP as one of the only black kids in her town. But then the issues she faced around race and identity ended up becoming the fuel that drove her acting. By Ben Arogundade.
ACTRESS THANDIE NEWTON (Thandiwe Ajdewa Newton) was born in London on November 6, 1972. Her father, Nick Newton, of British nationality, is a laboratory technician and artist, and her mother Nyasha, a former district nurse, is a princess from the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe, southern Africa. Although Thandie was born in England, the family lived in Zimbabwe until she was three, when they returned to the UK.
RACE IN THE SOUTH Newton, star of the films Mission Impossible 2, Crash and Beloved, grew up in Penzance, Cornwall, on Britain’s south coast, where she and her brother Jamie were the only black children in the area. The family encountered racism from some of the locals, but the children were mostly shielded from it by their parents.
“The idea of us as a family was challenging to most people,” said the 40-year-old actress at a recent TED conference. Her racially isolated upbringing, particularly at school, created issues around her ethnicity and identity. “From about the age of five I was aware that I didn’t fit,” she stated. “I was the black, atheist kid in the all-white Catholic school run by nuns. I was an anomaly….my skin colour wasn’t right, my hair wasn’t right, my history wasn’t right. My self became defined by Otherness.”
FAMILY & NATIONALITY Newton's identity problems compounded further on childhood visits back to Zimbabwe. “On one trip, when I was seven, this Zimbabwean boy said to me, 'Go back to England where you belong. You're white.' I remember having this complete identity crisis,” Newton recalled. “I thought, 'Where am I supposed to be?' I'm too black for England; I'm too white here.”
Newton's feelings of ethnic isolation even extended to the cosmetics counters of local stores, where brands only sold make-up for white skin. “What I started to think at that young age was, 'I'm the mistake that can't be provided for'”, she revealed in Stella magazine.
ETHNICITY AND ANCESTRY IN FILM Like many of other contemporary black actresses with similar racial and ethnic backgrounds, such as Halle Berry and Paula Patton, it was partly this feeling of Otherness that attracted Newton, who is currently pregnant with her third child, to film and acting — a place where she could channel the ethnicity and identity issues of her childhood in a positive way. Traditionally, Hollywood has been keen to harness the biracial beauty of actresses like Newton within “crossover” film roles opposite white leads, such as Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible movie series— a role later inherited by Paula Patton, who has a similar ethnicity and ancestry to Newton.